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Election Consolidating the Democratic Process: Parliamentary Elections in Kyrgyzstan

On October 10 the people of Kyrgyzstan elected a new national parliament (Jogorku Kenesh) in an election that has been described as the most free and fair ever in a post-Soviet Central Asian republic. A closer look at the elections as well as their results indicates certain obstacles on the road to a prosperous parliamentary system.

Published on balticworlds.com on oktober 20, 2010

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On October 10 the people of Kyrgyzstan elected a new national parliament (Jogorku Kenesh) in an election that has been described as the most free and fair ever in a post-Soviet Central Asian republic. Five parties made it over the five percent threshold. None of them got a majority of the votes and the result of the ongoing coalition building is not expected for another couple of weeks. Still, in a way the outcome of this election is less important than its successful execution. After an extremely turbulent spring and summer the election was considered a milestone on the country’s road to political stability. In a referendum three months ago the population approved changes to the constitution that provided them with a parliamentary form of government. Once a new government is formed the interim president will take on a more ceremonial role as head of state. Both nationally and internationally there is great hope that this reform will restore the status of Kyrgyzstan as the “island of democracy” in Central Asia and perhaps also fortify the stalled democratization processes in the rest of the region – infamous for its strong presidential systems. A closer look at the elections as well as their results indicates certain obstacles on the road to a prosperous parliamentary system. These are for example, a poorly developed party system, low level of participation in the elections, and continued tension between some groups of the population. Still, the results of October 10th must be considered a step in the right direction for Kyrgyzstan and in their preliminary statement the OSCE noted that, despite several incidents, “overall, these elections constituted a further consolidation of the democratic process”[1].

Need for Stability after Revolutions x2

To grasp the importance of these elections it is necessary to briefly consider the turmoil that the Kyrgyzstanis have been through since independence from the Soviet Union. Their first president, Askar Akayev, was the only one in the region elected rather than transferred from the Communist Party leadership. He was widely considered a genuine democrat; hence Kyrgyzstan got the reputation of being an island of democracy in Central Asia.[2] After constitutional amendments in 1996, 1998 and 2000, increasing presidential power, Akayev’s rule became more and more autocratic. Rising discontent among opposition parties and the public led to the so-called Tulip Revolution of March 2005, during which President Akayev was ousted under rather violent circumstances and had to flee the country.[3]

The new president Kurmanbek Bakiyev vowed to fight the nepotism, corruption and growing authoritarianism of the Akayev regime. Nonetheless, in April 2010, almost exactly five years after his victory, Bakiyev met with accusations similar to those that Akayev faced, ironically from the same people with whom he had staged the 2005 “revolution”. After violent social upheavals he too had to leave the country and an interim government led by the former foreign minister and ambassador to the United States, Roza Otunbayeva, was established.[4] In June when the new government was dealing with the aftermath of the coup violence again spiraled in Osh, in the southern part of the country, between ethnic Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks. The aggression quickly intensified and spread, resulting in deaths and injuries as well as leaving a large number of ethnic Uzbeks as refugees in neighboring Uzbekistan. This is the second time Osh is shaken by ethnic strife. In 1990 around 600 persons died as ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz clashed in connection to a land dispute. In the Ferghana Valley where Osh is located conditions are ripe for conflict. It is an overpopulated, underdeveloped and poor region and a showcase example of Stalin’s divide and conquer technique dividing clans, villages and ethnic group between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Hence, although the situation was stabilized this time it would appear that there is a latent risk for further problems in this area.[5] In the light of this there were serious concerns about potential violence in connection to the October parliamentary elections, particularly in the south which is both the political stronghold of Bakiyev and the site of the clashes in June. Even though this did not materialize a look at the composition of the new parliament gives at hand that the north-south divide as well as tension between certain groups is indeed a factor at the Kyrgyz political scene. 

Political Personalism and an underdeveloped Party System

The April overthrow of former President Bakiyev and his affiliates, the Ak Jol party, paved the way for a much more diverse party landscape. In the current election 3,351 candidates from 29 parties have been competing for the 120 seats. A political party needs to win at least 5 percent of the nationwide vote and 0.5 percent in each province, including Bishkek and Osh, to gain representation in parliament. The number of seats of each party is proportional to the percentage of the vote it receives. Each party must provide 120 candidates, at least 30 percent of which need to be women and 15 percent minority candidates. All party candidates are presented to the voter on a single ballot that in this case ended up being 72 centimeters long, making it a rather difficult read.[6]

