In less than six months, Uzbekistan is scheduled to hold a presidential election. Despite a five-year reform mantra, the political space remains heavily circumscribed. It seems increasingly unlikely that the October vote will feature any genuine competition.
A case in point: Khidirnazar Allaqulov’s first attempt to register his Haqiqat va Taraqqiyot (Truth and Development) Social Democratic Party has been refused by state authorities.
According to RFE/RL’s reporting, Allaqulov’s party representatives first submitted their list of signatures — 20,000 are required to register a new party — on April 7.
Days earlier, a group of around 20 people accosted Allaqulov in the halls of his apartment building, demanding he stop engaging in politics. While he argued with them, a group of women tried to prevent his family members from recording the incident. That incident came after two people attacked party activists and broke office furniture near the party’s rented offices.
The problems did not stop with the submission of signatures, however. Pressure increased throughout April, with RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service reporting that law enforcement and mahalla committees urged people to refuse their earlier signatures for the party. Pressure is directed both through government and social systems in Uzbekistan, coming in direct forms (like a police visit to an activist’s house) and indirect forms (a neighbor yelling at an activist, perhaps after being visited by the police themselves).
In Namangan, a 24-year-old student who had gathered 300 signatures for the party was called into a public meeting in the gym of a local school and berated by a crowd of his neighbors, mostly older women. In a scene reminiscent of forced TV confessions from across the autocratic world, the student then admits to asking his neighbors to sign blank forms and then later filling in the name of the party. But in an interview with RFE/RL, he denied any wrongdoing. He said he explained the new party to his neighbors before getting their signatures.
The student didn’t want to give more details, citing fear that his family will be further pressured by the community.
Then on April 24, the crowd of people filmed accosting Allaqulov in his apartment building filed a lawsuit, accusing him of insulting them and “petty hooliganism.” While Allaqulov’s complaint to the authorities about the incident was ignored, on May 5 he was fined $470 for libel, rather than hooliganism, in a closed court session.
On April 27, Allaqulov’s party representatives again submitted their list of signatures. On May 7, they received a reply, which suggested that 27 people on their list had died and that more than 2,000 who did sign had requested that the ministry cancel their signatures, claiming they didn’t know what they were signing for. The party says it submitted more than 25,000 signatures.
The letter reportedly rejected their registration, but said the ministry was continuing to check signatures — a seeming contradiction. The ministry confirmed to RFE/RL that the party’s application had been rejected because it did not have enough signatures.
Allaqulov isn’t finished just yet, however. Legally, his party can resubmit within a month and RFE/RL reports that they are aiming to recruit more Uzbeks residing abroad because they are more difficult for the state to pressure.
Uzbekistan has five officially registered parties, but little competition or debate among them. As a pensioner in Tashkent told me back in December 2019, on the day of the parliamentary elections the authorities had branded with the tagline “New Uzbekistan-New Elections,” “We have five parties, but in fact it’s like one party divided into five pieces.”
When asked how long it might take for there to be genuine competition in Uzbek politics the pensioner replied, “It’s going to take some time — 10, 50 or maybe up to 100 years — for a real democratic parliament with opposition in it.”
We did not discuss how long it would take for an opposition politician to be able to contest a presidential election. Judging from the difficulties Allaqulov has faced, it could be some time yet.