In four months, Uzbekistan will hold a presidential election. But the already minute possibility of new parties fronting fresh candidates has been further diminished by a Ministry of Justice decision to refuse registration to the Haqiqat va Taraqqiyot (Truth and Progress) Social Democratic Party, founded by Khidirnazar Allaqulov, an economist and former rector of Termez State University, in June 2020.
According to a ministry press release, the Truth and Progress party only submitted documentation of 9,873 signatures in support of the party’s registration. Uzbek law requires 20,000 signatures. The Ministry of Justice said 42 people on the party’s lists had died and claimed that “since the aforementioned signatures were collected for various reasons not related to the formation of the party, to date, the ministry has received a total of 2,292 petitions from citizens requesting not to register (cancel) signatures.”
The Ministry of Justice closed its press release with a reminder that the party must “cease its activities,” citing the Uzbek law on political parties as permitting organizing committees to operate for only three months.
The Truth and Progress party had first submitted its registration documents in April, claiming to have provided more than 25,000 signatures. The ministry rejected the application, claiming it didn’t have enough signatures. The party was entitled to a resubmission within a month and did so, but the result is the same.
Uzbekistan has five officially registered parties, but little genuine competition between them. In the December 2019 parliamentary elections that the authorities branded with the tagline “New Uzbekistan-New Elections,” and which included democratic novelties like televised debates, the end results were nearly the same parliament.
On election day, a pensioner in Tashkent put it frankly: “We have five parties, but in fact it’s like one party divided into five pieces.”
The five parties include the Liberal Democratic Party (O’zLiDeP), to which President Shavkat Mirziyoyev belongs; the Democratic Party of Uzbekistan or Milliy Tiklanish; the People’s Democratic Party; the Social Democratic Party or Adolat; and the Ecological Party, which was branded as a “new” “green” party in 2019 but which was previously the Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan (EMU) and automatically granted 15 seats in the 2014 parliament — it conveniently won the same number of seats in the 2019 election.
While the Justice Ministry rooted its decision in technicalities, Allaqulov and his party have experience concerted pressure. A mob of people accosted Allaqulov at his apartment building in early April. The crowd later filed a lawsuit against Allaqulov and he was fined on libel charges. A student who had been gathering signatures for the party in Namangan was called into a public meeting in the gym of a local school and berated by a crowd of his neighbors, mostly older women.
A recent report from RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service claims that law enforcement officials have been holding meetings with university students, urging them not to join new parties. The officials reportedly accused the Truth and Progress party and the Erk party, another unregistered opposition group, of spreading destructive misinformation.
Ultimately, it remains functionally impossible for an opposition party to register in Uzbekistan, let alone try to win the presidency. Although a framework exists for new parties to form, the political environment in Uzbekistan is not accommodating to challengers.