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Personality Politics May Turn Off Kyrgyz Voters

Failure of parties to offer voters distinctive policies may result in a low turnout in the weekend parliamentary election.
By Yryskeldi Kadykeev
Kyrgyzstan’s upcoming election could see a low turnout because the various political parties have failed to develop distinctive programmes that will entice voters to the polls, and instead are continuing to rely on the pulling power of big-name leaders.

Analysts say the sudden decision to go for an early parliamentary election on December 16 has left the electorate no time to grasp any of the differences between the 12 registered parties, especially when it comes to solutions to the economic crisis gripping of one of the poorest countries in the former Soviet Union.

The parties’ election material does not help. Most of it is based purely around the personalities of the leaders and offers few clues as to what a party’s actual policies might be.

“The parties have not been working on their programmes for long, which is why they are so similar to each other and so cumbersome,” the political analyst Marat Kazakbaev told IWPR. “They’ve worked harder on other promotional material highlighting the names of their leaders and their positive traits.”

The early election was announced immediately after the October 21 referendum on the new constitution that changed the election process from a constituency-based system to one using proportional representation.

The sudden decision left Kyrgyzstan’s parties only two months to prepare. Only 12 of the 100-odd parties have been admitted to the race.

Nur Omarov, another political analyst, said the tight timetable has resulted in “quasi-party elections, involving a battle of identities rather than of political programmes”. The lack of clear programmes offering a way out of economic crisis makes parties less attractive to the electorate, Omarov went on.

“Many of Kyrgyzstan’s people don’t believe their votes will make a real difference, nor do they believe the count will be fair,” he said.

“Besides, one-third of the electorate is outside the country and another 20 per cent is apathetic and will ignore the election. So a 50 per cent turnout is a fantasy.”

Kyrgyzstan has been in the throes of economic crisis ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 2007, the unemployment level hovered at 18 or 19 per cent. Meanwhile, a million able-bodied adults, one-fifth of the total population, are away working abroad, mainly in Russia and Kazakhstan.

Toktogul Kakchekeev, another analyst, said what interested voters most was how the election might lead to a turnaround.

Instead of this, he said, the electorate is getting “arguments rewritten and copied from other parties – particularly in Russia – that resolve almost nothing”.

“All the parties have the same things written into their programmes,” he added. “People are aware of the pasts of all these politicians and are bored with their personae; they haven’t done people any good and are engaging in politics just to make money.”

Kakcheev concluded, “It’s now seen as proper, intelligent and well-mannered to vote against all of them [by not voting].”

But not everyone agrees the turnout will be so low, or that there is much of an appetite for detailed electoral programmes.

Valentin Bogatyrev, deputy head of the Vostok think-tank, believes the “novelty” of the newly-introduced proportional system of voting will lure people to the polls.

“People are interested in the… new party system,” he said.

Dinara Oshurakhunova, who heads the Association for Democracy and Civil Society, agrees. Although lack of time has prevented the parties from preparing serious election programmes, turnout will be quite high because of interest in the proportional system, she maintains.

“Voters are interested in taking part in this proportional system; I think the turnout will be higher than usual,” said Oshurakhunova.

Bermet Bukasheva, who is standing as a candidate for the opposition Ata-Meken party, also believes turnout will be high, albeit for very different reasons.

She notes that each of the big personalities taking part in the campaign has “a numerous army of supporters, his own campaign team, his own funding and his own human resources”.

Bukasheva says the electorate is not politically mature enough to engage with party political platforms, so the emphasis on personalities is natural enough and will not necessarily depress the turnout.

“Maybe turnout will not be very high in Bishkek, but the regions will be moved by regional and clan factors,” she said.

“Each party has people representing the districts and villages, and they will bring out their own supporters.”

Yryskeldi Kadykeev is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.

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