Kyrgyzstan's Clannish Voters

Local elections have less to do with party politics than family ties.

Kyrgyzstan's Clannish Voters

Local elections have less to do with party politics than family ties.

Kyrgyzstan's final election of 2005 took place with little fuss and no foreign media attention. In contrast to the controversial parliamentary polls which sparked protests and ultimately the March revolution, there was little party-political activity on show at the December 18 local government election.

Instead, people seem to have plumped for local candidates often of their own tribal grouping. Not always, though – in some cases voters abandoned such traditional preferences in favour of candidates who they thought could actually deliver on election pledges.

Ethnic Kyrgyz are traditionally tied into a complex system of tribes and clans. Many politicians are sensitive to divisive voting patterns that could open up faultlines between ethnic Kyrgyz, Russians, Uzbeks or other minorities, between Muslims and Christians, among the Kyrgyz tribal groupings, or between "northerners" and "southerners".

Concern about possible friction between rival forces was naturally heightened by the fact that 2005 has seen such an amount of political turbulence at grassroots as well as national level.

Four days before the election, Prime Minister Felix Kulov warned that “there are some regions where the election results may lead to anger or a conflict on grounds of clan or religion”.

The political debate at national level appeared to have little direct impact on the local elections. Of the more than 1,500 candidates standing for 369 seats on village and municipal government bodies or "ayil okmotu", just five per cent were nominated by political parties.

Clan affiliation appears to have influenced voting in many rural constituencies. "Frequently the division was not according to party membership, but based on the number of kinsmen represented in the ayil okmotu,” said political analyst Nur Omarov.

Omarov says that if this election was supposed to consolidate the democratic process that began with the March revolution, then "I can’t say it was a success – public attitudes were very passive". Turnout was 52 per cent.

According to Arnamys party co-chairman Emil Aliev, “For the electorate, the favoured candidate is not the one put forward by a political party, but the one who comes from one's own extended family or tribe.”

IWPR heard of cases where relatives turned out in force to campaign for their favoured candidates, and to protest if they lost. According to an election report produced by the Early Warning for Prevention of Violence project, about 100 people besieged a polling station in a village in the southern Uzgen region demanding the annulment of the poll result because the winner was from a neighbouring village, not their own.

Even where there seemed to be a wide choice of candidates, the outcome was often a foregone conclusion. Five people stood for the post of Sarybulak village council head in the Tyup region of northern Kyrgyzstan. But as resident Kurmenty Taalai Amanov told IWPR, the voting was predictable, “In the village, there is the concept of one’s own family member, and everyone votes for their own.”

Such behaviour is so prevalent that some voters would like to see a bit less democracy. According to Aliya Abdullina, an election monitor with the Early Warning project, people she spoke to in the Naryn region said the local elections only create discord between clans. They suggest instead that only the regional governor should be elected, and he or she would then appoint the village heads.

In areas of mixed ethnicity, membership of an extended Kyrgyz family became less relevant, but winning candidates often used distinctly "clannish" methods to secure support.

Yulya Koga, who lives in the village of Mayevka near the capital Bishkek, told IWPR that in her constituency, "The winner got the votes of all the Turks and Ingush, who make up 15 per cent of residents. He was also voted for by the Russians, whom he had helped – in his role as head of the ayil okmotu - to acquire land or build a house; by all the relatives of his staff members, and by the relations of the council members.”

Even in predominantly Kyrgyz areas, some dispute that people vote purely along tribal lines. Esenbek Januzakov, a losing candidate in the Sarybulak constituency, argued that “if clan membership did play a role, a candidate from the Aibash would have won – they are the largest family in our ayil okmotu.

"I would say that money won, because the winner slaughtered a sheep, poured out vodka and gave out money.”

At the same time, there are some signs that voting trends may be shifting as people opt for the candidate they believe might be most effective.

“Voters frequently did vote for candidates from a big family or with lots of money. But in comparison with 2001 [previous local election], there is less emphasis on this factor,” said Burul Usmanalieva, an analyst with the Early Warning project. Her conclusion is shared by the NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, which said clan membership played a much reduced role in this election compared with the past.

Although the chairman of the Central Electoral Commission, Tuigunaaly Abdraimov, accepted that there had some cases of tribally-based voting, he said the worries that this would be so widespread as to be destabilising proved unfounded. “We had concerns that during the election there could be divisions between tribes and even between ethnic groups. But thank God, this did not happen,” he told journalists the day after the vote.

“With every passing year, people’s attitude to these elections changes," said member of parliament Sultan Urmanaev. "Usually they choose according to clan, but there are already voters saying, ‘we will vote for a Dungan [ethnic Chinese Muslim] as long as he works'.”

Cholpon Orozobekova is a correspondent for Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL.

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