Uzbeks vote in polls under pro-reform leader

Shukrat Khurramov, with Christopher Rickleton in Almaty

Tashkent (AFP) - Uzbekistan voted Sunday in the first parliamentary election since a new leader ushered in an era of reform after years of isolation and authoritarian rule.

President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who took charge of Central Asia's most populous state in 2016 after the death of hardline predecessor and former patron Islam Karimov, described the vote as "historic".

Mirziyoyev has been lauded for doing away with many of Karimov's authoritarian excesses, releasing some political prisoners, battling forced labour and opening up the landlocked state to tourism and foreign investment.

But choices on the ballot in the former Soviet republic were few -- all five parties competing are represented in the outgoing parliament.

Muslim-majority but staunchly secular Uzbekistan is home to 33 million people, over 20 million of whom can vote.

Polling stations closed at 8 pm (1500 GMT), with the Central Election Commission (CEC) expected to announce results Monday.

- Rubber stamp parliament -

Britain's influential magazine The Economist this week named Uzbekistan as its country of the year, saying "no other country travelled so far" in 2019.

Yet the reform drive has so far not allowed real competition to Mirziyoyev, 62, to develop.

The president cast his vote in the capital Tashkent where he arrived with his family, including daughter Saida Mirziyoyeva who holds a top government communications post.

Mirziyoyev called the election "historic" and credited parties for competing with each other in the pre-election period.

"We are making history now and people understand that well," he told journalists. "Society has changed, its relationship to parties has changed."

The 150-member lower house, where no party has ever achieved a commanding majority, has a reputation for merely rubber-stamping government legislation.

The Liberal Democratic Party is the currently largest with 52 seats, followed by Milli Tiklanish, known in English as the National Revival Democratic Party, with 36.

The People's Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party also known as Adolat and the Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan are also represented.

- Voting for 'justice and fairness' -

In Tashkent, residents said they wanted to see more from elected officials and voiced concerns that they would not have dared express under Karimov, who ruled for almost three decades.

Abdusamat Yuldashev, 20, said he had cast a vote "for justice and fairness in our Uzbek society".

"I want our living standards to increase, our education to improve," Yuldashev told AFP, saying he had voted for Adolat.

Mamura Mirzakhmedova, a 69-year-old pensioner, said she would not vote and that there was anger over "prices rising everywhere" as inflation follows economic reforms.

The CEC said turnout was nearly 68 percent when there was less than two hours remaining.

Aleksandr Kim, a 60-year-old community leader, said local officials had initiated a last-minute push persuade people to participate but noted that many did not understand the purpose of the election.

"People do not know who they are voting for," Kim told AFP.

- 'New Uzbekistan?' -

The election was held under the slogan "New Uzbekistan, new elections" as authorities sought to portray them as the latest example of a newfound openness.

On Sunday, websites of several human rights organisations that had been inaccessible to internet users in Uzbekistan in the run-up to the vote were back online.

But the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which sent an observer mission to the poll, has said many features of past votes remain in place, and noted "little evidence of outdoor campaign activities" in its pre-election report.

George Tsereteli, who leads the body's Parliamentary Assembly, said Uzbekistan was undergoing a "process of political development."

"Of course, there is an absence here of clear opposition parties and opposition positions and that will probably be noted."

Karimov was often criticised by international watchdogs over torture and forced labour allegations.

Mirziyoyev has continued to honour Karimov publicly, but has been credited with eradicating much of the slavery in the cotton sector and lifting Uzbekistan out of isolation.

Luca Anceschi, a senior lecturer in Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow, said it was too early to say whether the vote held any significance in the broader context of Uzbekistan's political transformation.

Popular participation in the poll "seems a crucial element of Mirziyoyev's strategy of support building", Anceschi told AFP.

As to whether parliament can evolve as an institution, he said, "the jury is out".