MOSCOW - Uzbekistan's authoritarian President Islam Karimov, who has ruled the Central Asian nation for nearly two decades, has won another seven-year term with 88 percent of the vote, according to early returns released by Central Election Commission yesterday - an election critics dismissed as a sham.

Karimov faced three other contenders in the vote Sunday, but all of them publicly supported him. The election-monitoring arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the election failed to meet an array of democratic standards.

Uzbekistan, a predominantly Muslim nation of 27 million, is a member of the OSCE - which aims to promote democratic standards - but is one of the most politically repressive of the former Soviet states. Most of Karimov's opponents have been sent to jail or into exile, and authorities have muzzled news media.

The three other candidates in the race were given little coverage in state-controlled media. On election day, state television broadcast a series of programs extolling Uzbekistan as developing democratically and economically under Karimov - despite economic stagnation due to his resistance of market reforms.

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, which has been the subject of intense rivalry among the United States, Russia and China.

Karimov's clampdown on Muslims who worship outside state-controlled institutions has fueled radical Islam throughout the region.

Karimov has resisted market reforms since the Soviet disintegration, plunging most of the population into poverty. The country is a major exporter of cotton, gold, oil and natural gas, but until recently, one U.S. government report estimated that economic growth was flat.