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Kyrgyz Parties Say Rule Change Undermines Election

A new requirement set by election officials could make it almost impossible for parties to win seats in parliament.
By IWPR Central Asia
Opposition politicians and human rights groups in Kyrgyzstan say a rule change by the electoral authorities will make it virtually impossible for them to win seats in the December 16 parliamentary election.

The parties were already unhappy that the new constitution and electoral code approved in an October 21 referendum set two different thresholds that they must meet if they are to win seats under the new proportional representation system.

First, they must get five per cent of the total national electorate, estimated at 2.7 million people. Second, they must also get 0.5 per cent of the vote in each of Kyrgyzstan’s regions. This latter provision was written into the rules to prevent parties based on local or ethnic interests from making it into the national legislature.

However, on November 19, the Central Electoral Commission came out with a ruling that completely rewrote the regional threshold.

Instead of 0.5 per cent of the electoral roll for each region individually, which would be proportional to the size of the local population, the CEC said that in each region, parties must win 0.5 per cent of the total national electoral roll. This is a fixed figure which works out at 13,500 people.

The rule change may seem a mere technicality, but it could make it well-nigh impossible for even a strong party to win the required number of votes in every one of Kyrgyzstan’s seven regions, plus the big cities of Bishkek and Osh.

In a large region like Jalalabad, for example, the hurdle should still be easy enough to meet.

But take a sparsely-populated region like Talas, for example, where there are 121,000 people on the electoral roll. According to the Electoral Code, parties had to get 0.5 per cent of that total. At just over 600 people, that should present little problem, even if many of the listed voters are away working in Russia or are too apathetic to go to the polls.

The CEC’s new ruling, however, requires that each party – so far 12 have been formally registered by the CEC – gets 13,500 votes in Talas, over 11 per cent of the listed total.

Constitutional lawyer Gulnara Iskakova argues that this is an unworkable system. “Regions have different numbers of voters. How does this threshold relate to the regions? I think the upcoming election will be undemocratic and will not provide the parties with an equal starting-point,” she said.

The CEC’s ruling sparked a furious response from parties which felt the ground was being cut from under them.

On November 21, ten political parties wrote a letter addressed to President Bakiev in which they said the new regional requirement “contradicts the constitution, creates artificial obstacles and violates the constitutional rights and freedoms of citizens”.

The parties urged Bakiev to clarify the situation. However, the president’s press office said he would not be meeting party leaders as this seemed unnecessary.

Omurbek Tekebaev, the leader of the opposition Ata-Meken – one of the parties which signed the letter – warns that so many parties could fall at the new hurdle that many of parliament’s 90 seats could be left empty.

“There’s a danger that none of the parties will win in the first round. That is seriously irresponsible, as it means we would risk being left without a parliament….the election would be annulled. This is dangerous,” he said, noting that President Bakiev ordered parliament’s dissolution after announcing the snap election in October, and a poor showing in December could mean a re-run would not take place until spring.

Tekebaev warned of the dangers to the democratic process of striking out a party which had won 30 or 40 per cent of the vote nationally, but had failed the 0.5 per cent mark in one region.

“The CEC would annul this victory, and the result would be that the views of a large slice of the population would be ignored… The election result might not be recognised by the majority of the population,” he said.

When he proposed a new constitution and called the December election, president Bakiev was clearly trying to draw a line under the political instability and argument – much of it centring on the constitution – that has dogged his rule virtually ever since he came to power in the March 2005 revolution.

Some analysts are now warning that if the regional threshold is not sorted out, the issue could lead to a period of renewed uncertainty and instability.

Political scientist Nur Omarov is concerned that if Bakiev cannot produce a convincing explanation for the regional barrier, the legitimacy of the December election result could be placed in doubt.

“Contradictory interpretations of this rule will create scope for litigation and undermine the legitimacy of this election,” he said.

The Civil Committee for Voters Rights Protection, which was recently formed to promote fair elections, sees the threshold as a major barrier to Kyrgyzstan’s parties.

In a statement issued on October 20, the committee said, “The rule is premature, and may greatly limit access to power for political parties that have great potential and outstanding leaders, and which could make a real contribution to the development of Kyrgyzstan.”

Because the CEC ruling would deprive people of an equal say in the decision-making process, the committee warned. “We believe there is a real danger of new conflicts among this country’s population.”

In October, Bakiev set up a new group called the Ak Jol People’s Party which he clearly envisages as a future ruling party.

With the president’s backing, Ak Jol should be uniquely placed to pick up 13,500 votes in each of the nine electoral provinces. However, the party’s deputy chair Elmira Ibraimova has filed a legal petition requesting the CEC to renounce its re-interpretation of the regional requirement.

At the same time, Adakhan Madumarov, another leading figure in Ak Jol who has stepped down as State Secretary to run in the election, insists the regional barrier is not in breach of the constitution.

“If any party is worried that it won’t get the necessary amount of votes to break this half per cent barrier, then it doesn’t have the right to claim to be a national political party and form a cabinet of ministers. This rule has been introduced to get political parties to unite on the basis of their convictions and programmes. I don’t see this half per cent barrier as a major tragedy,” Madumarov told IWPR.

CEC member Aigul Ryskulova said the aim of the newly-interpreted threshold barrier is to rule out the many tiny parties and encourage the stronger ones to field candidates.

“We can already see that some oppositional parties have merged. Proportional representation is a more voter-friendly system. It will lead to the creation of several large, strong parties that will represent the interests of most important sections of society,” she said. “Parties have to move away from regionalism, and that is why 0.5 per cent is needed.”

Ryskulova said that if Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court was asked to make a ruling on the matter and decided that the original interpretation of how the 0.5 per cent quota should work – based on regional electoral rolls - the CEC would fall into line.

However, she said, the system would work even if further rounds of voting had to be held to fill parliament’s seats.

“If no party crosses the threshold, there will be repeat elections. It won’t be a catastrophe,” she said. “We would like it to be completed in one round, with a few big parties getting into the parliament. But this is a big political race with a big prize – the right of the majority party to nominate a prime minister and form a government. So the requirements are high as well.”

Yryskeldi Kadykeev is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.