Uzbekistan Takes Another Step Towards Democracy
On July 9, the Uzbek Electoral Commission met with the Needs Assessment Mission (NAM) from the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) to discuss the upcoming Uzbek parliamentary elections in December. This is significant since it is the most time the Uzbek government has given international monitors to prepare for an election. For the last parliamentary elections in December 2014, the ODIHR/OSCE mission started at the end of October – less than two months before Uzbeks went to the polls. This invitation shows the increasing commitment by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to continue Uzbekistan on the road towards democratic society.
Uzbekistan’s Parliamentary System
Uzbekistan uses a bicameral system of parliament (Oliy Majlis)—one which still needs many reforms to become a Western democratic institution. All parliamentary positions are up for election every five years, unlike the United States’ staggered electoral system. Less than half of the seats are directly elected. The upper chamber, or Senat, has 100 members. Sixteen are directly appointed by the President, while the other 84 are elected indirectly through local councils, or gengeshes, which are themselves heavily influenced by the mayor, or khokim. The governor (also khokim) of a region is selected by the President – confirmed by the Oliy Majlis – who then nominates local khokims which are approved by gengeshes. So far, the only directly elected gengeshes are in Tashkent.
In the Lower House, there are 150 seats, 135 of which are directly elected. The other 15 are reserved for the Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan (all appointed by the President). President Mirziyoyev said in 2017 that he would abolish this quota, but the reserved seats have so far remained in place. OSCE rules state that for a society to have a truly democratic system, at least 51 percent of legislative government officials must be directly elected. The Uzbek government misses that mark. Additionally, there are only four political parties in Uzbekistan (the last being registered in 2003), which is low for a parliamentary system, another OSCE guideline violation.
Reforms and Lingering Concerns
President Mirziyoyev’s administration has overseen reforms across the board, but the relaxation of media suppression has been the most important in terms of its impact on the electoral process. Freedom House’s rating of Uzbek democracy improved from a 7.00 to 6.75 (7 being least free, 1 being most free). President Mirziyoyev’s reforms diminished censorship in both print and online media which allowed journalists to begin expressing somewhat more honest opinions. Significant challenges remain. Media outlets are, especially for elections, held liable for their ‘trustworthiness,’ and can be held responsible to criminal offenses such as slander, defamation, and libel.
Under the Karimov government, elections had limited political competition and were generally guided by the government. The election process itself was plagued by ballot-box stuffing and proxy voting. Despite concerted government campaigns against proxy voting, the issue remains.
However, campaign materials are provided in three minority languages, though most of the election-related materials (including ballots) are either in Uzbek, Russian, or Karakalpak (the language of autonomous Karakalpakstan). Under the Mirziyoyev administration, the executive branch has scaled back its influence on elections, although its hold on local governance through the appointment of khokims (and therefore the Senat) remains.
Uzbekistan still needs deep and numerous, and the electoral process is just one of them. Uzbekistan has, however, only just started on the path towards reform. It has spent the first twenty-five years of its existence as a Sovietesque authoritarian state, with the judicial, and the security organs especially resistant to reform. For a fair parliamentary and electoral process, Uzbekistan needs to implement OSCE recommendations such as fostering greater freedom of the press (especially from liability) and opening the way for the proliferation of political parties. Still, the fact that OSCE election monitors were invited a full six months before elections, and the fact that media freedom has increased shows that President Mirziyoyev is serious about reforming Uzbekistan. While Uzbekistan will not become democratic overnight, with the proper support, it will certainly get there.
Photo: Tashkent TV Tower Aerial Shot During Sunset in Uzbekistan/Getty Images