Sunday's parliamentary election in Uzbekistan is unlikely to lead to change in Central Asia's mostly populous state, opposition members and local watchdog groups warned on Friday.
Members of outlawed opposition parties picketed the mayor's office in central Tashkent, calling on people to boycott the poll, which they described as fraudulent.
Five political parties viewed internationally for being pro-government are running in the elections, while the two main opposition groups Erk (Freedom) and Birlik (Unity), whose leaders are in exile, have been barred from running.
Human rights bodies say there are at least 6,000 religious and political prisoners in Uzbekistan. The United Nations has said in a report that the use of torture is "systematic" since the country gained its independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
While Friday's protest, no doubt emboldened by events in Ukraine,indicates there is some opposition to the election, ordinary people remain indifferent to the outcome, local observers said.
Yevgeniya Vnuchkova, 42, a former aviation engineer, is one of the hundreds of jobless women who sell cheap food or clothing around markets and at the intersections during the rush hours, constantly avoiding police and tax officials. She said she wouldn't vote on Sunday as she didn't believe that the new parliament would be able to change anything in the country.
"I don't believe in the government and in these pro-government parties. I even don't know their names," she told IRIN, asking how change would come without freedom of speech.
Yevgeniya claims that she and her 16-year-old daughter were beaten up by three policemen last month and their goods confiscated unlawfully. "I made a written complaint to the prosecutor's office, but I didn't get any answer. Instead, I and my daughter were charged with resisting police arrest and illegal trading."
The government's unpopular new trade restrictions sparked several violent protests last month in the densely populated Ferghana valley part of Uzbekistan and northern regions of the country. With winter here, gas and electricity shortages caused another wave of protests elsewhere in the country with people warning local authorities to boycott elections.
"Every day I watch Uzbek TV and see pre-election propaganda. But I doubt it will bring any change into our life from the people who are standing for the new parliament," a 46-year-old teacher, who didn't want to named, told IRIN as he tried to sell apples in freezing rain at the entrance to an underground station in the capital.
"I teach at school until noon, and then go to the wholesale market to buy fruit in order to sell here and make some money for my children, but we are always frightened away by police," he complained. Last week dozens of angry women at a market in the capital attacked policemen who tried to confiscate their goods, witnesses said.
Some of the registered parties such as the former communist People's Democratic Party and "Adolat" (Justice) Social Democratic Party promised to address those issues making law enforcement bodies and the judiciary accountable to the people. They vowed to solve unemployment, improve living standards and fight corruption.
But critics like Atanazar Aripov from the outlawed Erk party dismissed such promises as empty electioneering. "Though these parties claim to have different agendas, none of them will be able to challenge the government's policy that contradicts the interests of ordinary people," he told IRIN.
Echoing opposition concerns, last week the US expressed regret that "no truly independent opposition candidates will be taking part in these elections," and hoped the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) election observation mission would be able to act without interference.
Ahead of polling, authorities took extra security measures to avoid trouble sending migrant workers back to their regions and clamping down on unregistered trading.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions