In old and modern democracies alike, questions of societal value often end with a call to vote. Citizens exercise their voting right to pick appealing candidates who bring a change their voters were seeking. On December 22, Uzbekistan will hold elections for its legislative body, Oliy Majlis and regional as well as local councils-kengashes (Uzb.). Both at home and abroad, many wonder if the upcoming elections are going to alter the political dynamics in the country. After all, it is going to be a new parliament for President Shavkat Mirziyoev, who inherited late Karimov’s Oliy Majlis. For people, the question is not which political party wins the majority, but, fundamentally, what the parliament means for them and their everyday life. The burden of every parliamentary seat comes with a duty for those 150 to-be-elected members to find answers to this basic question. Good news is that they won’t need to look for the answers much further than the very people they represent and the Constitution of Uzbekistan.
Separation of power
When French political philosopher Baron de Montesquieu wrote in his The Spirit of the Laws about the distribution of power in 1748, he explicitly linked the “tripartite system” to liberty. The tripartite system: legislative, executive and judiciary – is indispensable for a well-functioning state that prioritizes liberty of its citizens. When laws are written by those other than the legislative body, liberty is often lost. In basic terms, the separation of power designates that the legislative body makes policies and writes laws, the executive body executes them, and the judiciary interprets them. This notion is not limited to Montesquieu, rather it is one of the underpinning ideas of modern democracy, and the Constitution of Uzbekistan is no exception. The Constitution establishes the Oliy Majlis as the legislative, the Cabinet of Ministers as the executive, the court system as the judiciary and the President as one coordinating among government branches, according to Article 89.
For the past two and a half decades, Oliy Majlis de-facto have served under the umbrella of the executive branch, and the people have rarely perceived them as their direct representatives. The role of the parliament’s members was often skewed away from writing laws to voting in favour of those handed by the executive body and government agencies. The parliamentary oversight of the executive branch has long disappeared from their agenda, only to reappear once in a while and in a largely demonstrative format after occasional public criticism of parliament’s ineptness by the President. While the existing structure of political power often undermined the principles of power separation, the institutional and operational capacity of the parliament also lacked a broader structure for political will and resources to operate independently from the executive branch.
At its core, the separation of power serves to minimize the institutional and special groups interests and maximize the public interests. If the executive body that consists of mostly political appointees rather than elected representatives exerts greater power over law-making, then the public interests often go unanswered or even rejected. One example is car window tinting, which was previously banned by the Ministry of Interior Affairs. In Uzbekistan where the heat reaches high levels in summer, it seems both logical and necessary for the people to be able to cover the personal vehicle windows against detrimental sunlight. When an online petition was signed by over 10.000 people (such online system was introduced by the government in 2018), the legislative body was forced to go through it and ended up allowing for car window tinting with an annual payment of around 2.000 USD, which in a country with median monthly wage of just over 200 USD, only the wealthy segments of the population can afford. Many parliamentarians later told the press that even that decision came with significant influence and lobbying by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Despite the new permitting system, the public discussions on the topic persisted, which in 2019 led to the President’s son-in-law, heading the Uzbek Triathlon federation, and other popular public figures expressing their position supporting the calls for lightening of the rules in this matter. The parliament eventually adopted a new law in the summer of 2019 to significantly reduce the fees in question. It is probably safe to assume that had there not been a tenacious public opposition to this restriction, especially through social media, public interests could remain overridden by the acceptance of a status quo, originating with administrative influence on the parliament from the Karimov’s era.
With the intensity of the reform process in recent years, any executive body within the government that comes up with an initiative for a new legislation, can issue a draft legislation (in the form of an executive decree) for public discussion through a special online platform. These drafts, once the comments from other executive ministries and the public online platform have been collected, will then go through Oliy Majlis’s law-making process, which practically makes few changes. Although it must be noted in all fairness that the members of parliament have become much more publicly active in the last year or so and it’s hard to judge how much of that is in the light of the upcoming elections. The government agencies have sufficient operational capacity, required staff and experts at their disposal to work out complex and detailed draft legislation. However, since they are not directly accountable to the people and are not in regular communication with the general population like the members of parliament, this process sets incentives for these government agencies to put their institutional interests over the public needs. For this reason, Oliy Majlis who represent the people in the most direct sense of the term, should consider conducting the overall legislative process themselves.
The nexus between public and institutional interests is not the most worrisome legislative blight. A more devastating ‘disease’ is not even excessive legislative regulations that businesses tend to dislike. Rather, it is when Oliy Majlis fails both at its legislative regulatory and parliamentary oversight function. Regulations then tend to favor certain companies and interest groups, and the executive government becomes a business. In a system where the legislative body has less to do with the legislative regulation, the executive body is easier to access through lobbyism, corruption and personal political relationship. A relatively weak legislative brings about regulatory captures where a regulatory agency advances the interests of certain groups that dominate the industry it is supposed to regulate. Indeed, the discussions over protectionist or liberal economy in Uzbekistan is less ideological and revolves around the commercial concerns of the interest groups that influence the regulatory body. Therefore, the Oliy Majlis which directly represents the public interest should be bold in exercising its constitutional rights and responsibilities to issue legislative regulations and policies.
