Author: Namig MAYILOV, Elchin HUSEYNOV, Baku-Tashkent-Bukhara-Baku
On December 22, 2019, elections to the Legislative Chamber of the Oliy Majlis (parliament), as well as to regional, city and district kengashs (councils) of people's deputies took place in Uzbekistan. This was the first elections following the inauguration of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and held under the slogan "New Uzbekistan—New elections".
Both the organisers and the voters, ordinary citizens of Uzbekistan, took the elections very seriously. In addition to the usual announcements aboard the flag carrier airline, Uzbekistan Airways, landing at the Tashkent airport, the flight crews were asking the Uzbek passengers to take an active part in the elections. Both the capital and the regional centres of the country were covered with election posters. Unlike in the old days, the citizens were discussing their candidates more lively, amid an unprecedented media coverage of the event. Moreover, before the voting day, journalists and observers could ask any, even the trickiest questions to members of the government, leaders of political parties in a specially created Discussion Club, which also hosted the daily debates of political parties on air of local television channels.
From silos of laws to a single code
The election campaign began on September 20. Each of the five political parties of Uzbekistan (Liberal Democratic Party, People's Democratic Party, National Revival Democratic Party, Justice Party and Ecological Movement) nominated 150 candidates. Thus, all 750 candidates were officially registered by the Central Election Commission for the elections. Remarkably, only 43 of nominees were deputies of the previous parliament.
It was the first time that the elections were held in line with the new Electoral Code initiated earlier by President Mirziyoyev. The previous regulatory framework on elections consisted of several laws and many by-laws, which often contradicted or duplicated each other.
Therefore, the Uzbek experts had studied the experience of more than 50 countries and considered the recommendations of international missions, including OSCE/ODIHR, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Association of World Election Bodies (A-WEB), Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), as well as the proposals of the Venice Commission.
Indeed, the new election legislation created an atmosphere of healthy competition between political forces and transparent conditions for voting. All these factors affected both the election results and their assessment by international observation missions.
Perhaps our observations in Uzbekistan will seem quite familiar to the citizens of Azerbaijan, but much of this is an innovation for Uzbeks. In addition to the new Electoral Code, Tashkent introduced the Unified Electronic Voter List, which is basically a database with all information about the political parties participating in the elections, candidates, the location of polling stations, etc.
For the first time in Uzbek history, the authorities invited a large number of international and foreign observers, as well as the representatives of foreign media. "In total, more than 800 observers from fifty foreign countries and ten international organisations, as well as over 130 representatives of foreign media monitored and covered the elections," the Central Election Commission (CEC) reported.
In addition to over 70,000 representatives of the local civil society, the voting process was observed by the missions of several international organisations, including but not limited to OSCE/ODIHR, CIS, Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States, and SCO.
For the first time in the history of elections, 270 defenders of human rights (only 30-40 before) joined an array of observers from political parties and organisations to monitor the elections. Uzbek authorities had created the necessary conditions so that all observers could visit even the most remote polling stations in the country.
Citizens had free access to the voter list at the premises of precinct election commission, as well as to the relevant data through the CEC official website. Also, for the first time, 120 polling stations were equipped with video cameras providing the live coverage of the event.
Authorities had also created necessary conditions for the voting of Uzbek nationals living abroad. Previously, only the Uzbek citizens officially registered at the place of residence could take part in elections. This time however 112,400 voters could cast their votes at 55 polling stations created in almost 40 countries.
Elections were successful
According to the CEC of Uzbekistan, more than 13.9 million citizens participated in the elections (including the Uzbek nationals abroad), which is 67.8% of the total (about 20 million) number of voters. At the same time, 150,000 voters used the right to early voting.
Elections to the Legislative Chamber were reported successful in 125 of 150 constituencies. So, the Movement of Entrepreneurs and Businessmen of the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan could secure 43 seats in the new parliament, Democratic Party of Uzbekistan - 35, Social Democratic Party Adolat - 21, People's Democratic Party - 18, and the Ecological Movement - 11 deputies.
Since none of the candidates in 25 constituencies could secure the 50% threshold limit of the votes, a second round of elections is scheduled for January 5th, 2020. According to CEC member Sherzod Kudratkhojayev, this can change the balance of power in the new parliament and government. "Currently, the struggle is between the two parties. Traditionally, LDP has been the winner of elections with a big advantage. In the second round however, DP may overtake LDP and nominate its candidate for the post of the prime minister," Kudratkhojayev said to Kun.az. By the way, the incumbent Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov was elected three years ago, in December 2016 at a joint meeting of the Legislative Chamber and Senate of the Oliy Majlis.
Observer ratings match
Majority of local and international observers confirmed that the parliamentary elections held in Uzbekistan reflected the will of the people, were held in accordance with national legislation in a transparent and democratic atmosphere. For example, the CIS observer mission recognised the elections as transparent, democratic and open. The head of the mission, Executive Secretary of CIS, Sergey Lebedev, said that the citizens were provided with equal conditions to vote in an open and competitive atmosphere. According to Lebedev, all candidates have been created good conditions for communicating their views and plans to voters, including through the media. The election process was well organised, and the voters showed a high turnout.
