From Communism to Monarchism
“The constitution states that an individual may not hold the presidency for more than two consecutive terms, and on this basis Mr Karimov should not have been eligible to stand for re-election”.
Uzbekistan’s president is returned to office, surprise
Jan 2nd 2008, From The Economist Intelligence Unit ViewsWire
Incumbent Islam Karimov has been confirmed as the overwhelming victor in Uzbekistan’s presidential election. As he faced no serious opposition, the result was never in doubt and the authorities have not even sought to justify Mr Karimov’s apparent violation of the two-term limit imposed by the constitution. Still, given the uncertainties surrounding the 69-year-old president’s health, the succession issue will not go away.
Uzbekistan’s central election commission (CEC) on December 29th officially announced the result of the December 23rd presidential election, which was won by President Islam Karimov with 88.1% of the vote. The CEC said that just under 16.3m voters turned out, which equates to a little over 90%. Mr Karimov’s share of the vote was only slightly below the 92% he claimed in the previous election in 2000.
Mr Karimov did not face a serious opponent. The three other candidates were sanctioned by the regime and ran only token campaigns. Years of repression have prevented the emergence of an opposition figure capable of successfully challenging Mr Karimov. Genuine opponents living in exile were barred from standing in the election, and potential opposition contenders at home encountered administrative barriers in registering as candidates.
Mr Karimov has ruled Uzbekistan since 1989, first as head of the Soviet republic’s Communist Party, and then as president of independent Uzbekistan. Since 1995 a series of constitutional amendments and flawed referendums has allowed him to prolong his rule. The most recent, in 2002, extended the presidential term from five years to seven years. The constitution states that an individual may not hold the presidency for more than two consecutive terms, and on this basis Mr Karimov should not have been eligible to stand for re-election. It could be argued that, following the constitutional changes in 2002, Mr Karimov’s second term in effect became his first—thus enabling him to stand again. However, the authorities have not felt the need formally to put forward this justification for the president holding on to power. The question of the legality of Mr Karimov’s candidacy has thus been ignored altogether.
Following his re-election, Mr Karimov will maintain tight control of the country’s political elite, and seek to prevent the emergence of any potential challengers to his authority. However, looking further ahead, the centralisation of power in Mr Karimov’s person makes for a highly uncertain outlook once he eventually does depart the scene.
The manner of this departure could be highly significant. Does Mr Karimov intend to stay in office for life, as was the case with the former president of neighbouring Turkmenistan, Saparmurad Niyazov? In this case, the succession will be determined by a struggle within the elite once Mr Karimov is dead or incapacitated. The other option is for Mr Karimov to chose his successor and hand over power ahead of time. That should, in theory, boost the prospects for a smooth transfer of power than an intra-elite struggle following the president’s death. However, there is no guarantee of this—particularly if Mr Karimov picks a candidate who does not have the support of a majority of the country’s eite. One rumoured successor, Mr Karimov’s daughter, Gulnora, would be a controversial choice. The concentration of power around the office of the presidency makes the institution of a dynastic succession a highly risky manoeuvre from the perspective of stability, as it denies ambitious members of the elite their best chance of political and economic advancement.
The street factor
It seems improbable that any successor would open up the political scene significantly. The risks to stability are compounded by the possibility of social unrest. Although Uzbekistan’s opposition groups will remain too weak in 2008-09 to mobilise a mass civil movement against the authorities, popular unrest, sparked by social and economic grievances, could increase. The authorities would act swiftly, and with force when necessary, to quell any such protests.
On the question of stability, the next two years could prove crucial. After Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan is the region’s largest gas supplier and it has recently moved to decisively hike its prices. Tajikistan, which paid just US$55 per 1,000 cubic metres for Uzbek gas in 2006, will pay US$145 in 2008, up from US$100 in 2007. The Kyrgyz Republic, likewise, will be paying US$140-145 per 1,000 cu metres, although the price for Kazakhstan is to remain unchanged in 2008 at US$100. Russia is reported to have agreed a price corresponding to regional levels, which implies a tariff in the US$100-145 range. Increasing gas prices will feed directly into the state budget. The authorities have the option to use this additional revenue to alleviate harsh social conditions through higher welfare payments, pensions and salaries, or greater subsidies. If they do not, and in the absence of dramatic improvements in Uzbekistan’s economy, the maintenance of widespread socio-economic discontent will cast a shadow over the country’s political stability—regardless of who sits in the presidential palace.