Uzbekistan votes for second ever president

Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) (AFP) - Uzbekistan voted Sunday to choose a successor to late strongman Islam Karimov, with long-serving premier Shavkat Mirziyoyev expected to score a comfortable victory against weak opponents.

The Central Electoral Commission in the ex-Soviet authoritarian republic said almost 87 percent of the 20 million-plus electorate had voted, an hour before polling stations closed at 1500 GMT.

Mirziyoyev, who was appointed prime minister in 2003, became interim president following Karimov's death in September from a stroke at the age of 78.

Representing the same Liberal-Democratic Party that Karimov stood for in the last presidential vote in 2015, he faced three other challengers in a bid to secure a five-year term.

But analysts noted that the other candidates were not critical of Mirziyoyev nor the regime in the country bordering Afghanistan where Beijing, Moscow, and Washington all vie for influence.

"The format for Uzbek elections has not changed since Karimov's death," said Kamoliddin Rabbimov, an Uzbek political analyst who lives in France.

"If anything, efforts have been made to ensure other candidates are even more obscure because Mirziyoyev's stature among the population is not yet what Karimov's was," he told AFP.

"Uzbekistan has its own specific take on democracy. There will be no surprises here."

Karimov's 27-year reign began in 1989 at the tail-end of the Soviet era, and was often criticised for extreme abuses of human rights.

- 'Everything has changed' -

In the run-up to Sunday's poll, Mirziyoyev, 59, created an online forum for public complaints and pledged to prioritise economic reforms as many Uzbeks struggle to eke out a living.

The election commission published a series of glowingly optimistic quotes attributed to voters about the poll.

"I realised the importance of my voice in the future development of the country which made me proud," student Sevara Foziljonova was quoted as saying on the commission website.

"There was a time when we had to agree with everything," the CEC quoted 106-year old World War II veteran Badal-bobo Khuramov as saying, referring to the Soviet era.

"Now everything has changed," said the man the commission described as a grandfather to "around 50 grandchildren".

As premier for 13 years, Mirziyoyev was regularly touted as a potential successor to Karimov, along with current deputy prime minister Rustam Azimov and Karimov's eldest daughter Gulnara Karimova.

But businesswoman-cum-popstar Karimova, 44, has been reportedly under house arrest in the country since 2014 after publicly feuding with her mother and her younger sister Lola.

Neither Karimova nor her two children attended the strongman's September funeral and her eldest son Islam Karimov Jr, who lives in London, called on authorities to prove she was alive and well in a recent interview with the BBC.

With her situation at home unclear, Karimova is also the subject of a multi-year corruption probe targeting Western telecoms firms that US and European investigators say paid her billions of dollars in bribes to secure access to the national market.

- Inching out of isolation? -

Under Karimov, Uzbekistan enjoyed mostly cordial relations with foreign powers active in the region but kept all of them at arm's length while regularly threatening smaller neighbours Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The country with the region's largest army exited a Moscow-led security bloc in 2012.

In 2005, it ejected US forces from a military base used for Afghanistan operations over Washington's human rights criticisms.

Mirziyoyev was quick to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin after Karimov's death and last month hosted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, with whom Karimov enjoyed patchy relations.

"Under Karimov, Uzbekistan withdrew into itself, to its great cost, and this may be the main difference under Mirziyoyev," said analyst Rabbimov.

"The policy of not joining military blocs and hosting bases may remain, but I think Uzbekistan will begin to participate in more international initiatives. He will see the country can't survive in isolation."