Uzbeks were casting ballots Sunday in a tightly controlled presidential vote that is widely expected to extend the rule of one of the most autocratic and anti-Western leaders in strategic Central Asia.
President Islam Karimov, a former Communist boss, is running for a new term in office against three little-known challengers who publicly say they support his policies and are seen by critics of the regime as puppets meant to create the illusion of a free contest.
Almost half the population of ex-Soviet Central Asia lives in Uzbekistan, and the country's political course and stability are crucial for the energy-rich region in which Russia, China and the United States are vying for influence.
The Associated Press and several other international news organizations were denied accreditation to cover the election.
Accredited journalists were denied access to a heavily guarded polling station in the capital Tashkent where Karimov cast his ballot Sunday morning as scores of green-uniformed policemen patrolled city center streets, activists said.
"I believe people know by themselves what to vote for," Karimov said after voting in televised remarks. "That is for the future, peace in our country, its development and prosperity."
Officials refused to take reporters to the polling stations where the other three candidates were to vote.
Throughout the day, state television played patriotic songs and documentaries about Uzbekistan's perceived economic and democratic achievements under Karimov's rule. Outside analysts say the economy has largely stagnated under Karimov, who has resisted market reforms.
"The outcome of this vote is predetermined," human rights activist Surat Ikramov said by telephone from Tashkent. "There is no sign that Karimov's regime is easing up."
Election authorities announced a nearly 60 percent turnout by midday, well exceeding the 33 percent needed to make the vote valid, the state UzA news agency said.
During his 18-year rule, Karimov has jailed or exiled political rivals and muzzled the news media. He has faced wide criticism for human rights abuses including torture and show trials.
Karimov's clampdown on Muslims who worship outside state-controlled institutions has fueled radical Islam throughout the region, which borders Afghanistan and Iran, adding to tension in an already troubled part of the world.
Karimov has maintained a hostile stance toward the West since he ordered the shutdown of a U.S. air base in 2005 following Western criticism of his government's bloody crackdown on an uprising in the city of Andijan.
He also threw out several foreign media organizations and almost all aid groups, accusing them of trying to foment a revolution, and has sought to strengthen ties with Russia and China.
Karimov, who will turn 70 next month, became the top Communist boss in 1989 in what was then a Soviet republic and Soviet industry's main cotton supplier. Since the Soviet collapse, he has won two presidential elections _ in 1991 and 1999 _ and had his term extended twice, once through parliament and again in a referendum.
None of those elections were recognized by international observers as free or fair.
Human rights activists have said the government pressured voters to cast ballots for Karimov.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has sent only a limited, 21-person election observation mission "due to the apparent limited nature of the competition."
Karimov has resisted market reforms since the Soviet disintegration and has brought the resource-rich nation's economy to collapse, plunging most of its 27 million people into poverty. More than 3 million Uzbeks have left for Russia and Kazakhstan in recent years as guest workers by the two countries' official estimates.
In suppressing the 2005 Andijan revolt, Uzbek government troops killed some 700 mostly unarmed civilians, rights groups and witnesses said. Authorities blamed the violence on Islamic radicals, and said only 187 people died.