Voters in Uzbekistan flocked to the polls Sunday for parliamentary elections where all four competing parties are supportive of the government of President Islam Karimov, officials said.
Over 17 million voters had registered for the vote to elect the 150-seat lower house of parliament, the Oliy Majlis, in the Central Asian state.
Tthe authorities sent millions of text messages to get people out to vote, with turnout reaching 87.8 percent by the close of polling stations at 8:00 pm (1500 GMT), a spokesman for the central election commission said.
Karimov has ruled Uzbekistan for the past two decades after becoming Communist party boss in 1989 under the Soviet Union and then its first post-independence president in 1991.
The president, who earlier this month described the elections as a test of democracy, said the polls showed Uzbekistan was “moving towards the establishment of a democratic society.”
“From this point of view, everything that has been done in this period, especially since 2000, has given a new impulse,” he told reporters including an AFP correspondent after casting his vote.
“No one should think that I am trying to show off something that does not exist,” he added. “I admit that in our parliament there is very weak control over the executive power. I think we should change this.”
Political specturm criticised by international actors
According to the central election commission, over 270 observers from 36 countries and missions of four international organisations are monitoring the polls.
But pan-European security group the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is deploying a smaller election assessment mission instead of a full observer mission, citing democratic shortcomimgs.
Uzbekistan’s “current political spectrum does not offer the electorate a genuine choice between competing political alternatives,” it said in October.
Geo-politics a key issue for Uzbekistan
The elections come as Uzbekistan is being increasingly courted by the United States as an important ally in the Central Asian region due to its strategic transport links with conflict-torn Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, tensions have flared between Tashkent and its former Soviet master Moscow over Russian plans to install a new Russian military base in the Kyrgyz city of Osh, which is close to the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border.
In televised pre-election debates, parties mostly accused each other of usurping government achievements and programmes but also cautiously touched on corruption and unemployment issues.
“I’m going to vote against them all. None of the MPs have met with voters since the last elections” in 2004, said Rano, a housewife, 34.
Others however showed more enthusiasm. “I like the programme of this party and their ideas. There are many young people in its ranks,” said Mashrab Urinov, 22, a student, voting for the dominant Liberal Democratic Party (UzLiDep).
Uzbekistan formally legitimized factional opposition in the parliament after 2004 elections to answer Western criticism that there is no real political opposition in the tightly controlled ex-Soviet republic.
International rights groups criticized Uzbekistan for stepping up pressure on rights activists ahead of the election. But the authorities reject the accusations.
The number of seats in the lower house of Uzbekistan’s parliament was in 2008 increased from 120 to 150, with 15 seats automatically going to the country’s Ecological Movement.
The Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan was founded in August 2008 and is composed of activists from the pro-government environmentalist groups and health sectors.
Karimov in December 2007 won a new seven-year term in presidential elections with over 88 percent of the vote.
One of the world’s biggest cotton producers, with extensive gas and mineral reserves, Uzbekistan also boasts an ancient history including Samarkand, one of the world’s oldest cities.