Voting was underway in Central Asian Uzbekistan's presidential election Sunday, with incumbent Shavkat Mirziyoyev facing no real opposition but plenty of challenges as he bids to reform the ex-Soviet country and still maintain its authoritarian foundations.
Mirziyoyev has been credited for launching what he calls a "New Uzbekistan", ending a decades-old system of forced labour and introducing limited media freedom.
He came to power in 2016 after the death of his mentor, dictator Islam Karimov, who ruled Uzbekistan for 27 years.
The new leader presided over an unprecedented boom in foreign tourism in the country that borders Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and counts China and Russia among its partners.
But as his first term ends, the 64-year-old is struggling to counter impressions that his government is sliding back towards the habits of his long-reigning predecessor.
The effects of the pandemic have also blunted his initial economic achievements, with unemployment rife amid sharp rises in living costs.
"We expect changes. For instance, salary increases -- our salaries are small and we don't always get them," said 20-year-old student Urazali Ergashev. He added that his mother, a teacher, often faced salary delays.
Voting across the landlocked country of 34 million people began at 8:00 am local time (0300 GMT) and will last until 8:00 pm (1500 GMT).
Prolonged isolation under Karimov meant that commodity-rich Uzbekistan fell well short of its economic potential for most of independence.
It is against the founding president's brutal rule that the successes of Mirziyoyev's reforms have been judged. His public disavowal of torture and campaign to clean up mass forced labour in cotton fields -- where thousands of schoolchildren once toiled alongside their teachers -- gained international praise.
But the last two years have seen a crackdown on dissent, rights groups said, particularly in internet freedoms that bloomed after 2016. Mirziyoyev has also sidestepped reforms that would allow competition to his rule.
He faces four regime-loyal opponents plucked from parties in the rubber stamp parliament in his bid to secure a second five-year term. A would-be independent challenger, academic Khidirnazar Allakulov, fell at the first hurdle after failing to register a party that could nominate him.
Human Rights Watch said this month that officials "harassed (Allakulov's) party supporters and interfered in their efforts to collect signatures for registration".
Still, most Uzbeks interviewed by AFP in Tashkent said they were unconcerned by the lack of real choice on the ballot.
"When things are going well, why do we need so many choices?" asked pensioner Yakub Otazhanov. "Let Mirziyoyev (get on with it)."
Under his rule, Uzbekistan has strengthened traditional relations with Beijing and Moscow, while welcoming back international organisations and media outlets effectively banned under Karimov.
But for many in the capital Tashkent, poverty rather than rights is the issue of the day.
"There are a lot of poor and homeless people. We need to find housing for people," said a 26-year-old money-changer at the city's Chorsu market.
The man, who gave his first name, Sardor, said he would vote for Mirziyoyev.
"I hope he will help solve these problems." His colleague, who did not want to be named, implied that the president's reforms were cosmetic. "New buildings do not mean new Uzbekistan," he said.