Tashkent: Uzbekistan on Sunday declared its presidential ballot valid after more than the required third of voters turned out in an election that 77-year-old strongman incumbent President Islam Karimov is almost certain to win.
The central electoral commission of the ex-Soviet Central Asian country said 36.55 percent of the 20 million registered voters had cast their votes in the first four hours, passing the threshold of a third stipulated by Uzbek law for an election to be valid.
Voting at more than 9,000 polling stations across the country began at 6.00 am local time (0100 GMT) and was set to continue until 8.00 pm (1500 GMT).
Karimov, who has ruled the country since before the collapse of the Soviet Union, is standing against three candidates put forward by parties in the Uzbek parliament that openly support his presidency.
One of the candidates, Akmal Saidov, representing the Democratic National Renaissance Party, faced off with Karimov in the last presidential poll in 2007, but won less than three percent of the vote while Karimov took close to 90 percent.
Hotamjon Ketmonov, the chairman of the People`s Democratic Party, and Nariman Umarov, who leads the Social Democratic Party of Uzbekistan Adolat (Justice), are the other two candidates on the ballot.
While exit polls are prohibited under Uzbek law, many voters in the capital Tashkent told AFP they had voted for the incumbent.
Burkhon, a 63-year municipal transport mechanic who declined to give his surname, cited periodic unrest in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well as the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, as reasons for casting his vote for Karimov.
"We haven`t had such bad things, thanks to Karimov, and we don`t want them happening in the future," Burkhon told AFP.
Gulhayo Khujanova, an 18-year-old student casting her vote for the first time, told AFP: "I voted for our president, Islam Karimov. I am really satisfied with what he is doing for young people."
More than 300 international observers from 43 different countries are participating in the vote. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe(OSCE)is expected to provide its assessment of the ballot on Monday.
In the OSCE`s interim report published March 20 the organisation noted Karimov was standing for a third time despite a two-term restriction on presidents written into the country`s constitution.The candidates began a low-key campaign on February 17 in which Karimov stressed the importance of stability for the country that shares a 137-kilometre (85-mile) border with war-torn Afghanistan to the south.
Karimov has had to contend with rumours of illness and physical frailty but appeared healthy last weekend when dancing at celebrations of the Nowruz state holiday marking the beginning of spring on March 21.
"What do Uzbek people need? We need peace and wellbeing," Karimov told the crowd at the Nowruz celebration.
During another appearance before a small group of voters in Tashkent on Wednesday Karimov said "there will be chaos in society" without a "strong government", while adding that "the time will come" for greater freedoms in Uzbekistan, in comments aired by Uzbek state media.
Karimov`s campaign has been endorsed by the other three candidates, none of whom has openly called on voters to opt for them instead of the incumbent president.
Karimov has continually stressed the danger posed by Islamic radicals based in Afghanistan, some of whom are ethnic Uzbeks.
"If we retain stability in Uzbekistan, we secure order in the entire Central Asian region," Rafik Sayfullin, a political analyst based in Tashkent, told AFP. "Let these elections pass normally so that we can keep the same team."
Strategically located Uzbekistan is a close partner to both Russia and China and has also provided support to the US-led military operation in Afghanistan.
The presidential vote will complete a political cycle for the country of more than 30 million people, after parliamentary elections took place in December.
A polling station also opened in Moscow. More than two million Uzbek migrant labourers live in Russia, according to its Federal Migration Service.