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Kyrgyz Election: Going Through the Motions

In the run-up to parliamentary polls, the president’s men are pulling out all the stops to make sure they get the result they want.
By IWPR Central Asia
From her well-hidden office in a Bishkek tower block, with not even a sign on the door, Tolekan Ismailova is gearing up for another battle.

Veteran human rights activist Ismailova and her colleagues from the Citizens Against Corruption group are determined to embarrass the Kyrgyz authorities over what she describes as blatant moves to fix the outcome of the December 16 parliamentary election.

Days before the vote, most people appear resigned to an inevitable landslide victory by Ak Jol, the political vehicle that President Kurmanbek Bakiev set up on October 15, a few days before his revised constitution was passed by a referendum and he called a snap election.

According to a Citizens Against Corruption statement, “The Central Electoral Commission and the courts have been using unlawful methods to restrict political parties from participating in the parliamentary elections.

“Several parties that had real support from the electorate and a clear chance of getting into parliament have been dismissed from the race,” the statement read.

Only 12 of the 50 parties that applied to stand in the election have been allowed to do so by the Central Election Commission, CEC.

“We are seeing major violations [of election legislation],” said Ismailova angrily. “In schools, both children and teachers are being told, ‘You will join Ak Jol because it’s the president’s party.’”

She alleges that the CEC, tasked with impartial supervision of the poll, merely reflects official policy - which is to marginalise all serious political rivals to Ak Jol, leaving the field free for it and a few select allies.

Ismailova says the CEC’s decision to ban the Zamandash party from the race, and also to expel the young and charismatic Social Democratic candidate, Edil Baisalov, offer proof of the commission’s susceptibility to what people term “administrative resources”.

This code word, understood by everyone, refers to the web of patronage, coercion and manpower the incumbent authorities can draw on to secure the desired outcome of elections.

“Zamandash was barred because it was not corrupt, so they barred it on a technicality,” said Ismailova on. “The government was afraid because it had good people in it; because they were fresh and new.”

She dismisses President Bakiev with a look of scorn. “If he was 33 and had travelled abroad, that would be one thing, but he’s a classic bureaucrat, a real part of the old ‘nomenklatura’,” she said.

“But he moves fast,” she conceded. “He’s gathering a lot of money and resources.”

Bakiev came to power as a result of mass street protests in March 2005, prompted by rigged parliamentary elections that forced the then president Askar Akaev to flee.

During the two years that Bakiev has been president, he has been under pressure from opposition and civil society groups to deliver on a range of reform pledges.

To defuse one of a series of mass anti-government protests, he signed a new constitution in November 2006 extending the powers of parliament and curtailing his own. But by the end of the year he had regained most of his powers, as parliament feared dissolution if it did not comply with the constitutional revision.

After the Constitutional Court ruled both versions of the document invalid, Bakiev proposed a third version in September, which was quickly passed the following month in a referendum. The announcement of an early parliamentary election followed shortly afterwards.

The country’s 100 or so parties were given only weeks to prepare to compete under the newly introduced proportional electoral system for all parliamentary seats. Until now, the main system used has been based on single-mandate constituencies.

Charges of election bias are not limited to rights activists like Ismailova.

While foreign diplomats hold their fire – unwilling, perhaps, to alienate the Central Asian state that comes closest to upholding democratic principles – many are privately concerned that Kyrgyzstan could go the same way as Kazakstan with its one-party parliament.

“It’s very obvious,” said one diplomatic source, referring to the preferential treatment Ak Jol gets in the media. “They get 80 per cent of the airtime. They are supposed to allow all the parties free airtime but this hasn’t happened.”

“I find it disappointing,” the source added. “If you are going to behave like this, don’t do it so openly. It’s almost farcical.”

A representative of one of the observer groups preparing to monitor the polls said he feared the authorities were pre-arranging the election results in a somewhat obvious fashion.

“I’m not sure they’re smart enough to set up a false result more credibly,” he said.

“The results are pre-determined,” he added, outlining a scenario in which various provinces “compete to outperform on his [Bakiev’s] behalf. Where there is no observer presence, you will see people voting 98 per cent for Ak Jol.”

A widespread conviction that people are being asked only to go through the motions helps explain the lacklustre atmosphere in the capital only days before the ballot. There are few signs on the street of tension, excitement, or even interest.

Election posters are few and far between, while minimal effort has gone into devising slogans for the 12 parties allowed to take part. Most posters for Ak Jol merely feature a smiling person above the unimaginative slogan, “Ak jol, Kyrgyzstan!”

Turnout is expected to be low, though whether the authorities will be prepared to admit this remains to be seen.

Many observers are concerned about ballot-stuffing, a common practice in past elections. The presence of a few hundred foreign monitors provides only partial insurance against this, as they will not be able to cover the several thousand polling stations.

The day after the October 21 referendum, the OSCE mission head in Bishkek, Markus Mueller, lambasted the “high number of irregularities” that had marred the poll.

In a statement, the OSCE said these included "massive ballot-stuffing by members of precinct election commissions, use of administrative resources to bring people to polling stations, [and] obstruction of domestic observers by local authorities and members of election commissions”.

Political observers note that in the weeks before the election, the president has made a number of key moves, replacing the governor of the southern Osh region and the Kyrgyz education minister with known loyalists and shunting aside Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev, who heads the Social Democratic Party.

With few indications that the election will be entirely free or fair, observers already have their eye on the aftermath, wondering whether the opposition will sit back or take to the streets.

Tolekan Ismailova is in no doubt that the government will use its fresh mandate to clamp down on dissenters. “After the election a lot of people will be arrested,” she predicted.

She says she is not fazed by that prospect, as her family has already suffered as a result of her political activities.

“People will stand up,” she said confidently. “They know this election is their only chance to express their views and change something in this country.”

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