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Uzbekistan predicted to re-elect 26-year incumbent as president

Western human rights groups have criticized Islam Karimov, who has led the Central Asian country since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989.

By Fred Lambert

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan, March 29 (UPI) -- Islam Karimov, who has for 26 years ruled Uzbekistan, is expected to win presidential elections in the Central Asian nation on Sunday.

Serving as Uzbekistan's president since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, Karimov has been criticized by Western human rights groups and others as a repressive authoritarian, as opposition activists have been jailed or forced to move abroad.

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Independent challengers were barred from running in Sunday's election, which the country's election commission said had a 91 percent voter turnout. Full results are expected Monday.

After reportedly taking advantage of a loophole allowing him to run for another five-year term, Karimov ran against three other candidates from parties supporting his presidency. Critics have leveled that they represent little challenge.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) say the last presidential election did not give Uzbek voters "a real choice," according to the BBC.

Fears of 77-year-old Karimov's possibly failing health were stoked earlier this year when he took a hiatus from public appearances.

His daughter, Gulnara Karimova, was previously seen as a possible successor but has been placed on house arrest after a rumored falling out with her father. Some fear the lack of a clear successor could open a power vacuum in the instance of Karimov's death.

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