Monday, 12 October 2015

Kyrgyzstan: beyond democratic elections

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By Erica Marat

October 12th, 2015, The CACI Analyst

On October 4, Kyrgyzstan held parliamentary elections marked by significant improvements in the country’s democratic development.  The elections have demonstrated the viability of Kyrgyzstan’s 2010 constitution, which delegates more powers to the parliament and aims to prevent the emergence of autocratic political center. Fourteen political parties competed, and six were able to pass the national and regional thresholds to win seats.

BACKGROUND: Despite earlier predictions of a landslide, the pro-presidential Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) likely will only have 38 seats out of the total 120. This came as great disappointment to the president’s supporters, but also demonstrated that the president was unable to gain wide support despite his overwhelming influence over state media and the public sector. Along with SDPK, the new parliament includes the “Respublika-Ata-Jurt” block and the “Kyrgyzstan,” “Onuguu,” “Birbol,” and “Ata-Meken” parties. Four out of the five parties in the 2011-2015 parliament secured representation. “Ar-Namys”, a party that has suffered internal splits, was unable to pass the national threshold.  To earn representation the parties had to overcome two thresholds: 7% nation-wide and at least 0.7% in each of the seven regions. A total of 51% of the population cast votes.

The elections were highly competitive with political parties fighting for each vote across the country. Campaigning included large events featuring pop stars and small meetings in remote villages. Parties spent profusely on advertising on TV, print media, billboards and flyers. The elections were the most expensive to date. According to Tazabek newspaper, the average cost of each seat in the parliament amounted to over five million soms (roughly $72,000), with Onuguu, which gained about nine seats, spending the most – over nine million soms per seat (roughly $129,500). The SDPK reportedly spent about half that per candidate, enjoying more favorable and frequent coverage on state media. Most parties raised funds through contributions from their richest members.  

The elections were not without controversy. The government required voters to submit biometric data before they were allowed to cast their votes. The decision was explained as being in line with government efforts to create a verifiable database of voters and reduce fraud during elections.  But only a little over a year’s time was allocated for collection of biometric data inside the country, while hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz labor migrants residing primarily in Russia, Kazakhstan, and the United States were deprived of the opportunity to submit their data. As a result, the number of migrants who voted in this election declined from already low rates. The government also failed to explain whether biometric data would be used for any purposes other than elections.

Nevertheless, there were cases of fraud reported on election day. They included allegations of manipulating electronic ballots, as well as busing and bribing voters. Furthermore, civil society groups reported cases in which the Central Elections Commission has abused its powers. For instance, without conducting an investigation or securing a court decision, the CEC disqualified the leader Kamchybek Tashiev of the opposition Ata-Jurt party from the elections after he allegedly struck a member of the Onuguu party.

Yet, despite multiple incidents of election fraud at voting booths and the controversial collection of biometric data, the election still marked progress towards greater transparency and accountability among political parties. The government actively tried to eliminate fraud, while parties reported their campaign spending. Televised debates featured representatives of competing parties who sought to distinguish themselves with creative policy solutions to pressing issues. Unlike in 2010, when parties tried to populate the top of their lists with their richest members, this time around most parties tried to include individuals with positive images and national reputations. As a result, the new parliament will include a greater number of powerful individuals better able to articulate their respective parties’ agendas. Greater professionalism in the parliament should, in turn, boost the quality of political debates.

Unfortunately, the new parliament will not meet the legally required quotas for women and ethnic minorities, specified at 30% each. While it is difficult to estimate the share of ethnic minorities just based on MPs’ last names, there will be 28 women MPs, making up just 22% of the parliament. Yet, this is an improvement from the last election, when only 17% of MPs were women. The qualifications and professionalism of the female MPs this year is significantly higher. Some prominent female MPs include Ainuru Altynbayeva from SDPK and Choldon Jakupova from Birbol. Altynbayeva is well known for her previous work, while an MP from Ata-Meken, to criminalize the practice of bride kidnapping, while Jakupova is a renowned NGO activist specializing in political development. 

IMPLICATIONS: Kyrgyzstan’s competitive elections defy the stereotype that Central Asian countries are doomed to be ruled by autocratic dynasties. The elections solidify the country’s 2010 constitution that sets out rules for fair competition for all political actors with the intent to prevent the emergence of one dominant actor. The constitution caps any one party’s representation in the parliament at 60%, limits the president to only one six-year term, and grants minority coalition control over key committees. It also makes it difficult for the president to unilaterally dissolve the parliament or amend the constitution.  The underlying assumption in the law is that all politicians are greedy and corrupt and therefore need to be checked by their competitors.

Kyrgyzstan also disproves the belief that post-Soviet countries with strong ties to Russia are likely to be authoritarian. During his tenure, President Aslambek Atambayev has moved Kyrgyzstan closer to Moscow, making it perhaps the Kremlin’s most loyal post-Soviet ally. Russian influence is evident from the Kremlin’s access to the inner-workings of Kyrgyzstan’s government institutions to control of key economic sectors and manipulation of public opinion through the mass media. However, with a system that allows fair competition in place, pervasive Russian influence has not translated into a decline of political pluralism. 

The new parliament will inevitably have a strong minority coalition either led by the Respublika-Ata-Jurt block or smaller parties aligning against the SDPK. Atambayev’s position has weakened, and he is likely to face more opposition from both the parliament and his own government. Regardless of who will end up in the ruling coalition, the process of coalition formation is likely to be highly contentious. The founder and leader of Respublika, Omurbek Babanov, a young and charismatic entrepreneur, is likely to develop presidential ambitions ahead of the 2017 elections. His party’s activity in the parliament will be geared towards propelling him into the presidency. Even if Respublika forms a coalition with SDPK, it might fall apart before Babanov’s presidential run, especially if Atambayev decides to remain in politics.

The last five years have demonstrated that, in the absence of genuine political parties based on shared political platforms instead of individuals with similar business interests, the party-building process takes place after the elections and inside the parliament. All parties have seen members migrate to other factions, while some parties virtually collapsed under bitter divides among their leaders. This time around, the collection of individuals heading up parties, especially the parties new to parliament – Kyrgyzstan, Onuguu and Birbol – will also need to learn to work as a coalition. Some disappointments and breakups inside parties are inevitable.

Furthermore, because voters tend to support individuals within party lists as opposed to party platforms, most MPs from the previous parliament sought to satisfy the interests of a specific constituency as opposed to addressing national issues. This trend is likely to continue with the current cohort but might improve somewhat. The prospect of even more intense political competition might potentially focus MPs’ attention on larger issues to secure top positions within their parties. At the same time, similar to the previous parliament, democratically elected MPs can still collectively vote for deeply authoritarian legislation.

CONCLUSIONS: Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary elections have demonstrated that political competition can emerge among post-Soviet political leaders when an adequate system of checks and balances is created. Although Kyrgyzstan’s political parties are still built around wealthy individuals, there has been a gradual evolution of the political process: electoral rules are refined with each cycle and important political debates take place between elections. The country showcases one pathway that other post-Soviet states could take after cycles of authoritarianism and in the absence of consolidated political forces.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Erica Marat is Assistant Professor at the College of International Security Affairs of the National Defense University and a non-resident Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center. 

Image Attribution: www.ifes.org, accessed on Oct 12, 2015

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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