TASHKENT (Reuters) - Uzbekistan held a stage-managed parliamentary election on Sunday, drawing little Western criticism due to its important role in U.S.-led efforts to contain the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Central Asia’s most populous nation, ex-Soviet Uzbekistan has never held a vote judged free and fair by Western observers.
Once critical of the leadership’s intolerance of dissent, the West kept quiet before this vote because it wants to engage Tashkent more closely in U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and perhaps persuade it to reopen a key U.S. military air base.
The election is certain to hand allies of President Islam Karimov, in power for two decades, all seats in the lower house of parliament. The country has no opposition parties and most pro-democracy figures are in jail or in exile abroad.
Karimov, a top Communist Party apparatchik in Soviet days who has overseen a tightly-controlled economy, said a high voter turnout showed his policies were popular.
“We have been resilient to the crisis thanks to the timely implementation of our anti-crisis programme,” Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Karimov as saying after casting his ballot at a polling station from which Reuters reporters were kept out.
Fearful of reprisals, ordinary people were afraid to give full names to reporters.
“People here seriously do not care. ... It’s not an election,” said one young resident of Tashkent, an ancient Silk Road city rebuilt in Soviet times after a ruinous earthquake.
A 32-year-old driver called Javokhir said “I am not going. I am not interested. What’s a parliament anyway?”
Despite widespread apathy, the official turnout was high — about 80 percent by 5 p.m. (12 p.m. British time), Russia’s RIA news agency reported. In an echo of its Soviet past, voting in Uzbekistan is often compulsory in neighbourhoods and companies.
The election monitoring arm of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe did not send a full mission, saying none of its earlier recommendations had been implemented.
In Tashkent, witnesses saw cases of multiple voting. One elderly woman brought a pile of passports to a polling station and was seen posting several ballots into a sealed box.
The central election commission could not be reached for comment despite numerous attempts.
The United States effectively cut off ties with Tashkent in 2005 after condemning it for opening fire on protesters in the city of Andizhan, killing hundreds, according to witnesses.
The Uzbek government says the events were orchestrated by Islamist extremists trying to topple it.
Shortly afterwards Uzbekistan — an agrarian nation with large oil, gas, gold and uranium reserves but where up to a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line — evicted U.S. troops from an air base used for Afghan operations.
Talks on reopening the base resumed as the Afghan war took central stage in President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, diplomats say.
Top officials such as Central Command chief General David Petraeus have made frequent visits to Tashkent, and Uzbekistan has agreed to allow supplies to pass through its territory en route to Afghanistan, with which it shares a long border.
The European Union lifted sanctions on Uzbekistan in October, citing progress on human rights.
In Sunday’s vote, candidates from four parties are contesting 150 seats in the lower house. The Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan, focussed solely on environmental issues, automatically gets 15 seats in the chamber.
The four parties have publicly criticised each other, mainly over social policy, while praising Karimov’s achievements.
Shirin, an elderly woman selling dried fruit in a busy Tashkent market, saw little grounds for optimism.
“I really want things to change,” said the pensioner who stands in the cold for hours each day selling her produce to save money for her son’s wedding. “But I don’t know if it’s possible. It’s very hard to hope.”
Writing by Maria Golovnina in Almaty; editing by Philippa Fletcher