Uzbekistan's leader poised for landslide victory in presidential election

ILE - Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev speaks during the presidential inauguration ceremony in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016.

MOSCOW (AP)— Uzbekistan is holding a snap presidential election Sunday, a vote that follows a constitutional referendum that extended the incumbent's term from five to seven years.

President Shavkat Mirziyoyev was elected in 2021 to a second five-year term, the limit allowed by the constitution. But the amendments approved in April's plebiscite allowed him to begin the count of terms anew and run for two more, raising the possibility that he could stay in office until 2037.

The 65-year-old Mirziyoyev is set to win the vote by landslide against three token rivals.

“The political landscape has remained unchanged, and none of the parliamentary political parties stand in open opposition to the president’s policies and agenda,” the elections observer arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a pre-voting report.

Since coming to power in 2016 after the death of longtime dictatorial leader Islam Karimov, Mirziyoyev has introduced a slew of political and economic reforms that eased some of the draconian policies of his predecessor, who made Uzbekistan into one of the region's most repressive countries.

Under Mirziyoyev, freedom of speech has been expanded compared with the total suppression of dissent during the Karimov era, and some independent news media and bloggers have appeared. He also relaxed the tight controls on Islam in the predominantly Muslim country that Karimov imposed to counter dissident views.

At the same time, Uzbekistan has remained strongly authoritarian with no significant opposition. All registered political parties are loyal to Mirziyoyev.

In April’s referendum, more than 90% of those who cast ballots voted to approve the amendments extending the presidential term.

As part of his reforms, Mirziyoyev has abolished state regulation of cotton production and sales, ending decades of forced labor in the country’s cotton industries, a major source of export revenues. Under Karimov, more than 2 million Uzbeks were forced to work in the annual cotton harvest.

Mirziyoyev has also lifted controls on hard currency, encouraging investment from abroad, and he moved to improve relations with the West that soured under Karimov. He has maintained close ties with Russia and signed a number of key agreements with China, which became Uzbekistan’s largest trading partner as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.

Like the leaders of other ex-Soviet Central Asian nations that have close economic ties with Moscow, Mirziyoyev has engaged in a delicate balancing act after Moscow sent troops into Ukraine, steering clear of backing the Russian action but not condemning it either.

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