Only five parties got enough votes to enter the parliament: Ata-Jurt (Zhurt) (Fatherland) party 8.89%, The Social Democratic Party (SDPK) 8,04%, Ar-Namys (Dignity) 7,74%, Respublika 7,24%, and Ata-Meken (Fatherland) 5,60%. Of these, Ata-Meken and the Social Democratic Party are seen as pro-government, and are led by figures involved in the April events. Provisional President Roza Otunbayeva is a long-time SDPK member but resigned from the party in May when she was to take on the mission as head of state. Respublika, led by businessman and former Deputy Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov, does not have a clear pro- or antigovernment agenda. Both Ar-Namys and Ata-Jurt are seen as opposition parties and can also be classified as so called regional parties representing the interests of the people in the northern and southern parts of the country respectively. The north (northeast) and south (southwest) of Kyrgyzstan is separated by the Tien Shan Mountains hence communication between the two parts has always been difficult. Whereas the north has more in the way of industrial development and higher education levels the south still relies on agricultural and is more conservative socially. The people of the north traditionally have had a close interaction with Slavic people while the southerners had more in common with neighboring Tajiks and Uzbeks.

The head of the Ar-Namys party, Former Prime Minister Felix Kulov’s, promised to improve security and his campaign posters refer to him as “the iron shield of the law”. He is a strong opponent to the new constitution and promised to reinstate a strong presidential system as well as good relations with the Kremlin. His party enjoys roughly equal support in the North and South, but is especially strong in Bishkek. Ata-Jurt is seen as a political wildcard. Headed by former officials from the government ousted in April its leaders have been criticizing the constitutional changes, calling for a stronger president. The party has campaigned on a nationalist platform and the head of the party, Kamchibek Tashiyev, Bakiyev’s former minister of emergency situations, has enjoyed massive popularity among ethnic Kyrgyz in the south Kyrgyz districts who feel marginalized by the anti-Bakiyev parties that came to power in Bishkek.[7]

Given the turbulent and violent recent events it is not surprising that all parties to a certain extent campaigned on the theme of ensuring peace and establishing stability as well even though the issue of national reconciliation after the June events has been oddly absent from the agenda. The necessity of free elections, reduction of corruption in the government and promotion of economic development has been other important issues put forward by the parties. Another question raised by some is the future of the Manas airport in Kyrgyzstan that since late 2001 has been rented by the Americans and used for transports to their troops in Afghanistan.  Even though it has been low key during the election campaign it is expected to be one of the first issues for the new parliament to deal with as some of the parties, such as the Ata-Jurt and Ar-Namys have expressed their wish for the Americans to leave.[8]

However, in Kyrgyzstan, as in most other post-Soviet countries, the political reality is characterized by a struggle between individuals instead of ideas. There is an acute lack of ideological content to most parties’ agendas which instead focus on promoting the personality of their front figures. Considering the inexperience in terms of party traditions and legitimate opposition, as well as the non-existent institutional party structures in this region this state of affairs is not genuinely surprising. In this environment being a party official has become synonymous to personal enrichment and empowerment which is further strengthening the idea of “political personalism” rather than political ideologies.[9] 

A Coalition in the Making

Of the five parties that made it into the parliament none received a majority of the votes. With its 8,89% Ata-Jurt became the largest party, but as a matter of fact the difference between the parties is marginal. The Social Democratic Party received 8,04%. Ar-Namys 7,74%, Respublika 7,24%, and Ata-Meken 5,60% of the votes.

It could be argued that the win by Ata-Jurt reflects a disappointment with the “revolutionary democrats” behind the 2005 and 2010 revolts. Yet, pro-governmental parties are equally represented in the top five. Given the support of Ata-Jurt and its nationalist agenda among ethnic Kyrgyz in the southern part of the country the election result does highlight the shadow cast by the Osh-clashes.[10] The question is whether Ata-Jurt will be able to enforce its nationalist agenda in a coalition government. During the election campaign most other parties did downplay regional, national and ethnic references in order not to loose voters in regions where they were not so well represented, but once elected it is possible hidden agendas might appear.

Much now depends on the outcome of the difficult task of trying to form a coalition government. According to the constitution the provisional President has two attempts to form a government. If she fails to do so the parliament gets one shot at putting forth a government. If after this no solution has been found the president can dismiss the parliament and announce new elections. It is however unlikely that it will come to that. Allegedly coalition talks between some of the parties started already weeks before the actual election eager as they were to avoid a coalition stalemate. Given that The Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan and Ata-Meken represent the interests that helped force Bakiyev from power they can be expected to form the core of one coalition option supporting the reforms of the provisional government. If they are joined by either Ar-Namys Party or Respublika, Ata-Jurt could find itself in opposition in the next parliament, despite being the largest party there. This, some say could create instability in the country as it could increase the feeling of political marginalization among Ata-Jurt’s electorate in southern Kyrgyzstan. On the other hand is a coalition between Ata-Jurt, Ar-Namys and Respublika more likely given their Bakiyev friendly leadership and their shared understanding of presidentialism needing to be reinstated.[11]

