Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

Bickering Emerges on Uzbekistan’s Political Scene

Parliamentary elections set for December 22 will take place under a new atmosphere, but small campaign feuds aren’t yet touching main issues.

Umida Hashimova
Bickering Emerges on Uzbekistan’s Political Scene
Credit: Freestock.ca

Uzbekistan will hold its first post-Karimov parliamentary elections on December 22, 2019. The official campaign season was launched on September 20 with the motto “New Uzbekistan-New elections” alluding to the post-Karimov era. Facing for the first time a potentially competitive political environment, the existing parties — all of which have been aligned with the state — are working to differentiate themselves. However, Uzbekistan’s parties as they exist now are inexperienced in functioning within a normal political scene — characterized by political freedom and media openness. The parties’ early steps to win votes have been clumsy and coarse at times.

The five political parties scheduled to compete in December are all already present in the parliament: the Liberal Democratic Party (730,000 members; Presidents Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Islam Karimov were the party’s candidates), the People’s Democratic Party (490,000 members), the Social-Democratic  Party “Adolat” (380,000 members), the Democratic Party “Milliy Tiklanish” (300,000 members) and the Ecological Movement (245,000 members). (The Ecological Movement’s 15 seats in parliament are allocated and selected within the movement, not elected).

On the political spectrum, the People’s Democratic Party and the Social-Democratic Party “Adolat” are on the left and on the right are the Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party “Milliy Tiklanish.” The latter two parties are in the majority in the parliament, they are aligned in a democratic block. 

Despite this nominal alignment and the same ideological leanings, Milliy Tiklanish and the Liberal Democratic parties seem to be campaigning against each other. Specifically, the Liberal Democratic Party recently accused Milliy Tiklanish of copying its ideology and campaigning style from Turkey’s ruling party. Milliy Tiklanish was criticized for a lack of independent thinking as a result. 

In response, Milliy Tiklanish mocked the Liberal Democratic Party’s official agreement on cooperation signed with Russia’s majority United Russia Party in September 2019 and likened the move to the kowtowing of Central Asian khans to imperial Russia in the 19th century. Milliy Tiklanish downplayed its campaign style, the one supposedly modeled after Turkey, and condemned Liberal Democrat’s negative tactics as adopted from United Russia.

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The Liberal Democrats also accused Milliy Tiklanish of working on the same social issues their party does; specifically a law on external labor migration, which reportedly has already been developed by the Liberal Democrats and is at the discussion stage. The Liberal Democrats also accused Milliy Tiklanish of being opportunist and politicizing the labor migration issue in order to earn credit ahead of the elections.

The earliest parts of the feud took place earlier in October when the Liberal Democratic Party accused Milliy Tiklanish of populism for calling for Uzbekistan’s possible membership in the Eurasian Economic Union the equivalent to joining a second Soviet Union. In the Liberal Democratic Party’s view, Milliy Tiklanish’s purpose was to earn extra political points by stoking patriotism. 

Clearly the two parties have their axes on grid, which is not surprising given their neck-to-neck popularity among the population. In a recent poll conducted by the leading news website, Kun.uz, among about 33,000 people asked about their party choices, the Liberal Democrats received 35 percent and Milliy Tiklanish received 32 percent. This popularity is, however, misleading because the majority of Uzbeks know very little about their parliament, or the parties within it. In another express poll conducted by the same news website, with a pool of about 3,000 people, on whether they knew their representative, 95 percent responded negatively. 

Disputes among parties this campaign season is not necessarily a new phenomenon. What used to be muted and solely expressed in print newspapers has moved to the online domain. The increased media freedom in Uzbekistan brought increased attention and subsequently tension to intra-party relations. In addition, parties are indeed far more active and creative during this campaign season than in years past. The parties are busy lambasting each other on minor issues that are far from population’s real-life concerns. If only 5 percent of the population know their lawmakers, that underscores how inconsequential, in perception if not also reality, the parliament has been to the lives of Uzbeks. The parties that exist today are far from an important force serving as a check on the executive branch, not to mention being the representatives of the people.