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Elections in the Kyrgyz Republic. Photo: ifes.org

Election Kyrgyzstan parliamentary elections 2015. Party platforms and party loyalties will continue to be volatile

The political landscape in the parliament has changed quite drastically due to party mergers and the appearance of three new parties which made it over the threshold. And although SDPK increased their share of the votes, they’re still far from being able to form a single party government.

Published on balticworlds.com on oktober 15, 2015

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The parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan on October 4th proceeded without any violence or serious incidents. And although the OSCE/ODIHR election monitoring mission had some complaints regarding counting procedures, voter registration and the limited amount of impartial information in the media, the overall assessment by both international and domestic observers seem to be that the elections were conducted in a free, fair and competitive manner. The Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), with close ties to the president, comes out as the winner, though still not with a majority of their own. ”A few days before the elections I didn’t sleep because of anxiety. Last night I didn’t sleep because of happiness. My wish came true!”, President Atambayev told reporters from the news agency 24kg, underlining the fact that the elections were not followed by any protests and rallies – unlike previous elections in the country.

This year’s parliamentary elections were the first to be held under the new election law from 2011. The law was developed partially in response to international recommendations from organizations such as OSCE. It provides that parties are required to include certain percentages from both genders, national minorities, people under 35 and people with disabilities. However, OSCE/ODIHR observes in their preliminary report that while these requirements were indeed met at the time of registration, the policy is ineffective, as there are no provisions to maintain these quotas after registration. The Central Election Commission (CEC) has also introduced new technology for registration and use of biometric data in the voting procedure, as a measure to combat election fraud.

14 parties entered the race. 20 more parties had originally applied, but didn’t meet the requirements, such as paying the registration deposit of 5 million Kyrgyz Som (about 730.000 U.S. Dollars). The preliminary results for the 14 parties are as follows:

SDPK 27.45 %
Respublika – Ata-Jurt 20.13 %
Kyrgyzstan 12.81 %
Onuguu-Progress 9.3 %
Bir Bol 8.44 %
Ata Meken 7.74 %
7 % Threshold
Butun Kyrgyzstan Emgek 6.2 %
Zamandash 2.7 %
Uluu Kyrgyzstan 1.5 %
Ar-Namys 0.8 %
Meken Yntymagy 0.8 %
Congress of People of Kyrgyzstan 0.6 %
Aalam 0.4 %
Azattyk 0.3 %

Unlike in the neighboring countries, the outcome of the elections in Kyrgyzstan was not easy to foretell. And the composition of the parliament changed significantly. The Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), which is close to President Atambayev, became the biggest party with 27.45 % and increased its share of seats from 26 to 38. The two former opposition parties Ata-Zhurt (“Fatherland”) and Respublika somewhat surprisingly merged into one and became the second biggest with 20.13 %. Furthermore, three new parties made it over the 7 % threshold, Kyrgyzstan Party, Onuguu-Progress and Bir Bol (”Be United”). However, the voter turnout was just below 60 % according to the Central Elections Committee. A large portion of the population still has very low confidence in politics and politicians in general. The country faces severe economic challenges and the political system suffers from corruption and lack of dependable institutions.

