Moscow (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Uzbekistan’s strongman, Islam Karimov, was easily re-elected on Sunday president of the Central Asian country in an election that was criticised by Western observers and denounced by dissidents abroad.
Uzbekistan's Central Election Commission (CEC) announced that incumbent President Islam Karimov easily won re-election with 90.39 per cent of the vote. About 91 per cent of the nearly 21 million eligible voters took part in the poll.
In power for more than 25 years, Karimov, 77, has eliminated most opposition and was widely expected to win a fourth term in office in the Central Asian nation.
“These elections mean nothing except that despite all the speculation about a possible transition in power in Uzbekistan, Karimov is staying,” said Alexey Malashenko, an expert on Central Asia at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Although there were ostensibly three opposition candidates, they were obscure functionaries from pro-government parties who used their low-key campaigns to praise the incumbent.
Tana de Zulueta, head of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which provided an election observation mission, criticised the poll, pointing out that the Central Election Commission registered Karimov as a candidate "despite a clear constitutional limit of two consecutive presidential terms."
ODIHR vote monitors said the Uzbek poll lacked genuine opposition to Karimov and was marred by legal and organisational shortcomings.
The government maintains that the Constitution was amended to reduce the term to five years from seven, and that therefore Mr Karimov is starting with a clean slate.
The head of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) election observation mission, Sergei Lebedev – a former director of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service – said that the 29 March election was "transparent, free, and democratic."
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who like Karimov has been leader of his country since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, congratulated the newly re-elected Uzbek president. Nazarbaev himself is up for re-election on 26 April.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was also quick to congratulate Karimov, saying the result was proof of the president's stature among the people of Uzbekistan.
For Tashkent, this support is important, because the country relies on economic ties with Russia, but prefers not to give in completely to its Russian ally, keeping away from the Eurasian Economic Union, Putin’s regional integration project.
Relations with China are stronger. Beijing traditionally respects the principle of non-interference and inked a US$ 15 billion deal with Uzbekistan in 2013. South Korea too has boosted its cooperation with the Central Asian nation.
Karimov starts his fourth term in office without a clear plan for his succession. This has raised concerns about the future of Central Asia’s most populous country and is fuelling speculation about ongoing power struggles behind the scenes.
“The succession question looms large for Uzbekistan because Karimov has so thoroughly eliminated any political competition and any political process, that many fear there could be a violent struggle for power when he does exit the scene,” said Steve Swerdlow, the director of Central Asia research at Human Rights Watch.