Free and Fair Elections with just a Touch of Irregularities

Fearing more violence the Kyrgyz authorities increased security measures in connection to the election as well as invited a large number of national and international election monitors. The only violent incident reported occurred during the campaigning process. Triggered by a recorded statement on the Internet where someone looking like the Ata-Jurt party leader is criticizing the interim government for discriminating against the southern regions of the country and calling for the return of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev anti-Bakiyev activists attacked the Bishkek office of the Ata-Jurt party.[12]

While parliamentary elections in 2007 and presidential election in 2009 were deemed to be neither free nor fair by international organizations OSCE this time around concludes that “fundamental freedoms, including the freedoms of expression, assembly and association, were generally respected”.[13] At the same time, a number of political parties that failed to reach the five percent cut off are protesting the election results, including the United Kyrgyzstan party that got 4,84 of the votes.[14] Several minor demonstrations have also been held in Kyrgyzstan by protesters in the week after the elections claiming that elections were flawed.[15]

According to OSCE’s preliminary statement all parties were free to campaign for and participate in the elections. The organization notes that minor incidents occurred, such as students and government employees being forced to attend certain party rallies something quite common in other parts of the former Soviet space as well. During the Election Day more irregularities took place, for example group voting and incorrect counting of votes. In their statement the OSCE additionally remarks that even though the state-run media provided all parties with equal opportunities “impartial and analytical information about the campaign” was largely absent during the campaign, making it harder for the population to make an informed decision. What’s more, that most campaigning as well as official election materials and ballots were only in Kyrgyz and Russian languages, even in predominantly ethnic Uzbek areas, limited the ability of ethnic Uzbeks, second largest ethnic group in the country, to receive election-related information.[16]

Diversity in Parliament: Blessing or Curse?

The current layout of the parliament divided between former Bakiyev supporters and those who dismissed him from power could turn out to be a curse or blessing for the weak political system in Kyrgyzstan. Examples from other post-Soviet contexts, such as Ukraine, shows that even when the opposition has managed to win the majority of the seats in parliament infighting among the representatives is common, as a result of personal goals being put first rather than the good of the country or even one owns party. Hence, in a worst case scenario the diversity among the political decision makers in the Jogorku Kenesh could in result in a political standstill where everybody is blocking decisions or questions that does not sit well with their private agendas. Furthermore, yet another stalled democratization process will most likely not sit well with the population at large and might possibly provoke more social turbulence. It is therefore important that the new government manage to prove their political maturity and show their commitment to change. The outcome of the coalition formation will be an important indicator to this end. At the same time it should be kept in mind that in a country where much of the relationships, both political and social, are based on kinship and localism it is rather fortunate to have parties seen as representative for both the northern and the southern part in power. Still, as a result of the overall low level of participation in the elections none of the parties in the parliament in reality received a very high number votes. Of 2.3 million eligible voters, less than 60 percent participated. That means that Ata-Jurt received fewer than 250,000 votes in a country of 5.4 million. Nearly 500,000 votes, more than one-third of the ballots cast, were split among the 24 parties that failed to win seats. This raises the question whether the population at large can feel that they are properly represented by the elected parties.

To conclude, in general that the 2010 parliamentary election in Kyrgyzstan was conducted in a peaceful manner is a positive sign. It indicates that the country is recovering from the recent troubles and is now on route to political stability. The challenge now will be to make sure that the reforms that look good on paper is translated to reality through the development of institutions and attitudes that can support the newborn parliamentary system. As noted above this will not be an easy task, given the Kyrgyzstan’s weak party system and lacking political tradition. Nevertheless, it does seem that Kyrgyzstan, even though far from an island of democracy at this stage, does have a commitment to democracy that makes the country an exception in a region of democratic regression. It would seem that the basis for this was planted under the Akayev   precidency under which Kyrgyzstan actually enjoyed a relatively free media, parties in opposition and a flourishing NGO-sector. Even though the people of Kyrgyzstan were unhappy with Akayev he set a certain democratic standard that they are now trying to go back to and beyond. 

Results of Kyrgyzstan’s Parliamentary election 2010-10-10[17]:

 