Kyrgyzstan gained its independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union only 24 years ago. As for all of the five former Soviet Central Asian republics, these last decades have been a time of finding and shaping the country’s identity as a nation state. Politically, all of the five countries are constitutional republics, ruled with different degrees of authoritarianism and struggling with high levels of corruption. However, due to its two revolutions in 2005 and 2010, Kyrgyzstan stands apart from the neighboring republics in many respects. For one thing, the grass roots level in politics is much more vibrant, although there can be a fine line between genuine grass roots commitment to a cause and mobilizations by competing power centers, mostly with a regional base. One of the main challenges for the young nation has been the division between north and south, separated physically by high mountains with only one long serpentine road connecting the two parts. The north, where the capital Bishkek is located, has for the most part been dominant. During the reign of Askar Akayev, who had been president since the end of the Soviet era, the south became increasingly disgruntled. Eventually, Akayev was overthrown in the 2005 Tulip Revolution, which brought the southerner Kurmanbek Bakiyev into power. Although the 2005 revolution was initially fueled by popular discontent with political corruption, and by a longing for openness and accountability, it soon became clear that it had achieved little more than a shift in the power balance from one regional elite group to another. The rampant corruption and abuse of power during Bakiyev’s presidency gave rise to popular protests, which, in the spring of 2010, gained in strength after a campaign in Russian media – possibly a punishment for Bakiyev’s failing to evict U.S. Forces from the Manas Air Base, which he had promised the year before. After violent clashes between protesters and police in Bishkek, which left more than 90 people dead, Bakiyev first fled to Jalal-Abad in the south of the country, trying to rally support, but soon had to leave the country. The ousting of President Bakiyev meant that the center of power shifted back to the north. However, the interim government, led by Roza Otunbayeva, showed a real commitment to democratic and institutional development. Otunbayeva spent her time in office drafting a new constitution, which strengthened the parliamentary system, and preparing for a new presidential election. The whole enterprise was complicated – but not stopped – by the violent inter-ethnic clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks that broke out in the southern cities Osh and Jalal-Abad, where about 500 people were killed. According to several international human rights groups, the clashes were caused to a large extent by southern politicians who were unhappy with the new political situation in the capital and played on nationalist feelings among the ethnic Kyrgyz. However, the presidential election in October 2011, which brought the current president, Almazbek Atambayev into office, ran comparatively smoothly, and made the coordinator of the OSCE election mission, Walpurga Habsburg-Douglas, express ”cautious optimism” about the country’s continued democratic development. Nevertheless, the aftermath of the violent eruptions in the south has been an open wound draining energy from the country’s political process.

Located between Russia and China and with a strong strategic interest for the United States, the whole Central Asian region is constantly subject to international speculation regarding in what direction the countries are moving strategically and economically. President Atambayev has mostly been leaning towards Russia, which is not surprising given the country´s economic dependence on Russia. A large portion of Kyrgyzstan’s population is working abroad (estimates range between 500.000 and 1.5 million), most of them in Russia. Currently, two controversial law bills, which seem to be modeled directly on recent Russian legislation, are in the process of passing through parliament; one against the public expression of positive attitudes towards non-traditional sexual relations and one requiring NGO:s receiving international contributions to register as “foreign agents”. Security cooperation with Russia is also deepening. Kyrgyzstan just recently pledged to support the Russian attacks against ISIL in Syria, according to 24kg. And last year, Atambayev finally ended the American military presence at the Manas air base, which both he and previous presidents had promised several times before.

The current crisis in the Russian economy has had a severe negative impact on the remittances sent by migrant workers back into the Kyrgyz economy. Furthermore, Kyrgyzstan has recently joined the Eurasian Economic Union, tying their economy even Closer to those of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. The drop of the Russian Ruble against the Dollar has in turn affected the Kyrgyz Som, which is now floating. This situation is shared with neighboring Kazakhstan. But for Kyrgyzstan´s much weaker economy the effects can be even more serious and acute. One of the top issues in the election campaigns was mortgages and housing prices, which are usually set in U.S. Dollars, and which haven’t dropped at the same rate as the Som and the Ruble.

The new constitution, adopted after the 2010 revolution, limits the president’s executive powers in favor of the parliament and the prime minister, and one of the main challenges of Atambayev’s presidency has been to keep a government together. Different coalitions have formed and collapsed. Most recently, a coalition consisting of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), (where Atambayev served as chairman before he was elected president), Ata-Meken (”Fatherland”) and Ar-Namys (”Dignity”), was dissolved in March 2014, only to be followed by a new coalition of the same parties. The opposition in the last few years has consisted of Ata-Zhurt (Just like Ata-Meken meaning ”Fatherland”), headed by Kamchybek Tashiyev, which supported the toppled President Bakiyev after the 2010 revolution, and Respublika, which was part of the original governing coalition after the 2010 elections and whose leader, Omurbek Babanov, served as prime minister between 2011 and 2012. Ata-Zhurt is usually profiled as a hardline nationalist party and has its main support in the south of the country. It won 28 seats in parliament in the last parliamentary elections, held in 2010 (thus slightly bigger than SDPK with their 26 seats).

