Thursday, 01 October 2015

Kyrgyzstan tests biometric voter identification

Published in Field Reports
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By Arslan Sabyrbekov

October 1st, the CACI Analyst

Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place on October 4, 2015, with 14 political parties competing for 120 seats. The official campaign kicked off on September 4, with leaders of political parties touring the country and presenting their programs. Regional observers anticipate that the election will, unlike most other regional elections, actually be competitive. During the elections, Kyrgyzstan will for the first time in its election history use its controversial biometric registration process, using fingerprints to verify citizens’ identity before voting. In a recently conducted public test, the equipment revealed some of its drawbacks, leading to wider criticism that the process is unconstitutional since citizens who have failed to submit their data cannot vote. 

On September 3, Kyrgyzstan’s Vice Prime Minister Tayirbek Sarpashev stated that 90-95 percent of the citizens residing in the regions have submitted their biometric data. The number in Bishkek varies from 70 to 75 percent. According to Sarpashev, “the use of biometric voter identification is a common international practice and is one of the best ways to ensure the transparency and fairness of elections. Each citizen can cast the ballot only once, which was not the practice before.” Sarpashev went on to demonstrate the operation of the equipment, but had to make two attempts to identify himself in the database in a procedure that took him 20 minutes to complete.

The head of the Bishkek-based Coalition “For democracy and civil society,” Dinara Oshurakhunova, noted that a failure of the equipment during the actual elections could lead to catastrophic and unpredictable results. “The legitimacy of the elections can also be ensured with the smooth operation of the new equipment,” Oshurakhunova said during a roundtable organized by the local UNDP office on September 8.

Kyrgyzstan’s Prime Minister Temir Sariev also does not rule out the risks associated with the use of the new technology. He has noted that operators will play a leading role in ensuring that the equipment functions smoothly and that the human factor is always there. Local analysts are also not excluding the possibility of special attempts to incapacitate the election equipment and the entire voter database, referring to unidentified third forces.

Indeed, the great burden of responsibility during Election Day will lie on the equipment operators, currently undergoing a series of trainings organized by the State Registry Service of the Kyrgyz Republic. They will play the main role in identifying the voters’ biometric data. “The training process of the operators is not so transparent. We lack clear information from the State Registry Service on how they have selected the 7,000 people, what exactly they will do and how they will work, despite the fact that they will play a key role during the upcoming elections,” said the renowned civil society activist Tolekan Ismailova. Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev has officially stated that the country is fully ready to hold parliamentary elections in a fair and transparent manner.

The biometric data collection remains a controversial issue in Kyrgyzstan. The country’s current Parliament has earlier dismissed one judge of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court for delivering a public statement on the unconstitutionality of depriving citizens of their right to vote unless they submit their biometric data. Today, the dismissed judge Klara Sooronkulova is running for a seat in parliament for Kyrgyzstan’s leading opposition party Ata-Meken.

During its September 10 meeting, despite predictions of the contrary, the Constitutional Chamber once again failed to pass a decision on the matter. The Chamber’s chairman also refused to involve international expertise offered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This, according to former presidential candidate Toktayim Umetalieva, is “a clear sign that the members of the Constitutional Chamber are a priori aware of the fact that biometric data in itself is an unconstitutional act but are afraid to pass a relevant decision because of their dependency on the political forces currently running the country.”

In the meantime, the election campaign is in full swing in Kyrgyzstan, with many stating that these elections will be the most expensive in Kyrgyzstan’s history.

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