How will the presidential election change Uzbekistan’s future?

Established in 1989 following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan is on the verge of electing its second president since its independence.

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

Shavkat Mirziyoyev who is anticipated to become the next president of Uzbekistan, casted his vote on Sunday.

Why is Uzbekistan voting?

Uzbekistan headed to the polls on Sunday to elect its new president to replace late Islam Karimov.

Karimov, who ran the rich former Soviet republic of 32 million people with an iron fist for nearly the last three decades, died from a stroke in September, aged 78.

Who is challenging the elections?

In the country which has no tradition of competitive elections, all signs indicate that there will be a comfortable victory for the long-serving prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who is facing three other candidates.

Analysts note the other candidates are not critical of Mirziyoyev or the regime in the country.

"The format for Uzbek elections has not changed since Karimov's death because the regime has not had time to think of anything different," said Kamoliddin Rabbimov, an Uzbek political analyst who lives in France.

"If anything, efforts have been made to ensure other candidates are even more obscure because Mirziyoyev's stature among the population is not yet what Karimov's was," he told AFP.

Mirziyoyev swiftly emerged as Karimov's most likely successor after the speaker of the upper chamber Senate stepped aside for him. Under the constitution, the speaker would normally assume the role of interim head of state.

"Uzbekistan has its own specific take on democracy. There will be no surprises here, unlike in America with Trump," Rabbimov added.

Who is Shavkat Mirziyoyev?

An engineer by training, Mirziyoyev began ascending the Communist Party career ladder in the 1980s, becoming a member of Uzbekistan's legislature by the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Later, he served as governor of Jizzakh region and then Samarqand region in the newly founded Republic of Uzbekistan, until he was appointed as prime minister by the Uzbek Parliament and Karimov, in 2003.

Mirziyoyev became interim president following the death of his predecessor Karimov.

According to a 2009 United States embassy cable published by Wikileaks, Karimov regarded Mirziyoyev as "unprofessional" and planned to replace him eventually, although not immediately.

But it is still unknown whether he would be able to establish the same level of authority as his all-powerful predecessor.

What will change under Mirziyoyev’s leadership should he win?

During Karimov’s 27-year autocratic rule, Uzbekistan enjoyed good relations with foreign powers who are active in the region, however, they were kept at a distance.

The country remained politically and economically isolated from the World.

"Under Karimov, Uzbekistan withdrew into itself, to its great cost, and this may be the main difference under Mirziyoyev," said analyst Rabbimov. 

Islam Karimov declared Uzbekistan an independent nation on 31 August 1991 and subsequently won its first presidential election on 29 December 1991, with 86% of the vote. (Reuters)

Despite pledging continuity of Kadirov’s policies, Mirziyoyev has announced plans for economic reforms, including a liberalisation of the tightly controlled foreign exchange market, and has acted to improve relations with neighbouring Central Asian countries.

"Based on what he's done so far, I'd say he's trying to smooth the rough edges of Karimov's system," said Scott Radnitz, a regional expert at the University of Washington. 

The country exited a Moscow-led security block in 2012 and ejected US forces from a military base used for Afghanistan operations over Washington’s human rights criticisms.

Diplomats say he is also expected to move Uzbekistan closer to Russia, its Soviet-era overlord.

Mirziyoyev was quick to meet with Russian leader Vladimir Putin after Karimov's death and last month hosted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, with whom Karimov enjoyed patchy relations.

"The policy of not joining military blocs and hosting bases may remain, but I think Uzbekistan will begin to participate in more international initiatives. He will see the country can't survive in isolation."  

A woman casts his ballot for the presidential election in Tashkent on December 4, 2016. Uzbekistan has 21.4 million eligible voters. (AFP)

What is Uzbekistan’s role in Asia?

The country gets its strategic importance because it is highly rich in resources. It has the fourth largest gold deposits and tenth biggest copper deposits in the World. It ranks seventh in uranium production in the World.

Uzbekistan has central Asia’s largest army with compulsory military service for males over 18.

The United States, Russia, and China all watch developments in Uzbekistan closely and are concerned about its stability because it is a major exporter of natural gas and cotton.

Thousands of Uzbeks are believed to have joined Daesh militants fighting in Syria and Iraq, according to Reuters. 

In mid-2015 an extremist organisation initially affiliated with Al-Qaeda, pledged allegiance to Daesh.

If the country under Mirziyoyev moves closer to Russia, as many central and eastern European countries tend to do, it can shift the balance of power in the region towards the benefit of Russia.

Polling stations were opened from 6 a.m. (0100 GMT) until 8 p.m. (1500 GMT) on Sunday and preliminary election results will be available early on Monday. 

TRTWorld and agencies