TASHKENT, Uzbekistan — Uzbeks voted in a parliamentary election Sunday in which opposition groups were barred from running, sparking criticism from Europe's top election watchdog and a fierce defense from the country's authoritarian president, who insisted that Uzbekistan has no "real" opposition.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which sent 21 observers, said Uzbekistan provided insufficient conditions for a democratic vote. OSCE said its presence should not be construed as a sign that the vote was legitimate.
"The OSCE cannot have the exclusive right to assess elections," Uzbek President Islam Karimov said Sunday after casting his ballot at a polling station in the capital, Tashkent. "It represents Europe, while we're in Central Asia."
Uzbekistan is a member of the OSCE.
The former Soviet republic has allowed U.S. troops to be stationed near its border with Afghanistan since 2001. But Washington has cut aid to the country, citing its lack of progress on democratic reforms.
"OSCE observers don't like the calm situation in which the elections are held and they are surprised why there's no fierce competition," Karimov said, defending the inactive campaigns of the candidates, all of whom represent the five parties loyal to Karimov.
None of Uzbekistan's four small opposition groups are formally recognized. They said authorities rejected their registration requests.
Some opposition parties urged voters to boycott the elections.
After polls closed at 8 p.m., election officials announced an 85.1% turnout, far more than the 33% required to make the voting valid.
Central Election Commission spokesman Zherzod Kudratkhodjayev said no irregularities were reported during the vote. "The election went off in line with the law," he said.
Karimov said Sunday that the country had no "real" opposition and the existing opposition groups had no popular support.
The leader of the opposition Erk Party, Atonazar Arifov, said Sunday's balloting showed that "the government doesn't want either democratic rule or free elections with real competition."
The vote caps a year of growing public discontent over the lack of freedoms and a series of deadly attacks blamed on radical Islamic groups.
The few voters who trickled into polling stations in Tashkent expressed cynicism.
"Probably my vote will not decide anything," Andrei Burdin said.
Gennadiy Stepanov said he did not choose any candidate on the ballot because "my vote won't change anything."
Many appeared to have ignored the vote altogether.
"Nobody needs this election because life is only getting worse," said Khikmatulla Soatov, 45, who was selling flowers at Tashkent's bustling Chorsu bazaar.
"Even if I vote, my life won't change," said vendor Abdillah, 37, who offered only his first name. "I used to own three shops and now am standing here selling sweets."
Karimov, a former Communist boss, has ruled with an iron fist since 1989 and drawn international criticism for his poor human rights record.