The Dec. 22 parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan highlighted the complex mix of change and inertia that characterizes this Central Asian country today.

In Almalyk, an industrial town in the Tashkent region, leading journalist Dilfuza Ruziyeva said corruption is still deeply rooted, even so close to the country’s capital.

“There is very little accountability and transparency despite reform efforts and bold statements from Tashkent,” said Ruziyeva, the chief editor of the local newspaper.

Yet modest changes abound. Uzbekistan’s politicians, however befuddled they sometimes seem by the new need to respond to voters, were compelled to acknowledge and then commit to address citizens’ growing demands.

Indeed, Uzbekistan’s political class, which has long had a sense of insulation and impunity, now seems to recognize, sometimes quite explicitly, that it owes the public real answers to real problems.

Take Senator Rahmatulla Nazarov, who is shifting jobs to manage a think tank. In an impromptu interview with VOA at his suburban Tashkent polling station, he acknowledged that “distrust in the system is the biggest problem.”

Such an acknowledgement — an admission that the system has simply not been responsive to citizen concerns — has become common here, and it is changing the political discourse.

Alisher Qodirov, who leads Milliy Tiklanish (National Revival Party), told VOA that “for the longest time, we punished those who wanted change and pushed for progress. We tortured them, we killed them … we kicked them out. We must learn to honor the human being, ideas and human rights. Only then can Uzbekistan move forward as a society and state.”

His party claims to be the most critical of the government among the five parties that were permitted to contest the election. In fact, none of the state-sanctioned parties really opposes the policies of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev; what has changed is that the lack of real opposition can now be openly discussed.

At a pre-election debate Dec. 19, VOA asked party leaders whether they should place a higher value on security or freedom. All five leaders replied that both were important and made sure to claim to be against torture and the abuse of human rights.

Yet they offered few, if any, specific policy proposals for achieving a more balanced system. Indeed, all five struggled to explain more specific policy positions, much less differences, perhaps because so little sets them apart, and because the president, not the parties or the legislature, sets the agenda for the country. Reforms happen when Mirziyoyev wants them.

Adolat (Justice Party) leader and former presidential candidate Narimon Umarov bluntly says the political elite “did what we had to do” during the rule of the late dictator Islam Karimov, and urges citizens to “focus on the present and future now.” He says Uzbek politicians should feel “challenged in every way” by public expectations, while adding that he is personally “hopeful and energized.”

Aktam Haitov, leader of Mirziyoyev’s own Liberal Democratic Party (O’zLiDep), argues that the party deserves credit for the progress so far. O’zLiDep says it is pushing for deeper reforms in agriculture and to empower the private sector, precisely reflecting Mirziyoyev’s stated policy goals.

Ulugbek Inoyatov is a teacher who became education minister and has been widely criticized for not being effective in that role. Now, he leads Uzbekistan’s People’s Democratic Party and acknowledges that “the election campaign was a learning process for me.”

Inoyatov’s party did not have prescriptions for every problem, and its program still lacks substance. But he stresses the benefits of the improved process: “This campaign and our engagement with the people around the country is helping us to strengthen our focus,” he said.

It is easy to dismiss the electoral process, as many international observers have. Uzbekistan is neither a constitutional democracy nor on the way to becoming one. But by creating an opening for social mobilization, for citizens to question authorities, and by forcing the politicians to respond to public expectations and demands, the process marked a step toward more diverse politics.

More questions on more issues were openly aired than at any time in recent memory, including by the media. At live debates, the press corps was aggressive. And not surprisingly, the party representatives on stage seemed nervous, confused and at times forgot why they were even there.

It was long forbidden to discuss the government’s refusal to allow visits to Uzbekistan by thousands of overseas Uzbek natives, citizens and non-citizens alike. Some fear they are on blacklists, while others are simply denied entry. But during the election debate, the leaders of all five parties felt compelled to say that the country is — or should be — open to these compatriots.  

The next challenge will be to see whether the newly elected parliament can exercise more meaningful oversight of the administration.

Akmal Burhanov, a reelected MP, is calling for an end to the practice whereby legislators also operate businesses or even serve simultaneously as regional governors. Those who are elected today should work as lawmakers only if they are to provide an effective check on the government, he said.

That is why the biggest tests are yet to come. The parliament is more representative than ever before for instance, nearly one-third of its members are women, the most in its history. But as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted the day after the contest, “The elections showed that the ongoing reforms need to continue and be accompanied by more opportunities for grassroot civic initiatives.”