Uzbekistan’s parliament decided last week to delay the next presidential election from December 2014 to March 2015. Upon first glance, this seems fairly inconsequential — a mere rescheduling of an inevitability. This seems like a safe bet. After all, Islom Karimov has deployed creative arguments to justify additional terms beyond constitutional limits, had his term extended, and has never conducted a free or competitive election.
But… Might there be something else going on?
Over the past year or so, there has been a flurry of structural and procedural reforms to the parliament and presidency in Uzbekistan. In late 2010, the parliament’s powers were bolstered and rules for succession were changed. Under these changes, parliament gained the power to nominate the prime minister and more control over economic and social affairs. The chairman of the senate, meanwhile, was defined as the president’s successor in case of death or incapacitation. More recently, the president’s term was shortened to five years. Prior to these reforms, Karimov chided Uzbekistan’s political parties for failing to criticize one anothers’ platforms (to which they dutifully responded by mildly and occasionally criticizing one another).
If Karimov confides does indeed confide his intentions to anyone, they keep them quiet. The scant information we do have about these reforms leads to varied speculation about Karimov’s reasons for seeking changes. Everyone seems to agree, though, that Karimov is preparing for a future in which he is no longer the President of Uzbekistan.
Though I have no direct evidence to support this, my sense is that though Karimov is indeed interested in protecting his family’s wealth as others argue, his prime concern is his legacy. He is a social engineer and a tinkerer who, like a good Soviet, believes the state can carve something beautiful out of humanity’s crooked timber. There is a perverted sense in which his countless speeches extolling the virtues of (eventual) democracy (just around the corner!) and lamenting corrupt officials are a genuine expression of his ideals. However, it is also clear that he believes that these ideals are to be reached through the state’s compulsion. As it is to his counterpart in Astana, democracy to Karimov is a checklist of institutional features, rather than how those features operate.
The past several years have seen Karimov put a check next to several of these institutional features in preparation for his exit, which he certainly realizes will come before the grand transformation of Uzbekistan he envisions is complete. It is safe to assume that he does not have a successor chosen yet, and there may be no clue until and if Ilgizar Sobirov, the Chairman of the Senate, is replaced (which may not happen until after parliamentary elections in 2014).1 And Karimov is likely to leave Sobirov in place so that a harmless caretaker can act as placeholder should he die so that elites are more likely to keep their arguments over a permanent replacement quiet and non-violent. If Karimov has no successor ready in 2015, he will almost certainly run for president again, claiming that previous term limits only applied to seven year terms. If he decides to step aside for someone else to run, he will have a seat in senate and on the constitutional court for the remainder of his life.
Karimov’s lack of trust for and faith in others, a perfectly rational quality in the system of rule he has fostered, makes the chance that he stands for election again more likely. But, his interest in stability and preserving as much of what he has built — as rotten as it is — intact after his death, probably make it only slightly more likely. He needs to choose a successor. He has looked terrible in many of his recent public appearances. Granted, he seemed comparatively full of vigor in his latest appearance, but he knows one cannot go on dancing forever.
UPDATE: UzNews has an interesting article pointing out that depending on which part of the constitution one refers to, the newly set presidential election date actually shortens Karimov’s term. Though the term he is serving currently is supposed to be seven years, as outlined in Article 90 of the constitution, following the requirements of Article 117 would place the date of the next presidential election in December 2015, rather than 2014.