Uzbekistan's elections labeled 'undemocratic'

Islam Karimov, the only president since independence from Soviet rule, received 88.1 percent of the vote in a weekend election.

Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan's only president since independence from Soviet rule, swept to victory with 88.1 percent of the vote in a weekend election criticized as undemocratic by Western observers.

Mr. Karimov, who has tolerated no dissent since he came to power in 1989, has been under fire from the West since 2005, when troops fired on protesters in the town of Andijan, killing hundreds of people, according to witnesses. Karimov's government blamed the violence on Islamist rebels and put the number of dead at 187, saying most were terrorists or security forces. Karimov ordered the shutdown of a US air base following Western criticism of his government's actions in Andijan.

The three little-known candidates who stood in against Karimov – a lineup that analysts said was designed to lend the election an appearance of fairness – won about 3 percent of the vote each, the Central Election Commission said.

Central Asia's most populous nation is at the heart of a geopolitical power struggle between the West and Russia, which still sees former Soviet Central Asia as its sphere of interest.

The election monitoring watchdog of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which Uzbekistan is a member, said the Sunday vote fell below democratic standards.

"[It] was held in a strictly controlled political environment, leaving no room for real opposition, and the election generally failed to meet many OSCE commitments for democratic elections," it said in a statement.

The West has criticized Karimov for his intolerance to political opposition and isolationist policies, but the leader has promised to push for more reforms and to encourage foreign investment.

Karimov has resisted market reforms since the Soviet disintegration and has brought the resource-rich nation's economy to the brink of collapse, plunging most of its 27 million people into poverty. More than 3 million Uzbeks have left for Russia and Kazakhstan in recent years, by the two countries' official estimates.

The OSCE said Karimov's registration as a candidate "raised legal issues" because there was a constitutional ban on more than two consecutive terms.

Uzbek officials have not clarified this, but a 2002 referendum effectively changed the constitutional framework for the presidency by extending Karimov's term to seven years from five, technically making this his first term in office.

Uzbekistan has never held an election that was judged fair by Western monitors. Karimov won the previous election in 2000 with 92 percent of the ballot.

A different assessment of the vote came from the observer mission of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a grouping of most of the former Soviet republics. The election "proceeded in line with the country's election legislation and universally recognized norms for holding democratic elections," mission head Sergei Lebedev was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency. "It was a major factor in further democratization of social life in Uzbekistan."

A handful of opposition politicians and human-rights defenders in Central Asia's most populous state have cried foul. "Under no circumstances, one should accept this election as legitimate," said Nigara Khidoyatova, head of the unregistered opposition Ozod Dekhkonlar party. "I would like to see more pressure from the West."

The OSCE, which sent a limited mission of just over 20 people to Tashkent, said it had registered a host of violations during the voting, including duplicated signatures on voters' lists that suggest illegal proxy voting and other irregularities.

"Since all candidates in the present election publicly endorsed the incumbent, the electorate was deprived of a genuine choice," it said, adding that "the unusually high" turnout of 90.6 percent "raised further concerns regarding the accuracy of the reporting of results."

Central Election Commission head Mirzoulugbek Abdusalomov defended the election, saying the high turnout represented a step toward democracy.

"Preliminary results showed that the election was conducted in accordance with the Constitution," he said. "We received no complaints about any violations during the vote."

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