Several commentators have pointed to the vagueness of the parties’ programs and the lack of clear ideological demarcations as symptoms of a young democracy. Of course, vagueness and ideological ”cramming in the middle” are not unusual in more mature democracies. However, one of the reasons for this vagueness in Kyrgyzstans party politics is that parties tend to be based on regional power groupings rather than ideological platforms. The high number of parties is seen as an indication of a political landscape that has yet to find a stable form. The mergers between parties and defections of individual politicians from one party to another, which have occurred prior to this election, also point in that direction. Perhaps the most unexpected merger took place between the two opposition parties Ata Zhurt and Respublika, which used to be fierce rivals, with their voter bases rooted in the south and the north of the country, respectively. The recent defections of prominent members of some parties may be a further sign of the unsettledness of the political landscape. When Ravshan Jeenbekov and Omurbek Abdrahmanov crossed over from Ata Meken to Ar Namys, it puzzled observers that two politicians who were seen as liberal and ”pro-Western” would align themselves with a party that seemed to lean in the opposite direction. The answers Abdrahmanov gave IWPR:s reporters were quite pragmatic; according to him, Ar-Namys supports a strong parliamentary system. And, as for the party’s support for entry into the Eurasian Economic Union – which he was against –  Abdrahmanov expressed the need to adjust to the new reality of being in the union.

Pryor to the elections, President Atambayev expressed a wish that there be only three parties in the parliament. That wish didn’t come true. Instead the number of parties in parliament increased by one. The political landscape in the parliament has changed quite drastically due to party mergers and the appearance of three new parties which made it over the threshold. And although SDPK increased their share of the votes, they’re still far from being able to form a single party government. Political Analyst Mars Saliyev speculates, according to the news agency K-news, that Ata-Meken (which used to be part of the governing coalition) will now become the only opposition, while the other five parties will form a coalition. This new coalition would then also include Respublika-Ata-Zhurt, whose co-leader, Omurbek Babanov, quickly after the elections made an opening towards participation in a coalition with SDPK. Babanov is one of the early favorites as contender for the presidency in 2017, when Atambayev’s 6 year term expires. (According to the new constitution, he cannot run for a second term.)

In all likelihood, the political landscape in Kyrgyzstan will not settle in a stable form in the foreseeable future. Party platforms and party loyalties will continue to be volatile. Positioning in anticipation of the 2017 presidential election will be a factor in parliamentary politics in the next couple of years. The crucial task for the leading politicians will be to keep a government together in order to manage the tough economic challenges, to keep the ethnic and regional tensions under control and to build a public confidence in the political process. On a macropolitical level, the direction seems clear – towards a deepening cooperation with Russia and the other countries in the Eurasian Union, in trade and economy as well as in security policy. This is the direction pointed out by President Atambayev, and none of the parties in the new parliament has expressed a wish to take a different turn in these matters. Hopefully, the country will also stay committed to the continuous development of the democratic process and institutions – a commitment to which this year’s parliamentary elections gave a clear testimony.

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    Baltic Worlds is commenting on the parliamentary and presidential elections taking place in countries around the Baltic Sea region and in Eastern Europe. The comments and analyses present the parties, the candidates and the main issues of the election, as well as analyze the implications of the results.

    Sofie Bedford, member of the scientific advisory board, is since 2015 arranging the election coverage.

    Contact: sofie.bedford@ucrs.uu.se