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TASHKENT: Uzbekistan held a presidential election on Sunday that looked set to hand incumbent Shavkat Mirziyoyev a third term as head of the gas-rich Central Asian state.

The 65-year-old Mirziyoyev had promised to open up his country, a tightly controlled former Soviet republic, to foreign investment and tourism.

He served as prime minister under his hardline predecessor Islam Karimov before winning his first term in 2016 and getting re-elected in 2021.

A constitutional referendum this year paved the way for him to serve two more presidential terms and increased the mandate from five years to seven, meaning he could stay in power until 2037.

“I hope the next president will be Shavkat (Mirziyoyev). I am expecting him to increase the fight against corruption and to notice the ecological problems we have,” said Nodira Khidoyatova, a 57-year-old company director, after casting her ballot.

All the Uzbeks AFP spoke to ahead of the election said they would vote for Mirziyoyev, who is running against three largely unknown candidates.

“These are my first elections. I will be voting for Shavkat Mirziyoyev because I want there to be more opportunities for young people and places to study,” said 18-year-old Milana Yuldasheva, a resident of Krasnogorsk, a former mining town about 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Tashkent.

Abduali Nurmatov, 64, said he hoped the president would solve “problems with gas and electricity” as the town suffered repeated cuts during the last winter.

Around 20 million Uzbeks are eligible to vote in Central Asia’s most populous country, a landlocked nation which also borders Afghanistan.

Mirziyoyev portrays himself as a reformer creating a “New Uzbekistan”.

He has ended forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields and released political prisoners jailed during Karimov’s long rule.

NGOs say human rights are better than under Karimov but there is still much to improve, and the authorities have shown no sign of allowing a real opposition to emerge.

“The victory of the incumbent president is obvious,” Uzbek political expert Farkhod Talipov told AFP ahead of the vote.

“All the other candidates are completely unknown and unpopular. Their candidacies are just an artificial way of showing a political struggle that does not exist.”

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said the campaign has been “low-key, mirroring lack of opposition to the incumbent”.

In July 2022, protests erupted over a plan to remove the right to self-determination from the region of Karakalpakstan.

The unrest and subsequent crackdown in the poor northwestern territory left at least 21 people dead.

Mirziyoyev’s re-election campaign has focused on the economy and education.

He has said he aims to double gross domestic product to $160 billion in the near future.

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