Participatory budgeting paves the way for democratic reform in Uzbekistan — Bourse & Bazaar Foundation

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Since taking office in 2016, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has paved the way for many political reforms in Uzbekistan. Four of these reforms stand out as truly substantial.

The first two reforms are economic. The transition to a predominantly market-based exchange rate regime and the implementation of tax reforms have significantly boosted economic growth and helped to open the Uzbek economy to foreign investment.

The third reform put an end to the odious practice of forced labor and child labor. Perhaps more than any other, this reform has won Uzbekistan international praise. The Economist called Uzbekistan »country of the yearin 2019, describing it as a country “that abolished slavery”. Although labor rights and state intervention problems persist in cotton production polesthe reform effort was further successful in stigmatizing forced labor among senior officials, improving many working conditions, and opening up the Uzbek cotton and textile industry to International exchange.

The fourth reform has received less international attention but is no less significant. The Citizens’ initiative budget is participatory budgeting platform which lets the public decide where it thinks it is best to spend public money. The political goals to a better redistribution through decentralization budget planning.

The first results are exciting: 7.8 million votes were cast in favor of 61,500 spending projects in 2022. The votes determined the allocation of USD 100 million in 98% of all micro-districts (mahallah) in Uzbekistan. Compare that to 2021, when 6.72 million votes were garnered from 69,700 projects. This year, voter turnout has increased, while collective action has improved with fewer and likely more realistic nominated projects. An estimated 33% of Uzbek adults participated in the voting process in 2022. A prominent blogger suggested that the participatory budgeting process was the most competitive election in the country. While ironic, this reaction to participatory budgeting underscores its importance—people are mobilizing and vote for the option that best suits their needs.

Without real electoral responsibility in the country, the central government of Uzbekistan often receives distorted signals from its people. This is why reforms that rely on the tools of participatory democracy are so crucial. Perhaps the most significant recent example of distorted signals Then, in July this year, Karakalpakstan’s legislature and government unanimously backed constitutional amendments to dissolve its semi-autonomous status. Mass civil unrest broke out, resulting in death, injury and property damage. President Mirziyoyev later chastised Karakalpak lawmakers for failing to communicate the concerns and wishes of the people to the central government.

Alongside Crowdfunding, another valuable source of signals is Uzbekistan’s media environment, which has become freer since 2016 as outspoken bloggers and savvy journalists write for a range of independent digital outlets. Although the state-owned national television, radio and print media have little impact on policy-making and there remains censorshipthe presidential administration now regularly cites Telegram messages and local reports when demoting bureaucrats and heads of municipalities – a sign that the media supports accountability. Investigative report also sometimes forces municipal or regional authorities to drop or adjust unpopular decisions before public anger escalates.

As promising as these anecdotal occurrences of accountability are, they do not and cannot accurately represent or fairly empower all Uzbek people. On the one hand, there is a clear digital divide in the number of people who own smartphones and can afford or access the Internet. Wealthier urban areas with better education, more infrastructure, higher incomes and a more active civil society benefit from a greater ability to mobilize and take advantage of initiatives such as participatory budgeting. These divisions can be self-reinforcing. Therefore, as a rule, central governments try to keep urban residents more satisfied.

Another reality is that these feedback channels mainly enable short-term political interventions, and do not necessarily help to gauging long-term sustainable development priorities and the needs of the population. While participatory approaches and media attention can help citizens to react when, for example, a green space is in danger, other big decisions about where to build roads and schools or when to hire doctors and buy vaccines have much higher collective action costs. Without regular bottom-up elections, in which politicians are asked to set their political agendas and are held accountable for those agendas, it is difficult to collect information signals on what the population wants even if everyone agrees on the essentials.

The Citizens’ Initiative Budget can be an essential step forward in the political development of Uzbekistan if it paves the way for broader democratic reforms. Such reforms may be necessary if Uzbekistan is to capitalize on five years of strong economic growth – social scientists agree that the quality of political institutions determines the economic results.

Encouragingly, Uzbekistan is about to significantly expand its participatory budgeting platform. In 2022, the government increase funding at nearly USD 250 million and has pledged at least USD 700 million to be disbursed in 2023. Additionally, the government has proposed that all infrastructure projects in micro-districts be funded through participatory budgeting. A draft white paper recently released by the presidential administration suggests granting 28 quarters expanded local governance authority, giving local legislators full-time paid employment and give local residents the ability to recall poorly performing lawmakers and officials.

Ultimately, the essential condition for good governance at all levels is to enable free and fair elections. Free and fair elections will optimize the distribution of economic resources, promote growth, reduce corruption, and advance inclusion and happiness. As the success of the citizens’ initiative budget demonstrates, the Uzbek people are ready to take control of their common political future.

Photo: AXP Photography

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