Kyrgyzstan: Fewer Safeguards Against Election Fraud

Package of changes to voting procedures likely to encourage cheating, say critics.

Kyrgyzstan: Fewer Safeguards Against Election Fraud

Package of changes to voting procedures likely to encourage cheating, say critics.

Friday, 3 July, 2009

Opposition members and rights activists in Kyrgyzstan are warning that the presidential election this July could be marred by flawed voting procedures. They argue that recent changes to the regulations have only made things worse.

The authorities have dropped the use of indelible ink marks to prevent people voting twice, and have barred many non-government organisations, NGOs, from monitoring the ballot.

In addition, people will be allowed to show a driving license rather than a full passport to be eligible to vote. Critics say lowering the requirements in this manner will make it easier for abuses to occur.

The July 23 presidential vote falls on a Thursday, a departure from past practice of holding elections only at the weekend.

The risk here is that turnout will be low, and tilted in favour of those with the resources to bus voters in. The authorities counter that in previous elections held on weekend days, people often said they were too busy or could not leave their children unattended to go and vote.

The procedural changes form part of amended electoral legislation passed in late December, while the restrictions on NGOs conducting election monitoring are contained in a bill due to go before parliament.

The bill would ban both Kyrgyz NGOs and the local missions of international organisations from monitoring elections, unless that activity is explicitly part of their mandate. (For more on these concerns, see Kyrgyz NGOs Fear Tougher Legislation, RCA No. 569, 10-Mar-09.)

“We are proposing that non-commercial entities do not take part in elections – including that they do not nominate candidates on behalf of their organisation, and that they do not observe the vote,” said Communist Party leader Ishak Masaliev, one of the members of parliament who proposed the bill.

He added, “Please do not make out that I am against international institutions that help develop democracy. They can continue do so; I am talking about something else.”

Masaliev noted that the bill allows for exceptions to be made for organisations like the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, which send election observers to when members states hold ballots.

He suggested that the bill’s real target was radical Islamic groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir.

“We see how their activists go door to door, and they are probably being financed by someone. That’s the threat I mean.”

Critics of the measure, however, say it will allow more scope for rigging to go on without external scrutiny.

“This is going to be a problem for Kyrgyzstan,” said Aziza Abdurasulova, head of the human rights group Kylym Shamy. “If civil society doesn’t have an opportunity to monitor elections, this will cast a shadow over elections.”

Irina Karamushkina, a member of parliament with the opposition Social Democratic Party, says that at the moment, NGOs play an important role by “hindering the authorities from carrying out machinations they have dreamed up”.

The OSCE office in Bishkek was sufficiently concerned about the NGO law for its head Ambassador Andrew Tesoriere to issue a statement in mid-April outlining the hazards of passing the law in its current shape.

While current Kyrgyz legislation was compatible with international standards “in most respects”, said Tesoriere, the amendments would constitute “a setback from the current version of the law".

He was commenting on an “opinion” document produced by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which recommended that final verson of the bill should not retain certain provisions such as “the prohibition [of] activities that come within a broad definition of what is ‘political’ or connected to elections”.

The NGO bill, which would also require more transparency about funding sources, is on hold because of the outcry from NGOs. According to Masaliev, the document is now the subject of consultations with NGOs, after which it should go before parliament in June.

The practice of marking voters’ thumbs with indelible ink was introduced for the presidential election of 2005, following the March uprising which ousted the then president Askar Akaev. The election was won by Kurmanbek Bakiev, who is now running for a second term.

Masaliev, who also backed the December bill abolishing the practice, says there are simple ways of wiping off the supposedly permanent ink.

“Since it’s possible to get round the marking procedure, it doesn’t play such a major role any more,” he told IWPR. “I was against it from the start – the procedure is somewhat humiliating for people.”

Another parliamentarian who opposes ink marking, Dinara Moldosheva of the governing Ak Jol party, agrees the technique is past its sell-by date, since there are more sophisticated methods for ensuring a fair vote, including transparent ballot boxes and larger numbers of election observers.

The top priority, she said, was to train election officers more thoroughly.

Critics, however, insist the loss of this safety-check will add to the risk of repeat voting.

“The ink checking procedure was introduced for good reason,” said Dinara Oshurkhanova, leader of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, explaining that when a country’s voting systems are less than ideal, marking voters’ hands provides an extra safeguard against multiple voting.

Communist Party parliamentarian Guljamal Sultanalieva disagrees with her leader, Masaliev, and says that recent elections have seen frequent complaints of malpractice, such as the “merry-go round”, where people go from one polling station to another, voting again and again.

“All the dirty tricks that were used prior to the introduction of [ink] marking will now resume – the merry-go-round, and the busing in of voters,” she said.

Political analyst Mars Sariev notes that the national election authorities have cited money as a reason for ditching the thumb-marking system, which cost over 90,000 US dollars for each of the last two elections, legislative and local. But his view is that this is money well spent if it boosts voter confidence.

“When the opposition and a section of the population fear that [state] administrative resources will be used [to influence the forthcoming ballot], it would have been worth spending this money,” he said.

The relaxation of the rules to allow voters to show a driving license instead of their passport at the polling station has raised fears that it will be easier to abuse the system.

“This is one of the things that will lead to massive vote-rigging,” warned Omurbek Tekebaev, leader of the opposition party Ata Meken.

Abdirasulova thinks that, just as with the ink issue, this will allow the authorities to bus in groups of loyal voters and send them from one polling station to the next.

Moldosheva denies this will be possible, saying driving licences will only count as valid ID if the individual concerned is listed on the electoral roll for one particular polling station.

A former member of the Central Election Commission, Bolot Malabaev, says the best solution would be to make multiple voting a criminal offence.

However, there is no sign that this could happen before the July election, nor is there much indication of how enforceable or effective it would be.

Taken together, the recent and proposed changes to the rules leave critics of the Bakiev administration suspecting that the whole thing is a carefully-engineered project designed to ensure an easy victory in July

“These measures were planned in advance,” insisted Abdirasulova. “This election will not be conducted fairly because that’s the way it’s been set up.”

Timur Toktonaliev reports for the internet publication

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