Tashkent: Uzbekistan will vote on Sunday in a parliamentary election certain to cement President Islam Karimov`s grip on power in a Central Asian nation key to Western efforts to contain the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.
The West, once critical of Uzbekistan`s rights abuses and hard line on dissent, has kept quiet ahead of the Sunday vote as it seeks to engage the ex-Soviet republic in US-led efforts in Afghanistan.
The resource-rich country has been classified as one of the world`s most repressive by global rights groups since it gained independence from Soviet rule in 1991.
There are no opposition parties in Uzbekistan and it has never held an election judged free and fair by Western monitors. Most liberal politicians and activists are either in jail or in exile abroad.
"Pessimism is felt everywhere," said Surat Ikramov, one of a handful of independent rights activists working in Uzbekistan.
"I don`t expect anything good from this election. Everyone is keeping silent, as always," added Ikramov who meticulously documents cases of rights violations across the country.
The West however is worried about stability in Uzbekistan, which lies on a new supply route for cargo bound for US troops fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The 71-year-old Karimov, who has ruled the poor nation and its command-style economy for 20 years, has no clear successor.
Sunday`s vote is certain to hand his allies all seats in the lower house of parliament in a country where expressing critical views about the Uzbek leader can land people in jail.
There has been no visible campaigning ahead of the vote and media reports have been patchy from the isolated nation which has revoked most Western media accreditations in recent years.
Residents of the capital, Tashkent, have been reluctant to speak to reporters based outside the country by telephone, fearful of state reprisals for expressing views in public.
In Tashkent, an ancient Silk Road city rebuilt in Soviet times after a ruinous earthquake, life appeared to proceed as usual as people rushed about on last-minute New Year`s errands, apparently ignoring large election banners hanging over streets.
"It`s a festive season and people are more concerned with New Year celebrations than elections," said Ikramov.
The West cut off ties with Uzbekistan after state troops opened fire on protesters in the eastern city of Andizhan in 2005, killing hundreds of people, according to witnesses.
This year Washington stepped up contacts after Uzbekistan agreed to allow non-military supplies to pass en route to Afghanistan. The European Union lifted sanctions in October.
In Sunday`s vote, candidates from four parties are running for 150 seats in the lower house. The Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan, focused solely on environmental issues, automatically gets 15 seats in the chamber.
All have stated strong support for Karimov`s government.
None of the parties have been available for comment despite numerous attempts to reach their headquarters in Tashkent.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman said he could not comment on the vote which official websites have described as democratic.
"Conditions have been created ahead of this election to make sure they are held in the spirit of freedom, that voters are given transparent choices and information about the candidates` election programs," said an official news agency.
The election monitoring arm of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe decided against sending an observation mission to Uzbekistan, saying that none of its recommendations offered in the past had been implemented.
It said in a pre-election report that "the current political spectrum does not offer the electorate a genuine choice between competing political alternatives."