By Agha Iqrar Haroon
While sitting in transit area of Istanbul Airport and waiting my flight to Tashkent, I was finalizing the list of questions and points to be asked, discussed, felt, observed and sensed while covering the presidential elections of Uzbekistan that were soon to occur.
I had been covering foreign elections as an “observer” as well as a working journalist during my professional career spanning over 29 years. Covering general elections had been great fun in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka because these South Asian countries are quite hot before and during polling day where candidates are usually attacking opponents verbally without content and just for the sake of charging their supporters. South Asia is a land where politics revolves around personalities, clans, caste and family influences rather than political agendas, manifestoes and constitutions of political parties.
The recent Presidential Elections of the United States also sent a strong pulse that attacking opponents verbally and casting doubts about their credibility has also become a part of American politics, leaving no difference between South Asian election campaigns and American elections campaigns.
I observed Uzbek elections during 2014 and 2015 (Presidential as well as Parliamentary elections) but I observed these elections just as a common man who was in Samarkand on a travel assignment when theses election were held, and my role was neither of an observer nor as of an international reporter therefore, my observations of 2014 and 2015 elections were free of professional responsibilities and judgments. However, I was impressed the way these elections were conducted, representing the sobriety of voters who were concerned about manifestoes offered by candidates rather than their personalities of candidates.
While landing at Tashkent Airport on the chilling night of November 30, 2016, I had a clean list of points and questions about election process those would be my parameters to observe and report extraordinary early Presidential elections of Uzbekistan.
I had my travel plan to meet voters, candidates and journalists of Uzbekistan in Tashkent and Samarkand before reaching Bokhara on polling day— December 4, 2016. While I was visiting polling stations to observe pre-polling arrangements in Samarkand, I got the answer to my first and the foremost question at the top of my list. This query was to find reasons why the polling rate (turnout rate) of voters had been so high in Uzbekistan during all previous elections?
When I saw the Children Play Room in the first polling station I visited, I asked a question to the head of the polling station, “why was a Children Play Room ‘ I had never seen such arrangements in any country during my tenure as Election observer. The head of the polling station told me that every polling station is (was) equipped with Children Play Room because children usually come (came) with their parents (mostly with their mothers) so they have (had) a place to play and enjoy while their mothers are (were) busy casting their vote hassle-free. His answer explained to me that casting a vote and watching the electoral process as a child is a part of life of every Uzbek citizen since his/her childhood and even children know the importance of casting their votes and the responsibility of a voter towards their country and nation.
My observation and opinion was found to be true when I asked a 12 year old child through my interlocutor in a market of Samarkand that same day – would he go for polling his vote when he would become 18 year old? Rustam, a 12-year-old boy, told me that he was waiting to become a boy and poll his vote because polling vote is fun as well as a responsibility of every Uzbek. Receiving such an excellent and responsible answer from a 12-year-old Uzbek youth impressed me.
Whatever the electoral system one can see in Uzbekistan was designed, planned and executed by the deceased President and Father of the Nation—Islam Karimov and any unbiased journalist cannot stop himself from appreciating the man who is no longer physically present, but his vision will remain with the Uzbek nations for all times to come.
I saw the quality construction of schools, colleges, institutes and universities during my visit to polling stations because over 90% of them were installed in educational institutions. I saw well-manned and cleaned classrooms and beautifully arranged gardens in and around almost every educational institutions. I had an opportunity to meet staff of kindergartens and universities while visiting polling stations and found the answer why Uzbek has emerged as the most responsible nation among all other Central Asian states within a short period of over 25 year of independence. It appears to be due to the fact that government spent resources on youth and the educational system as its foremost priority.
Uzbekistan has the strongest gross domestic product (GDP) growth in Central Asia today and its GDP increased by 7.8 percent in year 2016. The volume of industrial production increased by 6.6 percent, agriculture – 6.8 percent, contractual construction works – by 12.5 percent, retail trade – by 14.4 percent and services – 12.5 percent in 2016 comparing to 2015 figures. While the country’s agriculture has increased production growth of 6.6 percent, including fruit and vegetables – by 11.2 percent, potatoes – by 9.7 percent, melons – by 10.4 percent.
Uzbekistan’s economy has received investments over 16.6 billion US dollars, or 9.6 percent more than in 2015. The volume of foreign investments and loans grew by 11.3 percent and exceeded 3.7 billion dollars.
State budget was executed with a surplus of 0.1 percent of GDP in 2016. The inflation rate did not exceed the forecast parameters and remained less than 5.7 percent. These above-mentioned figures represent constant development and growth of Uzbekistan due to foundations provided by the late President, Islam Karimov.
Meeting a large number of voters and supporters of different candidates in Samarkand and Tashkent gave me a tentative picture of expected results well before I landed in Bokhara to cover the polling process on December 4, 2016.
The people I met from different walks of life were quite clear that they wished for a continuity of the vision of President Karimov and of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the then Prime Minister of Uzbekistan and interim president (Now is he the President of Uzbekistan) was the top choice of voters to avoid any adventurism in politics.
Shavkat Mirziyoyev had been with President Karimov for 13 long years as his Prime Minister and a person who knew the vision of Karimov.
All presidential candidates including Sarvar Otamuradov of Uzbekistan National Revival Democratic Party, Narimon Umarov of Justice Social Democratic Party and Khatamjon Ketmonov of People’s Democratic Party of Uzbekistan were granted equal opportunities for election campaign and to promote their vision, agenda and manifestoes but the majority of the public opted for Mirziyoyev of the Liberal Democratic Party—- a party of the Father of the Nation— Islam Karimov.
Mirziyoyev’s platform during the election campaign primarily focused on economic issues, promising that he would double the GDP by 2030.
Shavkat Mirziyoyev got 15,906,724 votes (88.61% of total votes polled) compared to Khatamjon Ketmonov who got 669,187 votes (3.73% of total votes polled) while Narimon Umarov was third in run by securing 619,972 (3.46% of total votes polled). Turnout was 87.73 as 17,951,667 votes were polled out of total 20,461,805 registered votes.
Sitting on my flight back to Islamabad, I wished that voters of South Asia should become as responsible as Uzbek voters who are mature enough to decide what is better for their country instead of thinking what candidate they know personally or who can favour them after becoming head of the State.
I wish to acknowledge the arrangements of the Uzbek Election (Electoral) Commission for facilitating me visiting the polling stations before Election Day and during Election Day freely and without any difficulty.
I also appreciate the Uzbek Election Commission for conducting such transparent, smooth and trouble-free elections where 17.95 million voters observed their right of votes without a single event of mismanagement or tensed atmosphere.
Agha Iqrar Haroon is a Development Observer. His area of work includes Central Asia and Eastern Europe region
The views and opinions expressed in this article/Opinion/Comment are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Dispatch News Desk (DND). Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of Dispatch News Desk.