MOSCOW (AP) — Voters are casting ballots on Sunday in Uzbekistan’s tightly controlled presidential election, the first vote since the death of authoritarian leader Islam Karimov who ruled the country for 27 years.
Karimov led Uzbekistan since before the Soviet collapse, first as its communist boss and then as president. During his long tenure, he ruthlessly crushed all opposition and was denounced by international human rights groups for abuses that included killings and torture.
The odds-on favorite in Sunday’s election is acting President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who spent 13 years as Karimov’s prime minister.
Uzbekistan’s Election Commission said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the turnout in the presidential vote was nearly 70 percent by 3 p.m. (1000 GMT, 5 a.m. EST), five hours before the polls were to close.
Karimov never cultivated a succession and his death in September death raised concerns that the predominantly Sunni Muslim nation of 32 million might see fierce infighting over its leadership. Mirziyoyev, however, shifted into the acting president’s job quickly and without any visible tensions, highlighting apparent consensus between regional clans.
The 59-year old Mirziyoyev faces three nominal rivals. Two of them challenged Karimov in past elections, each receiving about 3 percent of the vote. However, neither candidate has campaigned as a vocal critic of Mirziyoyev, while the fourth contender has been just as pliant.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which deployed an observer team to monitor the election, has described the campaign as “strictly regulated” and “moderately visible.”
“There is no perceptible exchange of views among the candidates with regard to their programs,” the OSCE said in an interim report. “All candidates refrain from criticizing the government or each other, and claim to target distinct segments of the electorate.”
Sunday’s election is a mere formality to make Mirziyoyev legitimate, Sanjar Umarov, a leader of an Uzbek reform movement in exile, told The Associated Press.
“The actual choice was made on Sept. 8 when Mirziyoyev was appointed acting president,” Umarov said in a phone interview from Memphis, Tennessee.
Umarov spent four years in prison for embezzlement, a charge his supporters say was politically motivated, before he was released in 2009 when he moved to Tennessee.
Umarov says he is cautiously optimistic about Mirziyoyev because the former prime minister is intimately familiar with the weaknesses of Karimov’s system of power and knows how fragile it is.
“I think he understands that he needs to foster a civil society. I think he understands that he needs to restore democratic institutes,” he said, adding that Mirziyoyev’s recent decrees on fighting corruption will be impossible to implement in a Karimov-style authoritarian manner. “He knows the system of Karimov’s regime well. I doubt he will want to replicate it.”
Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s most populous nation, is rich in natural resources and borders Afghanistan, making it of strategic interest to Russia, the U.S. and China.
Shortly after Karimov died, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Uzbekistan and met with Mirziyoyev, a trip that reflected Moscow’s desire to strengthen its influence in the country.
The U.S. installed a military base in the country for action in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. Washington was forced to abandon the facility in 2005 as relations between the Uzbekistan and the U.S. soured following a government crackdown on rioters in the Ferghana Valley city of Andijan that is believed to have left hundreds dead.
Almost all Western media long have been barred from reporting inside Uzbekistan, and the country’s independent journalists and activists have faced sustained harassment.
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