At the end of September, the Xalq Demokratik Partiyasi (XDP) initiated a recruitment campaign to attract new registered party members in preparation for the presidential elections in December. These efforts, however, have been largely unsuccessful, as registered party members remain a tiny minority of the voting population. The chance of the XDP to usurp electoral power in Uzbekistan, particularly in the upcoming elections, has always rested on the party’s ability to successfully mobilize remaining support networks from the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, meaning that the failure of these recent recruitment drives cast doubt on the ability of the current XDP to successfully challenge Mr. Mirziyoyev’s drive towards the presidency. The lackluster picture painted by the party’s recent performance, however, may be deceiving because of the significant exigent circumstances during the recent campaign, and overall lack of centralized coordination. The registration campaign was undertaken on local initiative and thus lacked the resources and connections which the central XDP leadership might be able to bring to bear in an election, moreover the campaign occurred contemporaneously with the national drive to collect the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed to officially register the party, limiting the scope of the project and the party resources that could be devoted to registering new members.
The two recruitment campaigns launched in the end of the September occurred in Toshkent City and Samarqand province, focusing specifically on registering students and members of worker’s unions, both traditional demographics of support for the former Communist Party, and where older XDP members likely have connections. Both drives are estimated to have lasted for approximately one week, and been organized around local party offices, drawing on the connections of current party members. The results of these drives have been profoundly disappointing, with the campaign in Samarqand registering around 200 new members and recording a total of 2,801 new members for the year as a whole, and the campaign in Toshkent City drawing only around 100 members from each the city’s eleven districts. On their own, these are impressive numbers, especially considering the strain on local party resources caused by the collection of tens of thousands of signatures in Toshkent and Samarqand, but they are almost meaningless in the face of the massive recruitment efforts needed to enroll a meaningful proportion of the population in the party ranks. The total number of party members in Samarqand province is 20,783, of which only around 15,000 are old enough to vote in the December election, meaning that less than 1% of the general population is currently registered with the XDP. Even making a generous calculation of voter demographics, registered XDP members make up maybe 3% of the total voter base, with even lower figures coming out of Toshkent City. As valiant as the recruitment effort thus far may have been, the XDP would need to register hundreds of thousands of voters in the next month to have any noticeable effect on the upcoming election. If last month’s limited recruitment drive accurately reflects the XDP’s ability to mobilize voters than it has no chance of filling in its ranks and will almost certainly lose to the election to O’zLiDeP or MTDP.
There are a number of potential reasons for the disappointing results of the XDP recruitment drive, some of which suggest that outside political circumstances prevented the party from living up to its true potential — which will presumably be realized following the plenum on 14 October — and other, which point to structural factors in Uzbekistani society which have eroded the power of the XDP to effectively mobilize electoral support. On the circumstantial side, the campaigns undertaken in Toshkent City and Samarqand were localized and thus lacked the full range of connections that the upper echelons of the XDP might enjoy. Assuming that the XDP does plan to utilize connections inculcated during its past as the Communist Party, these links are likely to lie with individuals more than institutions, and therefore be dependent on coordinated party actions; the initiative of local party offices just cannot produce the same results as these corporate connections between the XDP and other Communist successor organizations, like farmer’s associations or public unions.
Secondly, these local recruitment campaigns occurred at the same time as the national drive to collect signatures needed to registered the XDP for the upcoming elections. Uzbekistan imposes onerous requirements on political parties, demanding signatures representing 5% of the total voting population, usually around a million for each party, and further stipulating that they represent geographic spread by capping the most signatures that can come from a single province at 8% of the total amount. These regulations demand an incredible amount of organizational effort and place a strain of party organization, making the fact that other campaigns were carried out during this time quite remarkable in itself. Considering these circumstances, it may be reasoned that low numbers of new recruits represent constraints on resources and that any subsequent campaigns after the period of party registration would be markedly more successful because they would have the mass of the party structure behind them, rather than a ragtag group of whatever resources overburdened local offices could spare.
The third argument for contingent circumstances resulting in lower numbers of recruits is that the XDP had not officially picked its candidate until the national plenum on 14 October, inhibiting the ability of party members to use Mr. Ketmonov’s personal charisma as a tool for recruitment and party propaganda. Although the outside observer may note that Mr. Ketmonov’s position as the party’s nominee could have predicted from the first announcement of Mr. Karimov illness — he was, after all, the XDP’s candidate in the 2015 Presidential election, competing against Mr. Karimov — there are a number of popular figures in the XDP, and it is conceivable that local voters wanted assurance that Mr. Ketmonov would be the party’s candidate as opposed to Ulug’bek Vafoyev, Rustam Kamilov, or other rising stars in the XDP. This theory would suggest that now that Mr. Ketmonov has been confirmed as the party’s candidate, future recruitment drives can be expected to be much more coordinated and successful.
There are also structural factors to consider, which indicate that the XDP’s failure to gather large numbers of registered party members are both expected and natural considering the Uzbekistani electorate’s demographic change since independence. The makeup of the voter base in Uzbekistan has changed tremendously in the past 25 years since the dissolution of the Communist Party, and it is estimated that perhaps one fifth of the total voters in the December elections would have been born after the fall of Communism. These means that a significant portion of the demographic does not have any meaningful connections to the older networks of public bodies from which the XDP may draw institutional support. This would already be a handicap, but it is further exacerbated by the decline of labor and professional organization in Uzbekistan following 1991, meaning that many voters who might have had connections to labor unions or professional associations under the USSR, now operate in relative independence. These associated trends of new voters without Communist-era connections entering the electorate, and older voters losing their connections to those Soviet forms of societal organization in the face of state retreat, could signal the end of the XDP’s electoral power, forcing it to create new networks of support; a long and difficult process that will certainly not be complete by the December election. In light of these long-term trends, it would be expected than even under ideal circumstances the XDP would be unable to significantly improve its performance in recruitment.
Both structural and circumstantial arguments raise important points about the chances of the XDP in the next election, but in the light of the massive gap between current numbers of registered party members and those needed to make a legitimate grab at the presidency, the situation looks stark for Mr. Ketmonov. There is no doubt that the recruitment campaigns have been hindered by the ongoing process of signature collection, and other exigent factors preventing the XDP from reaching its full potential. That being said, the full potential of the XDP would have to be massively superior to the abilities it displayed in Toshkent City and Samarqand if it wanted to become a major contender in the December elections. Demographic factors, especially the ballooning of Uzbekistan’s youth population, are likely to take their toll on the XDP’s ability to mobilize voters, meaning that its advantage in party organization is significantly diminished compared to a decade ago. Encouragingly, other political parties in Uzbekistan are not better organized, and there is no indication that the any more voters have been official registered with O’zLiDeP, MTDP, or Adolat. The issue facing XDP is that, with the exception of Adolat, its political rivals can depend much more on popular support. The establishment of O’zLiDeP as the statusquo allows it to coast to victory on the experience of Mr. Mirziyoyev’s limited time in office, whereas the populist base of MTDP makes it more susceptible to sudden changes in electoral favor or surges of nationalism. Lacking the clear public face of O’zLiDeP or the young and responsive electorate of MTDP, the lack of recorded and organized support from voters will make it uniquely difficult for the XDP to remain a serious contender in the upcoming presidential election.