At the same time, Mr. Lebedev reported on cases such as attempts at family voting. But there were less than hundred such cases, and neither did undermine the organisation of the elections, nor did affect the results. The mission has visited more than two thousand polling stations, having come to the conclusion that the elections can be a significant factor in deepening democratic reforms in the country.
Observations of the CIS mission almost matches that of the observers from SCO. During a press conference in Tashkent, SCO Deputy Secretary-General, mission leader Xie Xiaoyong said that 20 observers from the organisation visited a total of 495 polling stations in various regions of the country. Mission experts have witnessed extensive organisational work and the active participation of voters, including youth.
Xie Xiaoyong said that the elections met the requirements of the election legislation of Uzbekistan, were transparent and democratic, and there were no cases of violations. According to him, the past elections are the most important stage on the road to democratisation of the country.
But most of all the public community expected the assessment of the OSCE, which participated as an observer to the parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan for the first time. The head of the OSCE mission, Georgy Tsereteli, said that observers at the polling stations witnessed genuine interest from voters. He believes that the elections showed genuine competition, and the votes "really reflect the will of the people." "Uzbekistan has indeed embarked on the path of reforms, we have seen progress and genuine competition," Tsereteli said and added that "the rules of the election campaign were still limited" and there were errors at precinct commissions.
As a positive fact, the head of the OSCE mission noted changes in the country's legislation, the adoption of the Elections Code, and increased interest of citizens in the elections. "This should help the country in democratising the elections... We can say that we have found good intentions," Tsereteli emphasised.
The head of the mission of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of OSCE, Tana de Zulueta, believes that the elections were the beginning of a "very constructive dialogue" between OSCE/ODIHR and Uzbekistan. According to Zulueta, OSCE observers saw the republic's commitment to democratic values during the parliamentary elections. "It was a genuine commitment, we saw it in practice," de Zulueta said.
All five political parties recognised the results of the parliamentary elections. In his interview to Region Plus, the Chairman of the Ecological Movement, Boriy Alikhanov, said that the elections were held in a competitive and transparent atmosphere. "Renewed Uzbekistan holds qualitatively new elections. The necessary conditions have been created for all five parties. We had no problems, no obstacles. Most importantly, the new elections code provides the legal basis for the implementation of democratic elections," Alikhanov said.
Special report for our readers
The slogan "New Uzbekistan—New elections" had a positive effect not only on the elections, but also on the communication between the media and authorities. Local and foreign journalists had all sorts of conditions to fulfil their duties. Thanks to these innovations, we could get exclusive comments on the elections from the Prime Minister of Uzbekistan Abdulla Aripov and the CEC Chairman Mirzo-Ulugbek Abdusalomov.
The head of the Uzbek government believes that the current parliamentary elections will continue the process of reforms. "The elections are really democratic. The candidates were completely free to hold debates. A lot of work has been carried out specifically to develop democratic values and institutions," Abdulla Aripov said after voting at the polling station.
According to Aripov, the leadership of Uzbekistan has chosen a new path to create an open society, while the freedom of expression will deepen reforms in the country. "I think these elections should bring new people to the parliament, new views, and competition between the parties. This should ensure the further development and reforms in the country, as well as the entry of Uzbekistan into a new era of development," Aripov noted. He is confident that the Uzbek authorities have provided all the necessary conditions for holding democratic parliamentary elections.
Mirza-Ulugbek Abdusalomov said that Uzbekistan had carried out large-scale preparatory works before the elections. "I often visit the CIS countries and other states. The preparatory works were carried out under the leadership of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and today this work deserves attention," Abdusalomov said.
According to the head of the CEC, the leaders of a number of foreign institutions and international organisations note that the experience of Uzbekistan in organising the parliamentary elections can be shared with other states. He noted that voting took place in more than 10,000 polling stations with more than 180,000 staff members. "We trained them all, but they are not professionals, just ordinary people such as teachers and employees of public organisations. We can expect technical errors here and there but, in general, I think there should not be and will not be any serious drawbacks during the elections," the CEC chairman said.
The election of 36 women in the parliament deserves a special attention. They represent 28% of the total number of members of the Legislative Chamber.
Forward without looking back
We decided to see how actively the Azerbaijani diaspora of Uzbekistan was taking part in the voting. It turned out that there were those who had been involved in organising local elections, like Mehriban Rahimova. Mehriban-khanum moved to Tashkent from the Sheki region of Azerbaijan in 1982. She is very attached to her Azerbaijani roots and at the same time, she loves native Uzbekistan. Mehriban says that Azerbaijanis are active in public life and are not indifferent to the future of the fraternal country.
Indeed, the future of relations of Uzbekistan with the outside world, including with Azerbaijan, also depends on the well-being of country. Uzbekistan is building its foreign policy based solely on its national interests. "We do not look back at the East, West, North or South. We are building normal relations with all countries. Our top priority for now is the development of economic diplomacy. The Foreign Ministry has never dealt with issues of investment, export, and tourism. Now it has created special departments in all these areas," Ilhom Nematov, First Deputy Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan, said.
Tashkent believes that the new parliament will be able to create a legislative system independent of government decisions. Rather it will guide them. In other words, the parliament will not be a part of the executive branch, but will have its own vision of the country's development paths.