The process of preparing exclusive interviews with selected candidates for the presidential election on October 30 turned out to be an interesting exercise.
Trying to get responses from 20 candidates – three of whom did not respond at all – definitely gave us the thrill of the chase. Apart from me, our group conducting interviews included my other colleagues, IWPR regional editor Dina Tokbaeva and contributor Anarkhan Sadyralieva.
And while trying to get them to reply to the set of short questions, we discovered things about politicians – one of whom would become our next head of state – which left us on some occasions pleasantly surprised but on others somewhat disappointed.
The aim of IWPR’s speedy interviews was to provide the public with a rough guide on contenders for a contest that had a record number of more than 80 nominees.
Following the selection process by the central election commission, this number was down to 23 approved candidates as of October 7.
Our list included front-runners such as former interim prime minister Almazbek Atambaev, who heads the Social Democratic Party; Ata Jurt party leader Kamchybek Tashiev; and the head of Butun Kyrgyzstan, Adakhan Madumarov, as well as representatives from other major parties and independents.
The forthcoming election will be the first opportunity voters have had to choose a national leader since a popular uprising forced former president Kurmanbek Bakiev out of power in April 2010.
A constitutional referendum held in June that year radically reduced the powers of future presidents and transferred most decision-making to the legislature, making Kyrgyzstan the first and only parliamentary democracy in Central Asia.
Candidates were asked questions such as whether they want to change the current constitution – as there have been calls for going back to strong presidential rule – and whether they would keep the American airbase here if elected.
They were asked what ethnic policy was needed for Kyrgyzstan – a country that last year went through inter-ethnic violence leaving more than 400 dead – what was their stance on privatisation and nationalisation and what would be their first decision as president.
While their answers were summarised in one paragraph, it took many hours of chasing them to get their responses.
Many hopefuls were unexpectedly open and accessible. But this came out only during face-to-face meetings, which were not easy to get. First, we had to pass through an army of secretaries, assistants, aides and press officers from their entourage.
It seemed that their job was not to help a politician communicate with his public but to keep him away from them.
As we found out later, not only did the aides come up with a long list of excuses to turn down our request – such as “he is busy” or “can’t talk right now” – but some candidates did not even know we had asked them for an interview.
Aides and bodyguards of Tashiev – a straight-talking politician known for expressing strongly-worded views – tried their best to “protect” him from being interviewed by us. So, tired of fruitless promises from his team, we decided to reach him ourselves during a parliamentary session.
Standing by the door of the hall where sessions were held, we moved towards him as soon as he emerged.
As he walked a few steps along the corridor to reach his headquarters, we managed to explain what we wanted and got invited to his office.
The interview – in which he was friendly and polite – lasted only five minutes.
In the case of former Bishkek mayor Nariman Tyuleev, his assistants made us wait for two hours for an interview that lasted two minutes.
The problem with well-known politicians running for president was gaining access to them . With obscure newcomers largely unknown to the public, it took some time just to find their contact numbers.
What’s more, probably due to a lack of experience of working with the media, such candidates were deeply mistrustful towards journalists and extremely reluctant to talk.
Yet not all interviews were difficult to get. Some agreed to talk over the phone and there were cases when aides proved very helpful and sent us responses electronically, so that we did not need to ambush candidates.
But getting access to them was only half the job. The task of getting them to give clear and direct answers to our questions was no less challenging.
Their responses were a source of real disappointment. And I am not talking here about not getting straight answers, or that they gave replies that suited them. This is something which is expected of politicians, for whom every question is a matter of projecting the right image, anticipating the public’s reactions, trying to please their supporters and avoiding being cornered.
What surprised me was how unprepared some seemed to take up the highest office in the country. There was a general lack of well-argued, strong views on the issues we asked them about – which makes it even more difficult to distinguish between the different candidates.
The majority of candidates favoured abandoning the parliamentary system and returning to the days when one person ran the country, but gave unsatisfactory explanations when asked to explain why they favoured the restoration of a strong presidential power and the reduction of parliamentary authority.
On the rights of ethnic groups living in Kyrgyzstan, some expressed nationalist views, putting the interests of the Kyrgyz first, while others said that all people should be treated equally, with a general call for friendship between various ethnic groups.
There was similarly divided opinion on the issue of whether to keep the American base. Some really struggled to comment on the direction Kyrgyzstan’s foreign policy should take; not many had a clearly formed view on nationalisation or privatisation; and only a handful had an idea of what their first step as a president would be.
My disappointment was largely shared by prospective voters, who expressed their views on internet forums after reading the IWPR interviews republished on various websites in Kyrgyzstan.
They were critical of those presidential candidates who were not able to project a clear vision and give thorough answers on issues that so greatly concern the public.
Politicians often complain that the media usually presents them in a negative light. But the way they took up the opportunity to present themselves to the public - in what, for many of the newcomers, may have been their first interview - shows that many of them do not make much of an effort to break the stereotype.
Timur Toktonaliev is IWPR editor in Kyrgyzstan.