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A majolica façade: Central Asia’s fabricated political parties

In the last weeks, the Uzbek people have gone to the polls to elect their representatives for the Oliy Majlis, the lower house of parliament. The nation was able to choose between five different parties with names that would not sound alien to the foreign audience. Terms like “liberal”, “national”, “justice” or even “ecological” made up the names of the different parties in an effort to make them more credible and democratic in a country ruled by an authoritarian regime. The semantic façade in the naming of the parties is not only an Uzbek phenomenon but it is replicated throughout the region.

The five Central Asian republics all portray themselves as multi-party regimes. Currently, with the exception of Kyrgyzstan, the ruling and so-called opposition parties are created in most cases by the regime itself to present the pantomime of political plurality. Therefore they have to give them a background and a made up ideology to, in the surface, appeal to certain segments of society and give the impression abroad that there is plural choice.  

Ruling parties, democratic and for the people (not)

Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan all have ruling parties that portray themselves as modern and democratic, far away from the Communist parties that in many cases, despite changes in names and acronyms, mergers and dissolutions, they originally emanated from. As a result we have ended up with the “Nur Otan” Democratic People’s Party in Kazakhstan, mostly known simply as Nur Otan which can be brightly translated as ‘Radiant Fatherland’. Uzbekistan has the more sober Liberal Democratic Party, which became the presidential party after Islam Karimov chose it in 2006 in detriment of the People’s Democratic Party. Turkmenistan in the meantime still sticks to the succinct Democratic Party funded by Niyazov in 1991. Similarly, Tajikistan’s president Emomali Rahmon continues to head the People’s Democratic Party, which he has done since 1994.

It is no coincidence that the terms “Democratic” and “People’s” are used by the rulers of these countries to define their parties. On paper, they do look legitimate. However, rather than highlighting what they are, they are ironically calling out what they lack. None of the four parties mentioned above stand for “democratic” values nor do they defend the “people’s” interests.

The ruling parties do not have a need to have a defined ideology since they are simply a background for the presidents to rule their respective countries. They are “parties of power”, extensions of the executive branch exercised by the rulers. In the Turkmen and Tajik cases, they have been there since the inception of the regimes, while in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan presidential favour migrated as parties where created, refunded and merged to adjust to changing times.

Classic opposition

Whether genuine opposition parties existed or still linger on, the regimes have propped up pro-government opposition parties that only create a mirage of a true multi-party system. In most cases, the regimes have, directly or indirectly, created parties that can resemble those in real democracies. Alleged conservative, socialist, nationalist or even green parties play their role to act as the opposition. For this matter, we have the “liberal” parties like Ak Zhol in Kazakhstan, which follows the illuminated trend of Nur Otan and can be translated as ‘Bright Path’, “centre-left” or “socialist” parties like Tajikistan’s Socialist Party and Uzbekistan’s People’s Democratic Party and Justice Social Democratic Party, and “nationalist” or “conservative” as the Uzbek National Revival Party. There is even space for communists, like in Kazakhstan through its Communist People’s Party, and greens, with the nuclear-loving Ecological Movement in Uzbekistan.

All the parties above have one purpose and that is to support the government of their respective countries. Their labels and self-proclaimed beliefs are there for cosmetic purposes. In some cases, they were propped to compete with or substitute genuine opposition parties that defended a certain ideology. For instance, the docile Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan split in 2004 from the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, which was later banned. In this way, as far as appearances are concerned, the country still has a communist party but it is far from a real opposition force.

Extravagance as the norm

While Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and, to a lesser extent, Tajikistan, have made an effort to have reasonable so-called opposition parties, Turkmenistan has gone for rather unusual pro-government ones, as one would come to expect from Ashgabat. As a result, in 2012 the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs became the country’s second political party after the DP. A rather odd group, perhaps one of the few, or even only, party in the world that is meant to defend the rights of business owners and industrialists. Somewhat more common is the Agrarian Party (AP), established in 2014. Similarly, Tajikistan also has its own AP and some unique ones like its “liberal” Economic Reforms Party, both nominal opposition and irrelevant.

The establishment of parties, whether ruling or alleged opposition, by the regimes is a way to create a democratic appearance, which in many cases becomes a tool in PR promotion abroad to portray the country as a democracy, while domestically they suppress genuine opposition. However, their citizens are well aware of it, and so are impartial foreign observers. It becomes little more than a heavily restored majolica façade of empty acronyms and ideologies, pleasant to the eye at first but that farcically covers what in reality is a decaying and crumbling building.

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