Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
On October 4, voters go to the polls in Kyrgyzstan to elect a parliament for the next five years.
This is the second election since the revised constitution of 2010 gave the Jogorku Kenesh (National Assembly) greater powers. Fourteen parties are standing, with lists of candidates who will be awarded seats under a proportional representation system.
SAME OLD POLITICIANS
Politicians in the outgoing parliament have a high opinion of their own records. In contrast, the voters are mostly disappointed, and have thus been dismayed to find that 92 of the 120 members of this parliament are listed as candidates for the next one. If that is no surprise, it is certainly remarkable that the majority of them are now aligned with different parties than the ones they belonged to last time.
These two facts are illustrative of broader problems with the upcoming election. First, there is the sheer number of “old” politicians being recycled. Most have records that leave a lot to be desired. That suggests that government in the next five years will be familiar and unimpressive in equal measure. Second, it shows that most parties are devoid of ideas and ideals. As politicians and parties put themselves on the market, matching up their ideological convictions is virtually the last thing on their minds. Apparently, no one holds any convictions.
Why do these patterns recur again and again, even though they are generally recognised and resented in Kyrgyzstan? Both supporters and critics of the parliamentary system created by the 2010 constitution comment on the dismal state of political parties and the unprincipled, calculating behaviour of politicians. Despite that, this election will unfold the same way as before and the cycle will be repeated.
SUPPLY AND DEMAND
If there is a demand for positive change, it is worthwhile considering why it is not happening; in other words, why we have the same old politicians and parties as before, and why they will be elected again.
One way of explaining the shortcomings of the political landscape in Kyrgyzstan is the analogy of the market, which American political scientist Henry Hale applied to the Russian situation.
According to this analogy, supply will meet demand, and conversely, demand will tend to adjust to supply. So if the electorate in Kyrgyzstan has voted for particular kinds of party over a period of time, these will continue to be reproduced. A supplier has little interest in investing a lot of time, money and intellectual effort in improving an existing product if a cheaper and simpler version is already selling well, and the improved product may well offer no significant returns on investment, or may not prove popular with customers. Building a strong, stable and ideologically unwavering party in Kyrgyzstan is certainly a costly endeavour.
The market analogy applies to the slow-changing face of the political elite as well. Just like an economic market, the “political market” can be filled to saturation point by a group of long-term, well-connected monopolists, so that it becomes extremely difficult for a young upstart to gain a foothold. Promising young entrants can be bought up by the big players, whereas an upstart who tries to replicate and supplant existing figures will most likely lose the battle for survival.
Hence, following the logic of the market, the supply side in Kyrgyzstan has tended to be crowded and – in terms of attitude – conservative, self-reinforcing and pragmatic.
BLAME THE CUSTOMER
Bearing with the market analogy, let us now look at the demand side. Demand shapes supply as well as being shaped by it. Those seeking office will try to appeal to as big a chunk of the electorate as they can.
In terms of their demands and expectations, voters in Kyrgyzstan tend to focus on specific issues – unemployment, corruption, ties with Russia, ethnic relations and so on. They also seek more practical rewards – getting a road, school or playground repaired, a bridge or mosque built, a new water pump installed.
Their reasons for doing so are probably a mix of habit, entrenched mistrust of the parties’ more complex programmes and promises, and consequently a preference for immediate rewards. Kyrgyzstan’s electorate is not driven by ideological factors and has little interest in learning about parties’ philosophies for running the state and the economy. It is hard to say whether this indifference stems from the virtual absence of differences between parties, or whether the parties tend to be mainstream because the electorate is generally indifferent.
In terms of their loyalties, voters rarely identify themselves as socialist, libertarian or liberal. Nor do they vote that way; instead they choose parties according to who is in them. They may like – or dislike – a particular party leader and vote accordingly. Or they may have “one of their own” listed as a candidate, for whom they will vote. While the party leader is a fixture, the candidate list is open to change, and this has prompted all the parties to fill their lists with promising, respected vote-winners from all around the country.
Another factor is the fact of being the incumbent. The party of power tends to get most votes by virtue of that fact. It may simply be that people prioritise stability, but it is also because of the habit they have learned – in the past, through coercion – of picking the safe option. This is still only a hypothesis, since Kyrgyzstan still has little experience of free and fair elections.
Given these voting patterns, it makes sense that political parties do not change significantly from election to election, and that it is mostly well-worn figures who appear on candidate lists.
IS IT ALL BAD?
How serious a problem is it, then, that voters are being offered the same choices in this election?
In most democracies, it is commonplace for politicians to seek re-election. Once they have been in office, few will pass up on the chance of doing the job again. It is perfectly normal for three-quarters of members of a parliament to stand again. So those who complain about it in Kyrgyzstan may be asking too much.
The average age of politicians in Kyrgyzstan is fairly young. The over-60s are a minority in the government as well as in parliament, and many are in their thirties. For this election, several of the main parties have gone for even younger candidates. One party’s leaflet advertises the fact that its oldest candidate is 63 and its youngest 23.
When it comes to recruiting new blood, many of the parties appear to be listening to the electorate. All the main parties feature, high on their lists, candidates who have never held an elected position or other public office before, who are political unknowns, and in some extreme cases, have achieved little of note in any area. It remains to be seen whether any of these wannabes will make it into parliament.
Thus, the complaint that the parties are only recycling figures from the past may not be wholly justified.
A more cogent concern is the record of some past politicians. Many of those familiar faces performed poorly while in office. Many have been tried and often convicted of wrongdoing. In a country where it is common to combine high-level public office with private commerce, there is considerable popular resentment of longstanding businessmen-cum-politicians, on the grounds that they may have abused their positions for private gain.
Another accusation that can justifiably be levelled against political parties is their paucity of ideas. It is difficult to identify any significant differences among the various parties in terms of how they would manage the economy, what they regard as a just social order, or where they would take the country constitutionally.
Almost all parties lack detail and depth on these matters. They all tend to compete with one another to offer the most enticing promises for rooting out corruption, creating jobs, making loans available and affordable, strengthening the family, and uniting the country. When it comes to how they would put these agendas into action, there are few ideas on the table.
This lack of diversity is underscored by the large number of politicians who have switched parties for the current election. It is about as abnormal as it gets for serving legislators, even parliamentary party leaders, to put their names down as candidates for another party. In one case, a party in the ruling coalition has admitted into its ranks several of the most vocal opposition members of parliament. The large number of defectors, coupled with the many candidates who have only just joined their party, indicates that an individual’s views and convictions are of little interest to the parties.
To borrow a term from political theorist Ernest Gellner, political parties in Kyrgyzstan are “modular” in that they can be disassembled and reassembled with any combination of members, if not the actual leaders, and they will function just the same.
Emil Dzhuraev holds a PhD in political science from the University of Maryland, and currently lectures at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek.
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