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President to Benefit From Kyrgyz Summer Polls

Opposition says election timing geared towards low turnout, making ballot-rigging easier.
By Anara Yusupova
Civil rights and opposition activists say the decision to hold this week’s presidential election on a working day at the height of the holiday season was designed to tip the balance in favour of incumbent Kurmanbek Bakiev.



The vote takes place on July 23, a Thursday, a departure from previous practice of holding elections at the weekend. When the law was changed to allow this in late December, the authorities said they wanted to boost turnout, as people had often said they were too busy to come out on a weekend.



However, critics of the government say the timing of this election creates scope for busing in people to vote en masse – for example public-sector workers who, they say, may be pressured into casting their vote for the powers that be. Meanwhile, other sections of the electorate will be hard at work, away on holiday, or just too apathetic to vote.



Even before voting starts, violations of the rules have already been alleged by the Union of Civil Society Organisations for Voters’ Rights, an umbrella group set up to monitor the election.



At a news conference in Bishkek on July 15, Dinara Oshurakhunova, whose Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society is part of the monitoring group, said, “It’s now pretty certain that the heads of all state enterprises as well as of some private companies are going to make sure their employees turn out to vote, and that they’ll also influence the choice they make.”



Lawyer Sartbay Jaychibekov, who spoke at the same news conference, said that some employers were increasing working hours to factor in voting time.



“I have information that the directors of the brick factory and brewery in Kant [near the capital Bishkek] have extended the working day on July 23 from eight to ten hours,” he said. “The heads of these plants have also said they’ll be telling people who to vote for. In other words, they will probably take their employees en masse and tell them who to vote for.”

According to the Central Election Commission, CEC, 2.7 million out of the population of five million are eligible to vote.



Of the six candidates, Bakiev, seeking a second term, is a strong contender. He was elected in July 2005 after playing a leading role in a popular uprising which led to the then head of state, Askar Akaev, fleeing the country earlier that year.



Bakiev’s leading opponent is Social Democratic Party leader Almazbek Atambaev, selected by the main opposition bloc, the United People’s Movement, UPM, as its sole candidate.



The others on the list are Ak Shumkar party leader Temir Sariev, Toktaim Umetalieva, who heads the Association of Non-Commercial and Non-Government Organisations; Jenishbek Nazaraliev, a high-profile doctor; and Nurlan Motuev, who heads the Joomart Patriotic Movement and is co-leader of the Kyrgyz Muslim Union.



A leader of the UPM, Azimbek Beknazarov, believes the authorities are keen to keep turnout as low as possible since that is likely to tilt the balance away from opposition candidates.



“First, it plays into the authorities’ hands if people don’t participate in the election actively,” he said. “That’s why a day in summer was chosen, when many are on holiday. Secondly, having it on a working day makes it easier to mobilise public sector workers in favour of Bakiev.”



A personnel manager at a large state-run enterprise, who asked to remain anonymous, told IWPR she had been given orders not to authorise annual leave to her staff.



“All public-sector workers were given unofficial instructions to ensure a high turnout and cast their votes for Bakiev. The bosses are trying to do all they can. So until July 23, we are not allowing anyone to go on leave,” she said.



“Although we don’t know how the voting is to be organised, there is talk that people will be bused in to polling stations in groups.”



The authorities, however, insist they are doing everything they can to get as many people as possible to cast their votes.



According to the deputy head of the CEC’s logistics and legal department, Myrzabek Argymbaev, people who are on holiday can either vote in advance, or register early to acquire the right to vote anywhere in the country.



“It’s possible to vote eight days before election day, as people can register… 15 days in advance and vote at any polling station,” he said.



An adviser at the CEC, Aziz Sadyrbaev, said a campaign was in train to persuade people to use their votes.



“The main purpose of the Participate and Vote campaign is to increase participation. T-shirts and baseball caps with slogans about election day will be distributed,” he said.



As in other post-Soviet states, though, there are fears that the advance voting system is open to abuse, especially as it is hard for independent election monitors to check up on procedures.



The online news agency Fergana.ru reported that postal workers from Bishkek had been directed to apply for early votes, and were issued with papers falsely stating that they would be on business trips abroad on election day. They were then handed ballot papers on which Bakiev’s name already had a tick next to it.



Tabyldy Orozaliyev, a senior parliamentary member of Bakiev’s Ak Jol party, denied the allegations of manipulation.



“What the human rights activists are saying is nonsense,” he said. “The election date could fall on any day of the week and the opposition would be still unhappy. Also, I cannot imagine how you’d take the staff members from a whole factory or enterprise and bring them to the polling stations.”



Analysts interviewed for the report doubt the authorities genuinely want a high turnout.



According to political scientist Mars Sariev, the combined effect of the election falling on a working day and also in the middle of the holiday season will serve as an additional deterrent, especially to the many voters who have already switched off from politics.



“People are going to be able to vote only within the space of one or two hours before their working day begins, or for the same amount of time after work,” he said, adding that many would have to use overcrowded public transport to get to a polling station.



“They should have chosen a weekend for the election, when there would also have been fewer people needing to vote in advance. In reality, early voting facilitates ballot-rigging, as observers are less vigilant ahead of election day itself.”



In Sariev’s view, the lowest turnout could be in the capital, where the concentration of potential opposition voters is highest.



“Everything is being done to minimise the protest vote. In rural areas, the election is traditionally treated as a holiday and many will turn out,” he said.



Voters interviewed by IWPR said they would be reluctant to vote because of the choice of day.



Music teacher Altynay Umarova has already made plans to spend election day on the shores of Lake Issykul.



“To be frank, I am completely indifferent to this election. I have started my long-awaited holiday, and I don’t plan to waste it on a trip to the ballot box,” she said.



A manager at a private firm selling computers who gave his name as Bektur said had no incentive to take time off to go and vote.



“In order to cast my vote, I’d have to ask for permission to be away, and that could impact my salary. I’m not prepared to waste time spending two hours on a round trip to the polling station,” said Bektur.



“This election is going to take place without me – and most of my colleagues are of the same mind. Nothing’s going to change anyway.”



Anara Yusupova is a pseudonym for a journalist in Kyrgyzstan. Gulzat Abdurasulova is an IWPR-trained reporter.

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