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Kyrgyz Parties Face Test in Capital's Election

Bishkek council election less straightforward than it seems for three dominant parties.
By Azret Timurov
  • The mayor's office in Bishkek. November 25 elections will create a new city council, which will in turn select a mayor. (Photo: Vlad Litvinov/Flickr)
    The mayor's office in Bishkek. November 25 elections will create a new city council, which will in turn select a mayor. (Photo: Vlad Litvinov/Flickr)

Three parties that make up Kyrgyzstan’s governing coalition are going all-out to win a crucial election for Bishkek city assembly. But although most observers predict that the Social Democrats and their Ata Meken and Ar Namys allies will do well, the electorate in the capital may prove unconvinced, even apathetic.

Local elections are taking place all across Kyrgyzstan on November 25, but Bishkek is the jewel in the crown, since so much of the country’s wealth and business activity is concentrated there. Once in place, the 45-member city council will select a mayor, a powerful post in itself.

As well as the obvious advantages of holding the capital, the three ruling parties are also keen to do well because the ballot outcome will be read as an indicator of how they will perform in the next parliamentary election, due in 2015.

However, several factors make the Bishkek council election something of an unknown quantity. In what is seen as the first genuinely fair ballot in the city – the last was held in 2008 when President Kurmanbek Bakiev exerted considerable control – there are about 20 parties competing to make their voices heard and win assembly seats.

Also, voting patterns in Bishkek are less predictable than in other parts of the country. The capital’s electorate is a diverse mix of Russian-speaking Kyrgyz, ethnic Russians, plus a newer influx of Kyrgyz from the countryside, often of a more nationalist bent. According to Gulnara Ibraeva, head of the sociology programme at the American University in Central Asia, these different constituencies will vote, variously, for parties whose politics they agree with, whose leaders come from the same region or tribe as them, which are pro-Moscow, or which espouse nationalist views.

Like voters all across the country, Bishkek’s electorate also suffers from apathy. Ibraeva points out that elections over the last 15 have shown an average turnout of only about 30 per cent.

“There’s no confidence in the authorities, and no faith in one’s own choices,” Ibraeva said. “If someone is sure nothing’s going to come of it, they will either seek maximum [personal] advantage from the election and even sell their vote to anyone who makes them an offer, or else they will entirely ignore the fact that an election is going on.”

Although not necessarily an accurate reflection of actual voting intentions, polls conducted by local websites suggest that no one party is clearly out in front of the rest. And that is important because the Bishkek assembly is being elected by proportional representation, where voters choose a party, not individual politicians.

Another reason the three main parties might need to worry is that in government, their performance in turning around the economy and dealing with other problems has failed to impress.

Ata Meken has faced particular troubles with former coalition partner Respublika, which resulted in the latter’s ejection from government in September, and the resignation of its leader Omurbek Babanov as prime minister. (See Kyrgyz Elite Ousts Over-Independent Premier.) Babanov’s coalition rivals accused him of corruption, an allegation he denied. Other commentators said his rivals were resentful because as prime minister, he refused to hand out jobs to their cronies.

Once in opposition, Respublika members accused Ata Meken politicians of aiding and abetting an outbreak of looting in Bishkek that followed the fall of President Bakiev in April 2010. 

“The rights and wrongs of this will come out in the [parliamentary] investigation and in court. But this process is inevitably going to affect the outcome of the election,” Uran Botobekov, director of the Centre for Humanitarian Studies and Conflictology, said. “These parties clearly aren’t just fighting for power. This is a way of justifying themselves, of improving their public reputations. It’s a battle for the moral right to declare themselves honest and clean.”

Because Respublika positions itself as the party of the business-minded middle class, it could do well in the Bishkek election. Babanov is a former business leader and is well-connected in commercial circles, and analyst say his party has run a well-considered election campaign. Republika’s departure from power may boost its support, given the popular dissatisfaction with the way things are going.

The Social Democrats, too, have no cause for complacency. They have held the mayor’s post, in the person of Isa Omurkulov, since 2010. In that time, Botobekov says, “The city has not made any progress in social and economic terms. On the contrary, it’s only got worse, and popular anger is rising.”

One thing the three governing parties probably do not have to fear is a major challenge from the nationalist Ata Jurt party. According to political analyst Askar Mambetaliev, support for the party is mainly in southern Kyrgyzstan, and it is unlikely to do well in the more ethnically diverse capital. Its leader Kamchibek Tashiev was arrested last month and faces the serious charge of calling for a coup.

Even if Bishkek differs in many ways from the country as a whole, this exercise in democracy is still being seen as the most important pointer yet as to how the Social Democrat-Ata Meken-Ar Namys coalition will fare in 2015, when as well as a parliamentary election, they will face a battle for the presidency, currently held by the Social Democrats’ Almazbek Atambaev.

“This is a kind of dress rehearsal for the [2015] elections, in that winning will definitely require proper preparations,” Mambetaliev said. “If [parties] win these elections, they will find the next ones easier, as they will have gained an understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses.”

Azret Timurov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Kyrgyzstan.

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