By Mark Pascoe, Short Term Observer for OSCE election observation mission to Uzbekistan
As an electoral administrator myself, I currently work as Electoral Registration Manager at the London Borough Hackney, I always find it fascinating to discover the differences in electoral systems the world over. The trip to Uzbekistan to observe the Presidential election was my second opportunity to work as a Short Term Observer (STO) on an overseas Election Observation Mission following the 2015 mission to the Parliamentary election in Kyrgyzstan.
The election was called following the death of Islam Karimov in September. Karimov was the only President that independent Uzbekistan had known, having held power since leading the country through independence in 1991, following the downfall of the Soviet Union. The leading candidate, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, had been swiftly appointed as Acting President and had held the office of Prime Minister since 2003.
In Tashkent we were given detailed and insightful briefings by the mission’s core team on the political context, electoral administration and the legal framework amongst other things. We also met our STO partners which is always the first indicator of how successful your election day will be!
As an observer you never know where in the country you will be sent, but it’s probably fair to say I got lucky in being deployed to Samarkand – one of the oldest inhabited cities in Central Asia and famously located on the Silk Road, the ancient trade route linking East and West.
Despite being advised in the briefings that the media would be very interested in us it still came as a surprise when a TV camera crew recorded us stepping off the train in Samarkand station. The morning became even more surreal when the same crew reappeared at our hotel to film us checking in. We were given a briefing on the region by our Long Term Observers (LTOs) who would be managing us whilst in Samarkand and met our drivers and interpreters.
(Above: A polling station in Uzbekistan)
On E-day we were up and away from our hotel shortly after 4am, proof if any were necessary that election observation is no holiday, and we arrived at our first polling station shortly before 5am. Notwithstanding the early hour the adrenaline was flowing and I even gave a brief television interview half an hour before polls opened. As the clock struck six a CD player blasted out the Uzbek national anthem as we stood to attention before the doors were opened just a few moments later than they should have been. As a mark of respect, the eldest resident in the area headed the queue and was first to cast his ballot.
Most polling stations were located in schools or colleges and we visited a number of technical institutes dedicated to a multitude of disciplines from music to engineering. Polling was largely conducted in an orderly fashion aside from at one school which was clearly too small to cope with the number of electors and voters stood five deep at the tables waiting for the ballot papers, while we made use of any space we could find to observe proceedings. Thankfully the mood remained calm although it’s probably fair to say that the chairman of the station was rather flustered.
We were warmly welcomed everywhere we went and the polling staff were co-operative. The highlight of my day was seeing the look of sheer shock on a young man’s face as I tried out a few words of Uzbek, as he exclaimed ‘you speak Uzbek?!’ Sadly I had to explain that my grasp of the language extended to little beyond ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ but I’m sure that for a moment he believed I was fluent. This was closely followed by a brief discussion about the EU referendum with an inquisitive polling station chairman.
As polls closed we settled into a rural school hall for the count, which in Uzbekistan is carried out within the polling stations themselves. The way the count is conducted is often the most fascinating part of an election day. As an observer, the air of the unknown is also unnerving as you face the possibility of spending much of the night following the count and the tabulation, having already been up for a very long time. On this occasion I was in bed by 1am, a mere 21 and a bit hours after I awoke. That was not all, however, as my partner and I were up again at 5am to return to the tabulation centre to await the results.
Whilst the overall conduct of the election left a lot to be desired and the political situation in the country even more so, it was a pleasure to visit Uzbekistan and be a small part of the process. I hope that the government will take on the recommendations made by OSCE and work towards a stronger democracy for the country.