Central Asia & Caucasus

Kyrgyzstan vote: New-look parliament but old-style politics

By Ayzirek ImanaliyevaChris Rickleton /Eurasianet/ – The battle lines for Kyrgyzstan’s October 4 parliamentary vote have been drawn and 15 parties are ready to duke it out for slots in Central Asia’s liveliest parliament. But what are these elections actually about? Eurasianet spoke to several local experts to get their views on one of the few votes in the region still capable of springing a surprise.

What is at stake?

Officially, this is a battle for 120 seats in the parliament. Unofficially, this is the litmus test for who really holds power, as the top political clans and dealmakers vie for a larger slice of the political pie. 

Also on the line is Kyrgyzstan’s hard-won reputation for holding free elections, at least in the regional context. While the 2015 parliamentary vote was celebrated as the fairest held in history, the 2017 presidential election saw the resources of the state stacked in favor of victor Sooronbai Jeenbekov, with reports of voter intimidation widespread on the day. 

For Emil Joroev, a professor at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, the harsh social and economic impact of the coronavirus crisis has lent the contest an existential feel. “There is a sense that if these elections don’t result in some changes to the decision-making class, they could drag Kyrgyzstan into quicksand,” Joroev said. 

The vote should also be understood as a prelude to the presidential elections in 2023, he told Eurasianet. “Depending on who wins it may be either relatively difficult or relatively easy for Jeenbekov to encourage a preferable succession as he sees out his single presidential term.”

What are the rules of the game?

Now that 15 parties have been registered by the Central Election Commission, a 7 percent national vote threshold is the main thing that separates them from the promised land of the Jogorku Kenesh, as the legislature is known. 

One party that was hoping to compete, Butun Kyrgyzstan, has ended up marginally on the wrong side of the threshold two votes in a row. This year their journey was cut short after they were shockingly excluded from the race by the CEC on the last day before campaigning began due to inconsistencies in their party list.  

Another party, Ata-Meken, has squeezed into two successive parliaments as the legislature’s smallest party. 

Lawmakers are elected on the basis of party lists. Critics of this system say that these lists alienate voters and free parliamentarians from any real responsibility to a constituency. But supporters argue the system encourages party chiefs to form broad alliances that can appeal to voters across the country, thereby tempering the regional fault lines that tend to define the 3.3 million-strong electorate.

Who are the main players? 

If previous elections are anything to go by, five or six parties will make it into the 120-seat parliament. While President Jeenbekov has publicly pledged neutrality in the race, it is a safe assumption he will be quietly rooting for Birimdik, a “party of government” in waiting, whose list includes his younger brother, Asylbek, and other key allies.

Mekenim Kyrgyzstan is known as “the party of the Matraimovs,” a political family whose top bagman, the shadowy former deputy customs chief Rayimbek Matraimov, is believed by some to eclipse Jeenbekov in terms of heft and influence. In an episode of his YouTube-based politics show Kontekst, political analyst Azim Azimov projected both of these factions to sail into the parliament. 

Asked by Eurasianet whether Birimdik and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan could be considered rivals, Azimov said they could, despite the Matraimov family’s support for President Jeenbekov and Jeenbekov’s predecessor, Almazbek Atambayev, in previous elections.  

Noting that the evolution of Mekenim Kyrgyzstan showed that the Matraimovs have outgrown their role as “a powerful vote-collecting machine” for other parties, Azimov argued that tensions between the two factions were on full display during local council elections in March, when they were both seen heaping pressure on local government officials to back them.

“These (tensions) have been growing ever since,” Azimov told Eurasianet.  

Are either of these two parties in the current parliament?

No, although some of their candidates are! This speaks to the fact that parties in Kyrgyzstan are often no more than very temporary vehicles to service political interests. In fact, the most successful party of the last decade and the only one to appear in every ruling coalition since the 2010 elections – the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan – won’t even be running. That party’s fortunes were tied to ex-president Atambayev, who has been sitting in jail for over a year on an assortment of charges, including murder. Long story. A nationwide survey carried out in August under the auspices of the International Republican Institute showed that SDPK is still the best-recognized party, even if it barely exists any longer. Its absence leaves a gaping hole on the ballot.  

Four parties from the current convocation will be competing in the vote. They are the Kyrgyzstan Party, Bir Bol, Ata-Meken, and Respublika, which was one half of the Respublika-Ata-Jurt tandem last time round. It would not be a shock if any of these parties made it past the post, although Respublika has been significantly weakened by the enforced withdrawal from politics of founder Omurbek Babanov, Jeenbekov’s opponent in the 2017 presidential vote.

Three of these parties are fielding a wholly different array of candidates from when they ran in 2015. The Kyrgyzstan Party, a bland, business-powered collective that is a loyal member of the ruling coalition, is the exception. Its party list features 14 of the 18 lawmakers that currently represent it in the Jogorku Kenesh, a fact that chairman Kanatbek Isayev called “a solid indicator of stability.”

Azimov has projected third place for the Kyrgyzstan Party, but its race suffered a false start when it was dramatically removed  from the competition by the Central Election Commission on a technicality last month, as rival parties protested that it had submitted documents after the deadline. The courts chose to reinstate the party nonetheless. 

Are there any strong opposition parties competing?

It depends who you ask.

Of the parliamentary parties competing, all four have featured in a ruling coalition at least once during the last 10 years. With new teams, Bir Bol and Ata-Meken have both positioned themselves as progressive, pro-change parties, ready to capitalize on the bleak mood of the electorate

But a recent investigation by investigative outlet Factcheck.kg alleged that a former customs official placed 14th on Ata-Meken’s list is effectively an emissary of the Matraimov clan, and other evidence of ties between the two parties has since surfaced.   

