TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- Uzbekistan's incumbent leader has won a second five-year term in the tightly controlled Central Asian nation, preliminary results showed Monday.
President Shavkat Mirziyoyev received 80.1% of Sunday's vote, the country's Central Election Commission announced.
Mirziyoyev, who took office in 2016 following the death of longtime President Islam Karimov, has relaxed many of the policies of his dictatorial predecessor but maintained rigid controls over the political scene.
In Sunday's election, he faced four relatively low-visibility candidates who didn’t even show up for televised debates, instead sending proxies who failed to engage in substantial discussions. Independent candidates weren’t allowed, and if it had not been for the billboards presenting the candidates and text messages sent by the government reminding voters about the forthcoming election, the campaign would have been hard to spot.
Jahongir Otajonov, a popular singer and representative of the unregistered Erk party, whose leaders are in exile, quit the race under intense pressure. Khidirnazar Allakulov, the leader of the Hakikat va Tarakkiyot party, also wasn’t allowed to run.
Despite the absence of significant competition, voter turnout was strong at 80.8%.
International observers welcomed recent reforms in Uzbekistan but said the improvements "have not yet resulted in a genuinely pluralistic environment” for a competitive election.
Representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and the European Parliament participated in a joint observation mission.
“While multiple candidates contested the election, there was no meaningful engagement with each other or with voters, and candidates refrained from challenging or criticizing the incumbent,” they said in a statement. “Despite some opening of the media environment, in particular online, the space for citizens to freely and fully express their opinion remains controlled.”
The observers also noted “significant procedural irregularities” on election day, adding that “important safeguards were often disregarded during voting, counting and tabulation.”
Under Mirziyoyev, freedom of speech has expanded compared with the suppression of the Karimov era, and some independent news media and bloggers have appeared. He also relaxed the tight controls on Islam in the predominantly Muslim country that Karimov imposed to counter dissident views.
Mirziyoyev lifted controls on hard currency, helping encourage foreign investment, and he moved to patch up foreign relations that had soured under Karimov.
“Mirziyoyev improved relations with world players such as Russia, China and the West, while also resolving conflicts with neighbors including establishing peaceful interaction with Afghanistan,” said Andrey Kazantsev of the Moscow State Institute of Foreign Relations.
Uzbekistan and Afghanistan share a 144-kilometer (89-mile) border, and Uzbekistan has consistently worried that conflict in its neighbor could spill over. The ex-Soviet republic’s foreign minister became the first foreign official to visit Afghanistan after the Taliban took control of the country in August.
Mirziyoyev has moved to boost economic and trade ties with Russia, which is building Uzbekistan’s first nuclear power plant and has invested in other big economic projects in the country. Russia also attracts a flow of migrant workers from Uzbekistan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first to congratulate Mirziyoyev on his re-election, calling him Monday even before Uzbek election officials announced preliminary results.
While maintaining close ties with Russia, Uzbekistan has signed a number of key agreements with China, which became Uzbekistan’s largest trading partner as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.
As the only visible candidate during the campaign, Mirziyoyev toured the country to promise supporting local communities and bridging the gap between rich and poor. Experts say that inequality will be the biggest challenge during his second term.
Political scientist Akhmed Rahmonov noted that while under Karimov food and energy were subsidized by the state, “today, with the free market reforms, the subsidies have been removed, but no mechanism has been created to support redistribution of wealth.”
“People are dissatisfied because inequality and prices are rising and there is no mechanism to protect the most vulnerable people,” Rahmonov said. “Education, healthcare and other state services are now being privatized, and prices of public services are on the rise. At the same time, salaries grow much slower.”
The incumbent president will also have to face Uzbek society’s growing expectations for more political freedoms.
“Uzbek elections look like a ritual or ceremony with fanfare and gaudy tinsel, where everyone knows their role and plays it,” said Sardor, a 31-year-old Tashkent resident who asked for his last name to be withheld for fear of persecution.
He said that he didn’t vote as “there was no spirit of a real race,” adding that “the programs of the candidates were written based on Soviet-style standards.”
Uliana Pavlova and Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report from Moscow.