Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyz Poll: More Choice, or More of Same?

Amidst plethora of parties for voters to choose from, a remarkably resilient political class adapts and survives.
By Pavel Dyatlenko

Although a record number of parties are taking part in Kyrgyzstan’s forthcoming parliamentary election, it does not follow that voters are being offered a wide choice of political alternatives. 

Instead, what we are seeing is a competition within a stable political elite that has existed since Kyrgyzstan became an independent state two decades ago. A quick glance through the lists of candidates suggests that the next parliament will once again be dominated by the veteran political class, not new blood.

The constitutional changes approved by a national referendum in June were designed to radically reshape Kyrgyzstan’s political landscape. Instead of a presidential system which places far too much power in the hands of the head of state, the October 10 election is to produce a parliament with greater powers and a more independent government.

That should be a good thing. But in the Kyrgyz context, where the political and economic spheres are controlled by between 150 and 200 elite families, it looks less convincing.

Both of Kyrgyzstan’s previous presidents – Askar Akaev and then Kurmanbek Bakiev were ousted after they concentrated too much political and economic power in the hands of their immediate families and alienated the wider “aristocracy” of business and government, which helped engineer their removal. Now the same elite has decided to decentralise authority by parcelling it out between the prime minister, the speaker and the legislators as well as the president.

The new faces on the candidate lists of some of the parties consist of relatives of party leaders – many bear the same surnames – plus loyal party protégés, businessmen who want to translate their economic clout into political influence, and a smattering of celebrities from sport and show-business who can offer the populist touch.

By co-opting only newcomers like these who are closely associated with them, rather than opening up the field to outsiders, however talented they might be, the established members of the political elite is trying to use the parliamentary election to maintain their position and ensure that the next generation of politicians is essentially from the same mould.

The risk, then, is that instead of the fundamentally new system that many people were hoping for, Kyrgyzstan may simply exchange presidential autocracy for a clan- and family-based oligarchy dressed up as a parliamentary democracy.

As for what the electorate actually wants, it is more than likely that most voters will make choices out of a desire for stability, calm and development, rather than particular political preference.

The parties themselves are playing to the crowd, with many of them targeting the rural electorate – some 65 per cent of the population at the last count – as well as recent migrants from countryside to urban areas, who constitute a significant force of disgruntled and marginalised voters.

Because the latter are mainly ethnic Kyrgyz, this kind of populism carries some inherent risks, given the mass inter-communal violence we saw in southern Kyrgyzstan in June. If certain parties are overtly appealing to a Kyrgyz electorate, members of ethnic minorities are likely to vote for political figures whom they regard as untainted by the recent turbulence.

Society in Kyrgyzstan remains profoundly divided along ethnic lines by the June violence, and this will inevitably affect voting patterns and the overall results of the ballot.

Much will depend on the turnout, which is hard to predict since no one really knows how many voters there are, with estimates of labour migration to Russia and Kazakstan ranging from 500,000 to a million.

At least voters will not be spoilt for choice. This time, 29 parties are campaigning for seats, compared with 12 in the disputed election of 2007. Opinion polls suggest that perhaps eight of them have a realistic chance of gaining parliamentary seats in the election, which will be based on proportional representation using the “party list” system.

The contenders can be divided up several ways – into those that are pro-Moscow and those that are less so; into those associated with the administration that swept to power after Bakiev’s removal in April, and those left outside the current set-up – and of course, into those that represent northern and southern interests.

The front-runners with their main constituencies in the north are the Social Democrats, Ak-Shumkar, Ar-Namys, and Ata-Meken – all of them part of the current governing administration. Major groups with southern support include Butun Kyrgyzstan and Ata-Jurt, both of which draw significant support from the camp of ex-president Bakiev.

Assuming the election is free and fair, parliament is likely to contain a mix of parties – the current ruling group, their opponents, and perhaps some neutral players – all of them, of course, from the elite political class.

The risks of ethnic trouble and post-election instability are real. Kyrgyzstan has made some democratic gains since April – the possibility, at least, of holding a truly multi-party election and the relative media freedom come to mind – but they are few in number, and could easily be rolled back after this election.

In this context, even if parliament is likely to be a forum for constant confrontations, it is thus essential that the parties represented there find ways to work out their differences without allowing conflict to spill out onto the streets once again.

Pavel Dyatlenko is a political analyst with Polis Asia, a think-tank in Kyrgyzstan.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

More IWPR's Global Voices

FakeWatch Africa
Website to provide multimedia training and resources for fact-checking and investigations.
FakeWatch Africa
Africa's Fake News Epidemic and Covid-19: What Impact on Democracy?
Amid Pandemic, Cuban State Curbs Its Entrepreneurs
The crackdown on street vendors selling basic goods means people have to join long queues in government-run shops.
Cuba's Elderly Work Through the Pandemic
Cuba Slow to Act Over Domestic Abuse