Presidential Elections of Uzbekistan, 24 October 2021 Diplomatic World Election Observation Report 

Barbara Dietrich, CEO, Diplomatic World 

Alberto Turkstra, Project Manager, Diplomatic World 

 The Diplomatic World team, comprised of Barbara Dietrich (CEO) and Alberto Turkstra (Project Manager) visited Uzbekistan in October 2021 to participate as observers to the presidential elections. The findings of the election observation were presented in Brussels at a roundtable organised by the Embassy of Uzbekistan devoted to "the presidential elections in Uzbekistan: main results and assessments" on November 19, 2021 .

The 2021 presidential elections took place last month and were held against the backdrop of the ongoing ambitious reform process in the social, economic and political spheres. 

For Diplomatic World, this was the second time we participate as observers in Uzbekistan, following the 2019 parliamentary elections. This year we have also had the opportunity to travel to Uzbekistan on a number of occasions, in July and in September, which allowed us to follow the preparations and the lead-up to the elections very closely. 

We have in every visit, witnessed a great sense of anticipation by the population at large. Proof of this are the numerous billboards lining up the main avenues of the cities we have visited, announcing the upcoming elections and encouraging Uzbek citizens to vote as an act of patriotism. 

We have seen great efforts have been put into publicising the elections, particularly in the digital sphere, through trending hashtags such as #ImGoingToVote, to create more interest in particular amongst the younger generations around the importance of voting and therefore contributing to the future of their country. 

In July, we also had the opportunity to meet with representatives from the Central Election Commission (CEC), including Deputy Chairman Bakhrom Kuchkarov, and member of the CEC Dr Gulnoza Ismailova. These meetings were useful to gain an understanding of the changes to the electoral legislation in the last few years, partly based on the feedback and recommendations of the OSCE and other international organisations, which have brought the national legal framework closer to international standards. 

To date, as Dr Kuchkarov explained to us, from the 32 recommendations included in the OSCE / ODIHR Final Report of the 2019 parliamentary elections, 18 (slightly over half) have been fully accepted by the Central Election Commission. The others are under partial implementation or under consideration. 

Of the implemented recommendations, allow me to give three concrete examples: 

1. The introduction of a unified voter registration (that is, the Electoral Management Information Systems and the Single Electronic Voter List based on the principle of 'one vote, one voice') 

2. New and additional requirements for the reporting of campaign financing have been introduced, to improve the transparency of the process. 

3. A procedure to include the voting citizens of Uzbekistan who live abroad has been introduced. These citizens are now able to vote regardless of whether or not they are registered in the consular register of diplomatic missions. 

To observe the presidential elections, we decided to travel to the region of Fergana, as you know this is one of the most ethnically diverse regions of Uzbekistan. On election day we visited several polling stations both in urban areas in Fergana City and rural areas. 

Throughout the day, from 8 in the morning to 8 in the evening, we observed that voters were turning in substantial numbers (reflected in a final turn out figure of approximately 80 percent). Voters were overall enthusiastic, some coming to vote with entire families, and there was in most polling stations a visibly joyous and festive atmosphere. There was also substantial local and national media presence in polling stations to cover the historic event - not only in the urban areas but also in some of the smaller villages we visited. 

At the entrance of polling stations one could clearly see displayed on a billboard the profile of the candidates of each of the five political parties - namely the Uzbekistan Liberal Democratic Party; the National Revival Democratic Party; the Justice Social Democratic Party; the People's Democratic Party and the Ecological Party - as well as a brief summary of the key points of their respective electoral programmes. 

In every polling station we visited, staff and representatives from the political parties were at all time ready to answer any of our questions. Inside polling stations, there were three voting booths, one of which always reserved for people with physical disabilities. Seats for observers of each political party as well as international observers were clearly labelled and they had a clear view over the entire polling station, without obstructions. Furthermore, voting forms were available in two alphabets - Cyrillic and Latin - as not every Uzbek citizen can read both alphabets. 

 Of course these elections took place in the middle of the pandemic, so we should also add a word about the excellent sanitary preparedness we observed. For example, the temperature of every voter was taken at the entrance and those with a temperature higher than 37.5 degrees could vote in a separate voting booth located outside the polling station. 

Another sanitary measure was the removal of the curtains from the voting booths. While this makes some sense from a sanitary perspective, we believe this measure came at the expense of the privacy of voters. 

Now, while the outcome of the election was never in question, with President Mirziyoyev obtaining just over 80 percent of the votes, we can conclude that voters have expressed a preference for political stability and maintaining the course on a gradual transformation of the country. We spoke with a lot of people, a lot of young people, at the polling stations, and while some were critical of certain aspects of the reforms, most agreed the country in every sphere is better off today than five years ago, and this we think explains the desire for political continuity. 

Some reports from international organisations will inevitably conclude that the elections were not truly competitive. It is true that the ideological differences between the five competing political parties are relatively small compared to models of democracy in this part of the world. Uzbekistan's political system, however, should not be exclusively assessed through the lens of Western-style democracy. The Uzbek model of democracy is currently being developed from its historical and cultural specificities and its geography but also adapted to the geopolitical challenges at regional level. 

I am sure the OSCE, and other international organisations, in their final reports, will give a long list of recommendations for the next electoral cycle. From our humble perspective, we would like to suggest, moving forward: 

- The further loosening of cumbersome and bureaucratic hurdles for the registration of new political parties. 

- The loosening of restrictions on social media. For example, during our election observation mission, we had difficulties accessing Twitter, WeChat, Telegram and other social media. The new generations are very active digitally and such restrictions could discourage them in the long-term. 

Having said all this, we can conclude that the presidential elections of Uzbekistan were imperfect but showing progress. While the electoral process has not become substantially more competitive, it has certainly become more inclusive. Sectors of the population who in the past did not play such an active role in the country's political life - women and youth - are much more visible today. 

 The real challenge starts now. Expectations both from the Uzbek population and the international community are very high after the first phase of reforms and we are very much looking forward to what President Shavkat Mirziyoyev's second term in office will bring, for Uzbekistan, for the region, for the European Union and the rest of the world.