Two minor parties, Chon Kazat and Reforma, have more convincing grassroots and anti-establishment credentials. But getting past the 7 percent threshold looks a big ask for both.  

While the parliament elected following a revolution in 2010 was a noisy and occasionally chaotic affair, it was gradually brought to heel by an executive weary of such exuberance. The customary cudgel for such democracy-squelching exercises is the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, a successor to the Soviet-era KGB.

By dangling embezzlement cases over rich and influential lawmakers, authorities have been able to secure their loyalty. Political forces posing potential threats to the SDPK and Atambayev were strangled in the cot. This has proven a blow to political pluralism. 

Dastan Bekeshev, a lawmaker in the outgoing parliament, who will not be competing in this vote, told Eurasianet that he believes there is still space for an opposition in Kyrgyzstan, “but it is cold like a bachelor’s bed.”  

What issues are the parties standing on? Poverty and unemployment? How do they view foreign relations?  

While it is unfair to say that ideas play no role at all in Kyrgyz campaigns, they certainly take a back seat to political personalities and cold, hard cash. 

Outsiders Reforma were one of the first parties to unveil a manifesto. The party has pledged to overhaul the police and security services and are pushing for a so-called “lustration law” to prevent corrupt officials from circulating in the system. 

Elnura Alkanova, a former journalist who cut her teeth investigating the Matraimovs, but who has in a dramatic change of tack now taken charge of their party’s campaign, credits herself with making Mekenim Kyrgyzstan a party of “liberal ideology.”

The party aims to decentralize the state and trim its bloated bureaucracy, so as to “get rid of unnecessary functions or outsource to private structures,” the 28-year-old told Eurasianet.

Ironically, these pledges tally with the first point in the party manifesto of Ata-Meken, which officially identifies as socialist. 

Ata-Meken also promises to peg back presidential power in the spirit of the constitution, whose overhaul in 2010 was supervised by party founder Omurbek Tekebayev.  

Most of the party conferences that took place in August were big on nebulous slogans and short on detail. 

Birimdik’s party conference emphasized the importance of unity and stability, as well as the notion of “Eurasianness.”

This third theme looks like a sop to key ally Russia and the Kremlin-driven Eurasian Economic Union trade bloc that Kyrgyzstan joined in 2015. Moscow’s status as Bishkek’s top geopolitical backer looks sure to be unaffected regardless of which party dominates the vote, however.

What kind of violations can we expect before and during the vote? 

Ever since independence, votes in Kyrgyzstan have been contested more toughly than those in Central Asian neighbors. But competitive does not always mean clean.

Edir Bova, director of the Taza Shailoo nonprofit that will send a hundred monitors to observe the vote, told Eurasianet that the introduction of biometric passports and an automated system for processing ballots has made a huge difference to the way the vote is counted, vastly reducing scope for violations like ballot-stuffing and unlawful multiple voting. 

Still rife, said Bova, are vote-buying and the abuse of “administrative resources,” a phenomenon that sees candidates and parties affiliated with the government gain unfair advantages by means of their access the machinery of the state.

An example of this occurred in Jeenbekov’s win in 2017, which was marred by accusations that his campaign had enjoyed direct access to government servers containing citizens’ private data. This would have helped the campaign to target voters more easily. Authorities denied the charges.      

More often than not, administrative resources entail pressure on state employees to vote a certain way. Even before this parliamentary campaign kicked off, media were carrying reports like the one about a school director in southern Kyrgyzstan who complained that a candidate from Birimdik had threatened her with dismissal for promoting another party’s interests. Long-standing election observer Dinara Oshurahunova told Eurasianet that administrative resources are typically more “blurred” in parliamentary votes than in presidential elections as each of the major parties seeks to leverage its own ties to government.   

Bova of Taza Shailoo noted that travel challenges related to the coronavirus pandemic are likely to increase the burden on local monitors, since the international mission led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is likely to be smaller this time around.  

Ah, yes, the pandemic. Will that affect campaigning?

Kyrgyz elections stand out as colorful occasions with political speeches sandwiched between concerts and feasts as candidates tour all corners of the mountainous republic. The crowds that enjoy these events are often dominated by elderly citizens who sit in tight formation. Glad-handing goes with the territory. In June and July, the pandemic left a trail of death and devastation in Kyrgyzstan, particularly in the capital. 

Will electoral authorities impose rules on social distancing and mask-wearing at campaign events? Or will they be able to enforce them?

Ermek Ismailov, a young doctor famous for his regular Facebook posts on medical awareness, told Eurasianet that medics are hoping the CEC and the Health Ministry will issue guidance for distancing during campaigning activities and voting especially in closed spaces. Ismailov cites South Korea as a successful example of pandemic-era voting with distancing strictly enforced in polling stations. Social distancing has proven a tough challenge in Central Asia so far. 

“Our experts are already warning of a second wave [of the coronavirus] in October and November,” Ismailov told Eurasianet. Against this background, there is a risk that campaigning activities could become super-spreader events, “if they take place in the traditional format” he said. 

Is Kyrgyz politics getting any younger?

One potentially positive outcome of this election could be a generational shift in favor of fresher-faced lawmakers as the veterans of politics known as the “old wolves” gradually vacate the stage. 

Bir Bol and Ata-Meken offer extreme examples of this transition. The mean ages of lawmakers in their respective parliamentary parties are 56 and 57 respectively. The top 10 candidates in their lists are on average about 15 years younger.

Joroev of the OSCE Academy said that the composition of party lists suggests a genuine swing in favor of youth, but he is cautious in predicting whether or not the next generation can become a vocal force for change.

“Some may choose to vacate their parliamentary seats for older candidates, or they might be ushered into executive positions,” Joroev warned. 

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