President Islam Karimov not seen in public since last week. Speculation of his death and possible successors abound.
Polls have closed in Uzbekistan’s presidential election, with long-serving Prime Minister and Interim President Shavkat Mirziyoyev expected to score a comfortable victory in the former-Soviet state.
Polling stations in the country closed at 8 pm local time (15:00 GMT) and 87.8 percent of Uzbekistan’s more than 20 million eligible voters had cast their ballots, the Central Election Commission said on Sunday.
The commission will announce the results of the vote at 4pm local time (11:00 GMT) on Monday, it said.
“Our people have shown high political activity,” commission chairman Mirzo-Ulugbek Abdusalomov told reporters.
Voting at over 9,300 polling stations throughout the Muslim-majority Central Asian country with no tradition of competitive elections began at 01:00 GMT.
“We are seeing many positive changes in our life, we hope for even more positive changes in our country,” said Temur Samiev, a pensioner, as he voted in Tashkent.
Mirziyoyev did not speak to reporters when he went to cast his vote with his family at a polling station in Tashkent.
Despite pledging continuity, Mirziyoyev has announced plans for economic reforms, including a liberalisation of the tightly controlled foreign exchange market, and has acted to ease strains in relations with neighbouring countries.
He was appointed prime minister in 2003 and became interim president following Karimov’s death at the age of 78 in September from a stroke. If elected, Mirziyoyev will become the second leader of Central Asia’s most populous nation since independence.
Representing the same Liberal-Democratic Party that Karimov stood for in the last presidential vote in 2015, Mirziyoyev is facing three other challengers in a bid to secure a five-year term.
But analysts noted that the candidates are not critical of Mirziyoyev or 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 because the regime has not had time to think of anything different,” the AFP news agency quoted Kamoliddin Rabbimov, an Uzbek political analyst who lives in France, as saying.
“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.”
Two of the candidates challenged Karimov in past elections, each receiving about three percent of the vote.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which deployed an observer team to monitor the election, has described the campaign as “strictly regulated” and “moderately visible”.
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.
Few expect 59-year-old Mirziyoyev to make serious political changes if elected, after serving at the top of his predecessor’s state for so long.
But since coming to power Mirziyoyev has offered clemency to at least one prominent political prisoner, while indicating his government will prioritise reforms to the heavily regulated state economy.
Almost all Western media long have been barred from reporting inside Uzbekistan, and the country’s independent journalists and activists have faced sustained harassment.