MOSCOW (AP) — Uzbekistan held a tightly controlled presidential election Sunday, the first vote since the death of authoritarian leader Islam Karimov who ruled the country for 27 years.
Karimov led Uzbekistan since before the 1991 Soviet collapse, first as its communist boss and then as its president. During his long tenure, he ruthlessly crushed all opposition and was denounced by international rights groups for abuses that included killings and torture.
The odds-on favorite in Sunday's election is acting President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who spent 13 years as Karimov's prime minister.
Uzbekistan's Election Commission said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the turnout in the presidential vote was nearly 70 percent by 3 p.m. (1000 GMT, 5 a.m. EST). The voting wrapped up five hours later but results are not expected until early Monday.
Uzbekistan, Central Asia's most populous nation, is rich in natural resources and borders Afghanistan, making it of strategic interest to Russia, the U.S. and China.
Karimov never cultivated a successor and his death in September raised concerns that the predominantly Sunni Muslim nation of 32 million might see fierce infighting over its leadership. Mirziyoyev, however, shifted into the acting president's job quickly and without any visible tensions, highlighting an apparent consensus between regional clans.
The 59-year old Mirziyoyev faced three nominal rivals Sunday. Two of them challenged Karimov in past elections, each receiving about 3 percent of the vote. But neither candidate campaigned as a vocal critic of Mirziyoyev, and the fourth contender has been just as pliant.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitored the election, has described the campaign as "strictly regulated."
"There is no perceptible exchange of views among the candidates with regard to their programs," the OSCE said. "All candidates refrain from criticizing the government or each other, and claim to target distinct segments of the electorate."
Sunday's election is a mere formality to make Mirziyoyev legitimate, Sanjar Umarov, the leader of an Uzbek reform movement in exile, told The Associated Press.
"The actual choice was made on Sept. 8, when Mirziyoyev was appointed acting president," Umarov said in a phone interview from Memphis, Tennessee.
Umarov spent four years in prison for embezzlement, a charge his supporters say was politically motivated, before being released in 2009.
Umarov says he is cautiously optimistic about Mirziyoyev because the former prime minister is intimately familiar with the weaknesses of Karimov's system of power.
"I think he understands that he needs to foster a civil society. I think he understands that he needs to restore democratic institutes," he said. "He knows the system of Karimov's regime well. I doubt he will want to replicate it."
Shortly after Karimov died, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Uzbekistan and met with Mirziyoyev, a trip that reflected Moscow's desire to strengthen its influence in the country.
The U.S. installed a base in Uzbekistan to support military action in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Washington was forced to abandon the facility in 2005 as relations between Uzbekistan and the U.S. soured following a government crackdown on rioters in the Ferghana Valley city of Andijan that is believed to have left hundreds dead.
Almost all Western media long have been barred from reporting inside Uzbekistan, and the country's independent journalists and activists have faced sustained harassment.