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Kyrgyzstan: Clan Loyalties Mar Local Elections

Peasants vote along tribal lines in disappointing experiment in local democracy.
By Cholpon Orozobekova

It was intended as a groundbreaking exercise for democracy in Central Asia. The government decreed that in future villages would be allowed to elect their own headmen instead of having them appointed by regional governors.


But when it came to the elections on December 16, villagers simply voted for their own relations without bothering about policies. It demonstrated once more the enduring strength of clan solidarity in Kyrgyz society.


None of the other former Soviet republics in the region had ever tried local elections before and Kyrgyzstan hoped the move would burnish the country's democratic credentials in the eyes of the West.


Under the old system regional governors would appoint their favourite candidates as headmen and then order them to pursue policies favoured by the central government, regardless of local interests. Allowing citizens to choose who should head their local communities was regarded as a radical step.


The inhabitants of Bagysh district in the Suzak region told this IWPR correspondent that the elections were a very tense affair. Of eight candidates standing at the outset of the campaign, only two of the younger candidates stayed the distance. Both were representatives of two important Kyrgyz clans.


Jyrgal Mamatov came from the Kaman clan and Duisho Satybaldiev from the Kudailat clan. Feelings ran high and village elders feared a violent confrontation.


Kudailat clan heads went to Kaman family representatives and said, "Your candidate is very young. Let our man have the job for four years and yours will be deputy. Next time round we'll support your candidate."


The elder brother of the Kaman candidate turned this down. "Once you are on the horse - don't get off," he told his brother. Somebody else suggested drawing lots to decide the winner.


At the nearby village of Oktyabr, an elderly man named Aman, told this IWPR correspondent that the Mamatov family was very rich and sought to buy votes with gifts of between 50 and 150 som (one to three US dollars) per voter. Their candidate won.


The chairman of the Central Electoral Commission, Sulaiman Imanbaev, told a press conference during the election it was "difficult to avoid the interference of family and other human interests".


The electoral constituencies were small, ranging from 260 to 12,000 voters each. Inevitably candidates were closely linked to family and friends who did not examine their man's political policies too closely. Everyone, said parliamentary deputy Satybaldy Chyrmashev, voted for "one of their own".


An NGO named For Democracy and a Civil Society Coalition also noted that at the village of Dolon in the Issyk-Kul district the winning candidate, a former head of the agricultural board, was related to every single member of the electoral commission.


Another parliamentary deputy, Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, said family ties are embedded in the national mentality, "It's something we have to overcome."


This IWPR contributor watched the election at the Baitik district in the Chui region. When asked who she had voted for, an old lady who was returning with a walking stick from the ballot box replied, "For our lad, my dear, for my tribe". Other old people said the same.


In a few places, candidates with a special appeal to youngsters managed to overturn clan loyalties and win. This happened in the village of Kosh-Dobo in the Naryn region where an outsider backed by youngsters beat the representatives of two big clans.


The head of the Kyrgyz government's Association of Local Government Communities, Kurmanbek Dyikanbaev, believes that the elected representatives of the villagers will be closer to the people and will benefit from not being just nominees of the regional governors. He said land and family ties are seen in other countries' elections, even in America, but expressed belief that "these defects will gradually die out".


Dyikanbaev noted that these local elections set a precedent in Central Asia and attracted the interest of neighbouring countries. Kazakstan, for example, has asked for details of the electoral procedures from its Kyrgyz colleagues.


Some village-dwellers believed the elections were a waste of money and said they preferred the old system of governors' choice. An inhabitant of the Suzak region who wished to remain anonymous said, "The elections weren't honest. There was tribalism and buying of votes everywhere. The elections themselves were held on an Islamic holy day and that favoured certain candidates who, using the celebration as a pretext, got the voters drunk."


Local clans were helped by the fact that in many places NGOs were not allowed to observe the voting on grounds that Kyrgyz law did not permit foreign funds to play any part in elections.


The programme coordinator of For Democracy and a Civil Society Coalition, Elfrida Yausheva, said the electoral commissions are very much mistaken in saying that NGOs have all been bought with foreign money. She said the groups could play an important part in achieving elections free of tribalism or vote buying.


Cholpon Orozobekova is an IWPR contributor


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