PARTIES

VOTES % OF VOTES % OF ELIGIBLE VOTERS
Ata-Jurt 266,923 16.10% 8.89%
SDPK 241,528 14.55% 8.04%
Ar-Namys 232,682 14.02% 7.74%
Respublika 217,601 13.12% 7.24%
Ata-Meken 168,218 10.13% 5.60%
Butun Kyrgyzstan 145,455 8.76% 4.84%
Akshumkar 78,952 4.76% 2.63%
Zamandash 63,435 3.82% 2.11%
Other parties 244,703 14.74% 7.77%
TOTAL 1,679,538 (55.90%) 100.00% 55.90%

references

  1. International Election Observation Kyrgyz Republic: Parliamentary Elections, 10 October 2010, Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, Bishkek 2010-10-11, http://www.osce.org/documents/odihr/2010/10/47026_en.pdf  (accessed 2010-10-18).
  2. Pryde, Ian Kyrgyzstan, The Trials of Independence, Journal of Democracy, Volume 5, Number 1(1994), pp.109-120.
  3. Radnitz, Scott What Really Happened in Kyrgyzstan? Journal of Democracy, Volume 17, Number 2 (2006), pp. 132-146.
  4. International Crisis Group, Kyrgyzstan: A Hollow Regime Collapses, Asia Briefing 102, Bishkek/Brussels, 2010-04-27.
  5. For a more thorough discussion on these events see International Crisis Group, The Pogroms in Kyrgyzstan, Asia Report 193, Bishkek/Brussels, 2010-08-23.
  6. For an overview see for example Sindelar, Daisy, After Season Of Unrest, Kyrgyzstan Votes In Key Parliamentary Elections, RFE/RL, 2010-11-10. http://www.rferl.org/content/After_Season_Of_Unrest_Kyrgyzstan_Votes_In_Key_Parliamentary_Elections/2186080.html  (accessed 2010-10-18).
  7. Kyrgyzstan: North-South Split Poses Political Risk - Poll, Eurasianet, 2010-10-08, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/62116 , (accessed 2010-10-18); Pannier, Bruce, Kyrgyz Voters Casting Ballots To Establish Region's First Parliamentary Democracy, RFE/RL, 2010-10-10, http://www.rferl.org/content/No_Clear_Favorites_As_Kyrgyzstan_Prepares_For_Parliamentary_Elections/2185441.html,  (accessed 2010-10-18)
  8. Trilling, David, Kyrgyzstan: Election Could Produce Worrisome Result – Experts, Eurasianet, 2010-10-08, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/62114  (accessed 2010-10-19); Marat, Erica, Kyrgyzstan’s Free Mass Media Intensifies Political Competition, Jamestown Foundation Blog, 2010-10-04, http://jamestownfoundation.blogspot.com/2010/10/kyrgyzstans-free-mass-media-intensifies.html  (accessed 2010-10-19).
  9. Huskey, Eugene and Gulnara Iskakova, The Barriers to Intra-Opposition Cooperation in the Post-Communist World: Evidence from Kyrgyzstan, Post-Soviet Affairs 26, 3 (2010), pp. 228–262.
  10. Ivashchenko, Ekaterina, Parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan can be considered concluded [Парламентские выборы в Кыргызстане можно считать состоявшимися], Ferghana.ru, 2010-10-10, http://www.ferghana.ru/article.php?id=6758  (accessed 2010-10-18)
  11. See for example: Trilling, David, Kyrgyzstan: Parties Prepare for Coalition Building after Landmark Elections, Eurasianet, 2010-10-11, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/62129  (accessed 2010-10-18) or Marat, Erica, Landmark Elections in Kyrgyzstan Produce Surprising Results, Eurasia Daily Monitor 7, 185, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/edm/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=37032&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=27&cHash=6332a97129 , (accessed 2010-10-18).
  12. Kyrgyz Officials Investigate Videos After Attack On Party Offices, RFE/RL, 2010-10-08, http://www.rferl.org/content/Kyrgyz_Officials_Investigate_Videos_After_Attack_On_Party_Offices /2184404.html (accessed 2010-10-18).
  13. International Election Observation Kyrgyz Republic: Parliamentary Elections, 10 October 2010, Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, Bishkek 2010-10-11, http://www.osce.org/documents/odihr/2010/10/47026_en.pdf  (accessed 2010-10-18).
  14. Kyrgyz Party Members Protest Election Results, RFE/RL, 2010-10-12, http://www.rferl.org/content/Kyrgyz_Party_Members_Protest_Election_Results/218865.html  (accessed 2010-10-18).  
  15. Minor Protests Launched Over Kyrgyz Elections, RFE/RL, http://www.rferl.org/content/Minor_Protests_Launched_Over_Kyrgyz_Elections/2189106.html , 2010-10-13 (accessed 2010-10-18).
  16. International Election Observation Kyrgyz Republic: Parliamentary Elections, 10 October 2010, Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, Bishkek 2010-10-11, http://www.osce.org/documents/odihr/2010/10/47026_en.pdf  (accessed 2010-10-18).
  17. Web-page of the Central Election Commission of Kyrgyzstan:http://cec.shailoo.gov.kg/i-election.asp?ElectionID=137&DistrictID=(accessed 2010-1018).
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  • by Sofie Bedford

    Sofie Bedford, PhD in political science, Stockholm University. Sofie’s main research interest is the political developments of the former Soviet sphere, especially Central Asia and the Caucasus.

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