TASHKENT - Uzbekistan’s strongman President Islam Karimov on Monday extended his decades-long grip on power following a weekend poll decried by Western vote monitors as lacking genuine competition.

Karimov, 77, who has ruled over Uzbekistan since 1989, two years before the country gained independence from the Soviet Union, had three challengers. All three endorsed his campaign, however. The incumbent won 90.39 per cent of the vote to secure a new, five-year term, with voter turnout reaching 91 per cent, the central election commission said. “17.2 million people or 90.39 percent of the electorate gave their vote to Islam Karimov,” said commission chief Mirzo-Ulugbek Abdusalomov.

The opponents of Karimov, who is seeking a third term under the current constitution and a fourth term in total, claimed less than 10 per cent between them.

An observer mission from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe released a withering statement on Monday, saying Karimov should by rights have been barred from standing.

“Despite a clear constitutional limit of two consecutive presidential terms, the central election commission registered the incumbent as a candidate,” Tana de Zulueta, the mission head, told reporters.

“This was in contravention of the rule of law and raises doubts about the commission’s independence,” she said, adding that Uzbekistan’s tightly-controlled media “gave the incumbent a clear advantage.”

“The figure of the incumbent dominated a political landscape without genuine opposition,” the European rights watchdog added.

The OSCE also raised concerns about the large numbers of votes cast by proxy.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation of which Uzbekistan is a member, together with China, Russia and a handful of other Central Asian countries, also sent observers to the election.

By contrast with the OSCE, the SCO delegation found the polls were held “democratically and openly”, in accordance with “the international obligations accepted by Uzbekistan” as well as the country’s electoral law.

Karimov’s campaign was low-key, emphasising the need for stability in the country of over 30 million people that borders Afghanistan to the south.