December 5, 2016 / 11:46 AM / a year ago

Uzbekistan PM wins presidential vote panned by Western monitors

TASHKENT (Reuters) - Shavkat Mirziyoyev, long-serving prime minister of Uzbekistan, has become its second president, winning 88.61 percent of the vote in an election on Sunday criticised by Western observers.

Uzbekistan's Prime Minister and interim President Shavkat Mirziyoyev (2nd L) and his family members pose for a picture at a polling station during a presidential election in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, December 4, 2016. REUTERS/Anvar Ilyasov/Pool

“This shows that we are going along the path outlined by the late president (Islam Karimov),” Mirziyoyev told thousands of supporters at a rally.

Mirziyoyev, 59, was prime minister from 2003 under Karimov, who died of a stroke in September having run Central Asia’s most populous nation with an iron fist for 27 years.

He is expected to step down as prime minister but it is unclear when, as there is no precedent for such a transition in the former Soviet republic, which became an independent state in 1991.

The landslide victory by Mirziyoyev had been widely expected. He swiftly emerged as the likely successor to Karimov and was appointed interim president when the senate speaker, given the role by constitution, gave it up in Mirziyoyev’s favour.

Diplomatic and business sources say Mirziyoyev secured support for his presidential bid from Uzbekistan’s powerful informal clans by agreeing to share power with two other political heavyweights, Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov and security chief Rustam Inoyatov.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for the first time deployed a full-scale election observation mission in Uzbekistan. It criticised the vote on Monday as falling well short of democratic norms and said it underlined the need for “comprehensive reforms”.

It said in a preliminary statement authorities had failed to provide the conditions for a genuinely free and transparent election process.

“DEVOID OF COMPETITION”

“The dominant position of state actors and limits on fundamental freedoms ... led to a campaign devoid of genuine competition,” the observation mission said.

Running against Mirziyoyev were Khatamjon Ketmonov, Narimon Umarov and Sarvar Otamuratov, the nominees of three parties in parliament which present themselves as the opposition but which have always toed the official line.

Ketmonov and Umarov had also run in the 2015 election, which Karimov won with 90.4 percent of the vote.

“I think no political ‘thaw’ should be expected, and there have been no promises of one during the campaign,” said Kazakhstan-based Central Asia analyst Alexander Knyazev.

Economic reforms promised by Mirziyoyev may materialise, but many of them will take a long time to be implemented, he said.

Diplomats say Mirziyoyev is expected to move Uzbekistan closer to Russia, its Soviet-era overlord. Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first foreign leader to publicly congratulate him on the victory.

Both sides “confirmed their commitment to further strengthening of Russian-Uzbek relations of alliance and strategic partnership” in a phone call, the Kremlin said in a statement, with Putin inviting Mirziyoyev to visit.

Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov and Mukhammadsharif Mamatkulov; Editing by Jack Stubbs and Andrew Roche

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