TASHKENT (Reuters) - Uzbekistan votes in a presidential election on Sunday in which incumbent President Shavkat Mirziyoyev faces no genuine opposition and is almost certain to win a second term.
Mirziyoyev's predicted victory will allow him to deepen his largely successful reform campaign and likely lead to Uzbekistan opening up further to foreign trade and investment - while retaining a highly centralised political system.
The 64-year-old leader has rebuilt the resource-rich country's ties with both Russia and the West which had become strained under his predecessor Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan's first post-independence president.
Mirziyoyev has also reined in the powerful security services and oversaw a release of a number of political prisoners who had ended up behind bars due to Karimov's zero-tolerance approach towards dissent.
Still, there are no real opposition parties in the mostly Muslim nation of 34 million and the four candidates running against Mirziyoyev have been nominated by parties which support the president.
Mirziyoyev's has pledged to cut poverty through rapid economic growth and gradually decentralise decision-making by devolving some powers to district councils.
Due to COVID-19 concerns, voters are required to wear masks and observe social distancing at polling stations staffed with medical workers. Polls are set to close at 8pm local time (1500 GMT) and preliminary results are due on Monday.
(Reporting by Mukhammadsharif Mamatkulov; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Ros Russell)