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Kyrgyz Parties Must Merge or Fail

Political parties have more of a chance of winning power than ever before, but they are in no shape to fight elections at the moment.
By Aziza Turdueva
Radical changes to the way elections work in Kyrgyzstan have opened up opportunities for the country’s political parties to win real political power, but the current fragmented constellation of political groupings is not up to the challenge, analysts say.

Kyrgyzstan officially has 96 parties which range from right to left and are generally aligned either with President Kurmanbek Bakiev or against him. But apart from a handful of leading players, few parties have much of a profile and prospective voters would have a hard time telling them apart.

The 75 members of the current parliament, elected prior to the March 2005 uprising in which the then president Askar Akaev fled the country and the current rulers were swept to power, were elected by the first-past-the-post system in which candidates’ party allegiance played a lesser role.

But the new constitution introduced following opposition protest rallies in November, and amended at the end of December, says that half of the now 90 seats in the next parliament will be elected by proportional system, in which places will be awarded to those at the top of parties’ candidate lists.

The winning party will also get more of a say in forming a government, although this was somewhat diluted by the December revisions which returned certain powers to the president.

Kyrgyzstan has tried proportional representation before, in a parliamentary election in 2000 in which a handful of seats were awarded to parties. But a constitutional amendment three years later brought the experiment to a close.

Even the best-known parties in Kyrgyzstan garner support less for their particular political stance than for the personalities who lead them. As is the case in Russia and other former Soviet states, few of the parties have made concerted efforts to build a strong nationwide organisation based on an active grassroots membership.

Now, however, in anticipation of the strengthened role the constitution gives them, the parties are already busy setting up regional branches and recruiting new members. Given the importance of strong personalities at regional as well as national level, this recruitment drive is especially targeted at high-profile local politicians, businessmen and others capable of mobilising resources and support.

Many politicians conclude that local - often tribal - connections will remain an important facet of political party support since many people are disillusioned with ideology and uninterested in politics. In past elections, candidates have been able to win simply by offering cash handouts to anyone prepared to vote for them - a more immediate reward than the prospect that a particular political manifesto might eventually lead to economic growth and more jobs.

“The electorate here is not really interested in party programmes, but they are well informed about leaders and their views,” said Tairbek Sarpashev, deputy speaker of the Kyrgyz parliament, who recently joined the Atameken Socialist Party. “Unfortunately, for the moment we have to take this into account.”

The prospect of gaining real political power at national level is nevertheless prompting parties to work harder on their public image and define a clearer vision of what they would like to do.

“All the parties now have similar agendas,” Zainidin Kurmanov, a leading member of the Moya Strana party, told IWPR’s News Briefing Central Asia agency. “It will be difficult for voters to differentiate between them. It is now up to each party to familiarise the electorate with its policies and explain how it differ from the rest.”

Presenting a clearly-defined, unique image is a challenging task in such a crowded field. One of the reasons behind the sheer number of parties in this small country is that they are often the vehicles for one individual or a small group of backers, who provide the bulk of the funding in the absence of a broad, subscription-paying membership base.

“The lack of state support means that they are created with the financial aid of certain politicians and businessmen. So new parties keep on appearing,” said Kubatbek Baibolov, chairman of the Union of Democratic Forces party, an opposition-leaning group set up in late 2005.

One logical solution to Kyrgyzstan’s fragmented politics is for parties to merge into larger groupings capable of fighting and winning elections - as long as they can persuade the big personalities who lead them to share power.

Tamerlan Ibraimov, who heads the Bishkek-based Centre for Political and Legal Studies, believes the approach of a parliamentary election will sharpen minds and facilitate mergers. The next ballot is not due until 2010, although some have suggested an early election as a way of calming the ongoing political turbulence, since this would at least bring the structure of parliament into line with the constitution.

“As a parliamentary election begins to loom, the question of whether parties unite will be decided not so much by ideology, but on the way the political situation develops,” said Ibraimov.

Parties aligned with the current administration will need to build alliances and consolidate into bigger blocs to ensure they win a majority in parliament. Most of the 30 or so parties which have emerged since March 2005 are Bakiev supporters. Given his strained relationship with the current legislature, Bakiev is likely to encourage his supporters to wrest control in the next election.

But consolidation is in the interests of all parties, not just the pro-Bakiev groups. Political analyst Valentin Bogatyrev told IWPR that if the parties remain as fractured as they now are, an election could result in five or six being represented in parliament, with no clear winner. Under the constitution, the right to nominate a prime minister would then revert to Bakiev.

Opposition parties are therefore also working on bridge-building with other groups and with prominent individual politicians with a view to consolidation and growth.

For example, the opposition Atameken party led by Omurbek Tekebaev has strengthened its ranks by recruiting members of parliament representing various regions of Kyrgyzstan. Apart from Sarpashev, they include parliamentary speaker Erkinbek Alymbekov from Issykkul region, two other members of parliament - Bolot Sherniazov from Talas and Karganbek Samakov from Naryn - and Omurbek Abdrakhmanov, a leading businessman in the Chui region.

Aziza Turdueva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.

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