Another strange link between the Oliy Majlis and the executive can be found in how often deputies are appointed to different executive positions. While these appointments are not necessarily unlawful, they leave a negative precedence and incentive. People vote for nominees trusting that these elected deputes will work on their behalf and fight for their interests, not for these representatives to become appointees for executive offices, preserving their deputy seats. Nevertheless, deputes who have career ambitions in the executive administration, will find trouble-free incentives to be more lenient and submissive towards the interests of those who rule the government. This might insidiously subvert their parliamentary oversight function, bringing us to the current situation where people in our country often perceive the legislative as a part of the executive. Every seat at Oliy Majlis is precious as it comes with the direct votes of the people, and, therefore, it should be respected as it stands.
Parliamentary traditions in our country seem to eschew the discussions on the ideological spectrum of political parties. Only a few know that our political parties theoretically span through ideological and philosophical spectrum: the People’s Democratic Party is of the left, Social-Democratic Party Adolat is of the center-left, Liberal-Democratic Party is of the center-right and Milliy Tiklanish is the right-wing party. Even fewer know that there is an opposition party at Oliy Majlis, in the face of the People’s Democratic Party being an opposition to UzLidep and Milliy Tiklanish. Whether these parties practically differ in the left-right party spectrum is an obvious matter: they don’t. It is a big problem for the electorate: voters simply do not know which party to support, and populist candidates without deep party-related and ideological values may get elected. Is it bad for the well-functioning of a state?
A study by Cruz and Keefer that looked at 109 countries found that non-programmatic parties are less likely interested in public sector reforms. In other words, parties that do not have identifiable policy platforms are more likely to rely on the appeals that are clientelist in nature, that’s, “if you elect us, we will build a bridge in your village” promises. Politicians in such reforms are not interested in well-functioning public institutions to realize these promises. They also find that such politicians are less likely to exercise their duty to oversight executive policy implementation. If our political parties were to have more specific, independent and separate programs, the elections would be more competitive and program-based, creating more incentives for the members of the parliament to adhere to their campaign agendas and political commitments.
Once again, there is an even more ruinous “disease”. Who gets elected becomes a truly secondary issue if you carefully think about who gets to run for a seat in the first place. There are 150 election districts, and five political parties can nominate one candidate each for Oliy Majlis from every district. Independent candidates are not allowed to place their nomination. The common argument is that it inhibits external (foreign) influence on the political process, which I think is a compelling one. However, the bad news is that there is so little, if any, the public can say over who gets nominated. Logically, if there is a number of party members wishing to be considered for candidacy for a district, the public selects their preferred nominees among them, which informs the parties about the electability of their nominees. In the absence of openness, transparency and directed interactions with the public, the public trust and civil political participation are diminished. This gives rise to speculations that local and central governments are influencing the list of nominees. While the Central Election Commission rejects these notions, citing such practices as illegal, open and transparent processes by the political parties would undoubtedly help gain public trust. Therefore, the most that the state can do for democracy is not independent candidates, but transparency and public voice over who gets nominated.
The election campaign has received a start and thanks to the recent developments in freedom of speech and media, we are seeing much progress in the campaigns. There is often true and genuine acknowledgment of the lingering problems by the candidates. However, we have yet to see campaign programs and agendas that are unique and closely reflective of the party philosophy. Identical programs and campaign attributes under a populistic approach have become a common party campaign. It seems very likely that social media will test the sincerity and relevance of these campaigns to the needs of the people and run the overall public opinion. While the elections are huge costs and investment for the public sector, we seem to be losing momentum for yet another key democratic process: election of local and regional governors.
Hokims of the regions and Tashkent city are political appointees, nominated by the President. They are accountable to the President and local kengashes, but not directly to local people. It is when hokims fail at this task, they let down their appointer, the President. Indeed, three hokims were ordered by the President to deliver a public apology after their brutal practices of destroying private properties. Moral authority to govern is not granted through legal terms or by appointment, but by the public trust and confidence in the governor. That our hokims might lose the moral authority to govern does not seem to concern them so much as the odds of losing their appointment in case of their wrongdoing. Were this argument wrong, we might never have seen these hokims being so ferocious to their local citizens. And, the president was right to suggest in 2016 that if hokims are directly elected by their local constituencies, they become more accountable to the people and society. This year’s elections could have been a cost-efficient chance to experiment with hokim elections in some regions, but let’s stay optimistic to assume (hope) that the government has better plans to initiate this practice.
One cannot afford to be blind to the reality that it is not just deputies not being able to deliver effective policies, but also Oliy Majlis lacking institutional and operational capacity. More resources should be made available for the parliament to make partnerships with NGOs, think tanks and private consultant to conduct policy-making and law-making in full length of the legislative body. The parliamentary oversight function should not be limited to the central government agencies, but more importantly, extended in regard to the local governments in the places where each depute has their constituency that they represent. The separation of power should not just be a de-jure notion, but de-facto practice. Fortunately, we wrote what all this many years ago in our Constitution. Unfortunately though, we occasionally seem to forget we did. On December 22, voters will head to the polling stations not just to fulfill their civic duty, but in slight hope that they will have representatives at Oliy Majlis who will fight for their interests. Dear to-be-elected deputes, do not fail us this time (again).
Author: Ikromjon Tukhtasunov
Disclaimer: the ideas and thoughts are solely of the author, and he does not affiliate himself with any political institution or party.