Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: Kyrgyz Ballot to Sow Seeds for Future

However the Kyrgyz regime decides to act, it is in a strong position to shape not just this election but the presidential vote, too.
By IWPR Central Asia

It’s hard to overestimate the significance of the forthcoming parliamentary election. In many ways, it will prove more important to Kyrgyzstan’s future than the presidential ballot scheduled for autumn this year.

It’s pretty obvious that the outcome of the February 27 vote will shape the way the later election is run, and who will win. There’s even a real possibility that a strong win for the authorities could allow them to change the constitutional rules so that the presidential election does not take place at all.

They seem to be acting in the spirit of the old saying, “as ye sow, so shall ye reap”.

The regime is campaigning for parliament harder than it has ever done before. The techniques employed include buying votes and intimidating voters.

Although the authorities’ efforts display some desperation, one has to concede that they are also employing more intelligent and subtle methods than in the past. They like to fight without observing the rules, but at least they haven’t weighted their gloves.

It is safe to predict that the pro-government parties will take a third of the seats in the 75-member legislature. The opposition could get around a fifth – the most likely winners being those belonging to parties and movements which make up the Forum of Political Forces.

That leaves just under half the seats for the independents, the non-party candidates. Many of these will in reality be taken by individuals who are anything but independent and who have been nominated or co-opted by the regime.

The only caveat is that once the election is out of the way, the pro-president candidates – like the anti-president ones – will not necessarily honour pledges of loyalty they made beforehand. Shifting allegiances are a feature of the Kyrgyz political scene.

The expected overwhelming victory will offer the authorities a new lease of life, and the chance to reformulate their strategy for the future.

What, then, are the possible post-election scenarios for Kyrgyzstan?

The first of these - and the most dangerous in constitutional terms – is that a loyal parliament could arrange matters to change the current rules limiting the president to two terms in office (which automatically bars the incumbent Askar Akaev from running again this year). That requires changes to the election code, on which parliament could legislate, and an amendment to the constitution itself, which would require a public referendum. That done, Akaev could run for office again.

A variant on this theme would be for a referendum to be arranged to extend Akaev’s current term in office, obviating the need for an election this year.

The second possibility is that the role of chairman of the lower house is enhanced to overshadow that of the president. Acting at the prompting of President Akaev, the loyal majority in parliament could narrow the president’s powers so that the key decision-makers are the speaker, the pro-regime deputies, and the prime minister. That would allow Akaev to fulfil his repeated promise to step down, in the knowledge that his successor will be too weak to oust the elite who are now in situ.

Finally, there is the scenario where there is no constitutional change, but Akaev leaves office, and the elite seeks to perpetuate the status quo by installing a successor. This has to be effected smoothly, and the heir carefully selected, so that outsiders – the opposition and the public – do not get sufficient advance warning to identify and build up alternative candidates.

Kyrgyzstan’s political scene displays a number of features that favour the position of those politicians who now hold power, as against that of outsiders.

One of the most important is that what looks on the outside to be a strong presidential system has mutated into what one might call “vozhdism” – a Russian term which translates as “leader-ism”. That is manifest in the fact that instead of drawing support from a ruling political party or from business, the regime is built on a web of clan relationships. Staff are appointed on the basis of kinship or personal allegiances. Along with nepotism, corruption is rife.

That might look like a system full of deficiencies but, for all its faults, “leader-ism” works by creating solidarity within the regime, which allows it to defend itself against all comers.

Another key feature of Kyrgyzstan is the lack of a mature political and intellectual elite with the capacity to engage in constructive activity. This, incidentally, is what distinguishes our country from Ukraine and Georgia. As a result, the current system is unchallenged in its role as the only powerful player.

As for the voters, they have traditionally remained passive actors, excluded from the political process. The rampant corruption and abuse of power among officials, combined with the impoverishment of much of the population, means that people tend to base their interactions with those who rule over them on purely mercantile interest – what they can get out of the deal.

This combination of a tight “chieftain”-based structure and an inert electorate makes the regime’s position unassailable, and means its future is all but assured.

The regime may yet go for a referendum to allow Akaev to run for office again. Right now, it looks more than likely that he will go. The only question is how.

Muratbek Imanaliev is head of the Justice and Progress party, and a former foreign minister of Kyrgyzstan.