Voters in Uzbekistan were heading to the polls Sunday in its first parliamentary election since a new leader ushered in an era of reform after years of isolation and authoritarian rule.
Polling stations in Central Asia's most populous country opened at 0800 local time (0300 GMT) and will close 12 hours later.
President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took charge in 2016 after the death of hardline predecessor and former patron Islam Karimov, who had ruled for almost three decades.
Mirziyoyev has been lauded for doing away with many of Karimov's authoritarian excesses, releasing some political prisoners, battling forced labor and opening up the landlocked state to tourism and foreign investment.
But choices on the ballot in the former Soviet republic are few -- all five parties competing are represented in the outgoing parliament.
Muslim-majority but staunchly secular Uzbekistan is home to 33 million people, over 20 million of whom can vote.
Britain's influential magazine The Economist this week named Uzbekistan as its country of the year, saying "no other country traveled so far" in 2019.
Yet the reform drive has so far not allowed real competition to Mirziyoyev, 62, to develop.
The 150-member lower house where no party has ever achieved a commanding majority has a long-earned rubber stamp reputation.
Currently, the Liberal Democratic Party is the largest in the legislature with 52 seats, followed by Milli Tiklanish, known in English as the National Revival Democratic Party, with 36.
The People's Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party also known as Adolat and the Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan are also represented there.
In the capital Tashkent, residents said they wanted to see more from their elected officials and voiced concerns they would not have dared express under Karimov.
Abdusamat Yuldashev, 20, said he had cast a vote "for justice and fairness in our Uzbek society."
"I want our living standards to increase, our education to improve," said Yuldashev, who told AFP that he had voted for Adolat.
Mamura Mirzakhmedova, a 69-year-old pensioner said she would not vote and registered anger over "prices rising everywhere" as inflation follows economic reforms.
"Where were the meetings of these parties (with voters)? Where are their posters? Where should I find information?" she asked.
The elections are being held under the slogan "New Uzbekistan, new elections" as authorities seek to brand them as the latest example of a newfound openness.
On Sunday the websites of several human rights organizations that had been inaccessible to internet users inside the country in the buildup to the vote were back online.
But the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has sent an observer mission to the polls, has said many features of past votes remain in place.
"Very few campaign posters are visible," the group's pre-election report said.
"So far, very little evidence of outdoor campaign activities has been observed."
Karimov was often criticized by international watchdogs over torture and forced labor allegations.
Mirziyoyev has continued to honor Karimov publicly but has been credited with eradicating much of the slavery in the country's cotton sector and lifting Uzbekistan out of isolation.
Luca Anceschi, a senior lecturer in Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow, said it was too early to say whether the vote holds any significance in the broader context of Uzbekistan's political transformation.
Popular participation in the poll "seems a crucial element of Mirziyoyev's strategy of support building," Anceschi told AFP.
As to whether parliament can evolve as an institution, he said, "the jury is out."
All five parties running in the parliamentary election in Uzbekistan on Sunday back reformist President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, meaning that although the vote will be the freest in decades, it is sure to produce a legislature loyal to him. The election is the first in the nation of 33 million since Mirziyoyev took power in late 2016 following the death of strongman Islam Karimov, who had run the former Soviet republic as a police state for 27 years. Mirziyoyev, a former prime minister, has pledged to open up the resource-rich nation after decades of near-isolation, liberalizing both the economic and political systems. The vote is being held under a modernized legal framework and follows campaigning that for the first time in Uzbekistan's history included televised debates between the competing parties. However, a monitoring mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a report this month there was still work to be done. Legal amendments addressing the OECD's longstanding recommendations regarding fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and expression "have been few," it said.
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