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

Kyrgyz President Confounds Critics

Akaev’s decision to sign a law curbing election fraud is backed by the opposition but slammed by pro-government figures.
By Leila Saralaeva

A new law making it harder to cheat in elections has been approved by Kyrgyz president Askar Akaev in the face of strong opposition. In a reversal of roles, it was Akaev supporters who fought against his decision, while the opposition supported it.


The change is simple in itself: voters will have the thumb on their left hand marked with an ink-like fluid when they go to the polls. That should make it impossible – or at least much harder – for them to turn up at another polling station and vote again. Election observers have noted many irregularities in previous ballots held in Kyrgyzstan.


The change will be introduced in time for next year’s crucial parliamentary and presidential elections, in which Akaev could leave office after 12 years in power.


The amendment to the existing election code was proposed not by the authorities but by an opposition deputy, Omurbek Tekebaev, a leading figure in the Civic Union for Fair Elections, an opposition bloc.


Contrary to expectations, the president signed the amended election code into being on October 22, after coming under pressure from many of his supporters not to do so. His signature brought the law into force, following its approval by parliament on October 15 after a heated debate.


On October 13, United States ambassador Steven Young said Akaev had promised him privately that he would sign the bill.


Young said that in local elections held three days earlier, there had been cases of "duplicate, or multiple, voting by voters" – a practice which marking people’s hands could curb.


But the next day, the non-government Public Council for Democratic Security appealed to the president not to sign the law. The move was a significant one since the council was set up by Akaev last year as a democracy watchdog body. Its statute empowers it to bolster democratic rights and identify “threats” to democracy.


The statement, signed by council chairman Mirsaid Mirrahimov and published in the government newspaper Slovo Kyrgyzstana, said the change was in breach of the constitution because “the ‘experience’ of certain foreign countries is being introduced, democracy is being implanted from the outside, and this violates fundamental principles of international law”.


The civil rights watchdog concluded, “A campaign is being planned to deprive the Kyrgyz people of their right to make their own conscious choice.”


It was touch and go whether the change would go through. Many of Akaev’s opponents believed that he would back out of signing a law by means of an orchestrated public outcry led by pro-government groups such as the Council for Democratic Security.


“The statements and appeals that respected figures and elders have made against the marking proposal are being run from the centre,” said Tekebaev. “The regime is trying to influence public opinion beforehand.”


Opposition deputy Bektur Asanov added, “The president promised the US ambassador that he would sign the law, but marking is not beneficial to his team…. So the amendments will not go through, ostensibly because of public pressure.”


Things seemed to be going that way as the anti-marking campaign built up a head of steam through September while parliament debated the bill.


Some said it would taint Kyrgyzstan’s reputation. Deputy Khajimurat Korkmazov, for example, told IWPR, “When you are marked, it’s an expression of distrust in your decency and honesty. It is a violation of human rights.”


Others cited countries where marking had not been used.


“It is not right to doubt the honesty of voters. We humiliate them in doing so. Neither of our neighbours –Kazakstan or Russia – use marking in elections,” said Sulaiman Imanbaev, head of the Central Electoral Commission, urging parliament not to approve the change.


And Turdakun Usubaliev, once head of the Soviet Communist Party in Kyrgyzstan but now a deputy in parliament, said, “We held elections for 70 years in the Soviet era, and no one used marking to vote.”


Opposition groups, on the other hand, were clear that the measure was needed to reduce opportunities for election fraud.


“The current debate about marking has been instigated because our government does not want to introduce this method,” said Tolekan Ismailova, leader of the Civil Society Against Corruption group.


“Transparent ballot boxes, marking, civic education, and reforms to the electoral system will create a significant barrier to corruption and falsification, and will reduce the influence that the administrative resource [government bodies] can exert during elections.”


Topchubek Turgunaliev, director of the Institute for Human Rights and a staunch opponent of Akaev’s regime, said he was convinced the authorities were determined to rig the vote in next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.


One of the objections raised by Mirrahimov’s council was that the special ink – to be applied by aerosol spray - could cause an allergic reaction.


Unlike in Afghanistan – where people complained that the indelible ink used in the September presidential election was easy to rub off – the Kyrgyz will follow the example of Georgia, which uses an invisible spray that shows up only in ultraviolet light.


“If this fluid was harmful, no one would use it. They use it in Georgia and no one has suffered,” said deputy Doronbek Sadyrbaev, dismissing the suggestion.


On October 26, Akaev justified his decision by saying he would making every effort to ensure next year’s vote was fair, “All arms of state authority from top to bottom, and the whole of society, must make it their aim to conduct an exemplary election campaign, and do so in practice….


“If we want to live by democratic standards we need to adhere to them in practice rather than mere words.”


Akaev has said more than once that he will not stand in next year’s election, although opposition leaders have voiced doubt that he will really step down.


Most recently, Akaev gave such an assurance to US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who visited Bishkek in July.


Akaev insisted that the recently-floated proposal to change the constitution to allow him to stay on in power had not come from his entourage. “I haven't changed my decision," he said.


If Akev does go, it will be the first time one of the long-serving Central Asian presidents has left office, and done so voluntarily. There was a change of president in Tajikistan in 1992 but that was within the context of a developing civil war.


Both Armitage and Ambassador Young have talked to Akaev about how Kyrgyzstan has an opportunity to be a showcase model of democracy for the other Central Asian republics, if the leadership allows a peaceful transition.


Akaev’s decision to accept the anti-fraud regulations was welcomed by opposition groups. Republican Party leader Giaz Tokombaev said, “President Akaev has taken the right decision. He has taken a step towards fulfilling his promise… to ensure fair and transparent parliamentary and presidential elections.”


Emil Aliev, a leader of the Ar Namys party, said the measure would reduce vote-rigging “but it does not eliminate all the problems with falsification”.


The Association of Non-Government and Non-Commercial Organisations, seen as close to the authorities, reacted with fury.


“We citizens of Kyrgyzstan do not live in Africa,” said association chairwoman Toktaim Umetalieva at an October 28 press conference. “We are educated enough to realise that the introduction of marking infringes the rights of our citizens.”


Some groups within Umetalieva’s association are already collecting signatures to get the law overturned. They need 30,000 names on a petition to do this.


Leila Saralaeva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.