I was not “officially invited” to be an observer for the recently-held presidential elections in Uzbekistan. On the contrary, I was a tourist during the last few days of campaigning and left Uzbekistan on the same evening of the voting day. My itinerary took me to all major parts of the country – from Andijan in the East to Kiva in the West and Muynaq in the North West. I also stayed in Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent during my two-week long travel in the country.
At the outset, I must admit to being impressed by many aspects of Uzbek life – culture, politics, ethics, social life, etc. President Karimov had died about two months before my fellow travellers and I set foot on Uzbek soil. We were disturbed by Western media accounts that the transition of power would not be easy. The little news that trickled out during the funeral of Karimov including reports that Samarkand airport was shut down added to our concerns.
We expressed these to the tour organisers who reassured us thus: “Nothing has changed in the country. Karimov was a respected leader and many feel sorry that he is no more. But we do have a constitution and everything will go by it. The election commission will declare and conduct the elections and the new president will take over. The news about Samarkand airport being shut down is correct but what was deleted explicitly was that it was to facilitate the air traffic bringing in the delegations attending the funeral." They also assured us that our safety was their concern too and that we need not worry about it and should not cancel our trip.
Being election time, we expected to see the stereotypical boards and hoardings of all candidates in the places we visited. That was not to be; there was nothing on the streets. We were told that all the candidates were to visit all parts of the country and meet people behind closed doors and convince them to vote for them. Processions, sloganeering, 'shobha-yatras', etc. were not allowed. The state owned television provided coverage to the campaigning of all the candidates.
I asked our guide whether I can talk to people and ask them about the elections. "By all means! Do tell me if you want any translation," was the answer.
"But will they give me the real answer? Or will they be afraid of talking the truth?" I asked.
The answer was: "Try it! You will know whether the answer is real or under threat."
I did ask the taxi driver and he said that he was surely going to vote, which he had not done in the past 20 years or four elections. That went to show that even in previous elections voting was not an obligation or not voting a curse by any means. I asked the same questions to a vendor on the street. Her answer was: “Well, all are good candidates. But Mirziyoyev is my choice. He is around for long and knows the problems very well." While raising the same questions with a third person, I also asked as to who the number two choice was, given that Mirziyoyev seemed to be far ahead of all. "Nariman Umarov," was the answer. So there was somebody next to him in popularity.
We did find that everybody we talked to in every region was interested in the election. I was wondering whether there are regions in which somebody other than Mirziyoyev would be giving a tough fight and could come close. But the country seemed unanimous on electing Mirziyoyev. When almost all talked in favour of Mirziyoyev, I asked one person in a hotel whether he had heard of anybody who would not vote for Mirziyoyev. "Oh yes, there are! Not many though!," was the response.
On the day of voting, in our hotel in Tashkent, we met a Pakistani election observer. He was being interviewed in the lobby just behind us by Uzbek TV. We exchanged niceties and then he said, "Kya country hai yaar? Aur unaki yeh election! Kamaal kee baat hai! Apane idhar to abtak 20 -25 bande ya toa maare jaate yaa marvaa jaate." [What a country! And what an election! It is amazing! If it had been our country, 20 to 25 people would have died or been killed.] He spoke a million words.
We then asked our tour guide to take us to a voting station. I assumed that he would take us to the area and show us from a distance since we were not official observers. He asked the driver to park the vehicle near a small building and took us inside. He went in and came out with a person in his 50's who welcomed us in fluent English. He said he was happy to note that we were taking interest in the democratic process of his country. On the first table four to five persons were seated, among them two to three ladies in violet dress who seemed to be on election duty. The men were in western suits. He took us to the table and said the voters would come here and show their identity which is their passport. The number would be recorded and they would be handed over the voting paper in the language of their choice – Uzbek or Russian. He showed us the voting papers in both languages. “Take as many pictures as you want – no restrictions,” he added. The ballot was all in written script. No symbols! Next to the name of each candidate was a brief CV of two or three lines detailing his date of birth, his party and highlights from the manifesto. The choice was to be marked with a '+' sign and not 'x' in the appropriate box. An 'x' vote would be invalid unless there was a tie.
The voting booth was a good metre high with glass on one side, so that one can see that the voting papers are not tampered with. To further ensure this, representatives of each political party were present. We could meet all four. "Can I talk with them?," I asked. The answer was, "by all means!” However, only one of them knew English. A bank employee, he said he was a supporter of Mirziyoyev's party. He had followed the instructions of the party during the campaigning.
“Did you go from house to house to tell people about your party and what it stood for?,” I asked him.
"Occasionally, but not required," he replied.
I then peppered him with further questions:
"How confident are the others about their candidate winning?"
"Oh sure they are quite optimistic and expect good response. They have worked hard too over the past two months."
“How confident are you about your candidate?”
“We are certainly winning!"
“Can you quantify?”
"More than 50 per cent."
The election officer then took us to the room just behind the voting booths. A well-equipped crèche equipped with toys and activities, attended by a lady with a couple of kids, welcomed us. If a mother comes to vote with her child, she could leave the child there. Next to it was a medical facility with a nurse and emergency medicines. The Election officer quipped, "Fortunately, we did not have any casualty."
On the way out, he showed us what we missed while coming in. The list of all voters who were to come to that centre was displayed prominently. In the appendage, there were a few names of those who had registered themselves for voting outside their area or town. The total number enrolled was about 4000 voters.
“How much was the response since morning?,” I asked him.
"This is the fifth election I am participating in and, believe me, I have not seen so much enthusiasm ever in the past."
“Will the counting be done there itself?,” I then asked.
"Yes, immediately after the voting is officially over. But we have to inform the figures to the nearby main counting centre. We cannot declare the result here," he replied.
We left for the airport, reached home and were curious to know the outcome. It did come the next day and was as expected. Whatever may be the impressions of the world media, in my view, Uzbekistan has taken a firm step in the world of democracy.
The author is a retired Professor of Organic Chemistry from the University of Pune. He was travelling in Uzbekistan during the elections and these are his personal observations.