Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Purse-string Politics in Kyrgyz Election

Pro-government candidates take a clear lead as first results emerge, but some observers say this election was more about money than politics.
By IWPR Central Asia

The Kyrgyz election ended somewhat inconclusively with more than half the parliamentary seats still to be contested in run-off, but all the signs are that the authorities have won an overwhelming majority.

The February 27 parliamentary ballot was marred by reports of procedural violations, with the practice of vote-buying emerging as a strong and disturbing trend. Many candidates appear to have bought their way to victory by giving small handouts to voters.

The election decided only 31 seats in the 75-member parliament, of which 13 were won by candidates representing political parties, all of them pro-government. Eleven went to Alga Kyrgyzstan, and one each to the Adilet party and the Democratic Party of Women and Youth.

The other 18 seats went to candidates classed as independents – although many of those who got through are known supporters of President Askar Akaev.

The independents included the president’s son Aidar Akaev, who won a big majority with more than 70 per cent of the vote in his constituency. And President Akaev’s daughter Bermet, while not securing a seat outright, went through to the second round with a clear lead over her nearest rival.

Only one leading opposition figure, Azimbek Beknazarov, won a seat. Analysts believe that the authorities decided not to contest his candidacy out of fear of stirring up trouble in his constituency of Aksy in southern Kyrgyzstan. In 2002, a protest march in support of Beknazarov – who had been imprisoned – blew up into a major national crisis after police killed and injured several demonstrators. The incident gave rise to months of public protests that went well beyond the Aksy area itself.

Both opposition and pro-government candidates – standing either as independents or for political parties – will go forward to the second round of voting due on March 13, for which Alga Kyrgyzstan has 12 candidates and Adilet seven.

A number of opposition candidates including Kurmanbek Bakiev, Adakhan Madumarov, Ishenbay Kadyrbekov, Omurbek Tekebaev, Dooronbek Sadyrbaev, Iskhak Masaliev, Nur-uulu Dosbol and Bolotbek Sherniyazov have got through to the second rounds.

But several opposition figures who previously held seats in parliament including Ismail Isakov, Alisher Abdimomunov and Jypar Jeksheev were knocked out in the first round. The unsuccessful candidates also included Emil Aliev, the deputy leader of the Arnamys party, whose leader Felix Kulov is currently in prison. Aliev stood against Bermet Akaeva but is not among the leading candidates who made it to the second round.

The fact that so many opposition politicians failed to win seats while those loyal to the president – including members of his immediate family – performed well has raised questions about the conduct of the vote.

A government official insisted that Akaev supporters won fair and square because the electorate saw there was no real alternative.

“The regime won a decisive victory because it caught the mood of the people – harsh pragmatism combined with general fatigue,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The opposition’s lack of either a credible leader or an attractive development programme have left the Kyrgyz people afraid of change. So while the many protests that are held are quite impressive enough, they don’t scare us anymore.”

The Central Election Commission has said the elections were fair and transparent.

However, international monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, issued a preliminary statement saying the poll had fallen short of expectations.

Some of the concerns raised by observers, including restricted access to media for candidates, and procedural problems such as people being allowed to vote without presenting proper identification, have been seen before.

In the southern constituency of Aravan, several thousand supporters of village government head Tursunbayhoji Alimov took to the streets, after he lost out to Alga Kyrgyzstan candidate Makhamadjan Mamasaidov.

Alimov’s supporters claim that the ballot was marred by a range of violations, some of which were recorded on video. For example, about 40 students were allowed to vote without presenting valid ID, and several other people showed passports from neighbouring Uzbekistan.

“Mamasaidov won the seat from Alimov by 290 votes – and that’s where they came from,” said a protester, who asked not to be named.

The demonstrators blocked the main road to Osh and threatened to go on hunger strike if the authorities did not investigate their claims. “If this issue is not resolved today, residents of Aravan district will never take part in any elections again - including the October presidential ballot,” said another protester.

An additional complaint raised by the Aravan protesters was that voters were paid to vote, in this case with both money and vodka.

In some other parts of Kyrgyzstan, reports suggested that bribery took place on an unprecedented scale, so that many believe it may have tilted the outcome.

Vote-buying was a key concern expressed by participants in other protests launched by supporters of losing candidates.

Also on February 28, around 2,000 supporters of the opposition candidate and well-known film director Dooronbek Sadyrbaev, who was standing for election in the Nooken district of the southern Jalalabad region, blocked the main road from Osh to Bishkek. They eventually dispersed after talks with the local authorities.

Sadyrbaev told IWPR that many people were angry about perceived violations, particularly those where alcohol was distributed to voters.

“Such an unbridled violation of the rights of my voters has never happened before,” said Sadyrbaev. “The authorities have stolen my victory.”

Supporters of opposition candidates Ishenbai Kadyrbekov and Tursunbek Akunov in the Naryn region also mounted protests the day after the ballot.

“Hot meals, a sea of vodka, 300 soms [seven US dollars] for each voter, distribution of grain and food, and the 50 minibus taxis used to ferry people to vote – that’s just an incomplete list of the violations,” Akunov told IWPR.

He concluded sadly, “I am very disappointed by the mindset of people in Naryn. They voted for people who bought them.”

Akunov’s sense of disappointment was shared by protesters, who carried placards saying, “A people who sell themselves for vodka have no future!”, “You’ll spend the money you received in two days!” and “People’s conscience cannot be bought!”

Anecdotal evidence suggested that on voting day, there were many more drunks than usual on the streets of Naryn.

In the capital Bishkek, Kuvanychbek Bektemirov, who lost in his Yunusaliev constituency, struck a similar note, saying, “I am ashamed that our democracy is at such a rudimentary stage that people can be bought for a couple of dollars.”

The reality may be that the average voter in Kyrgyzstan is so badly off – and has so little confidence in the ability of politicians to deliver - that a quick cash payment today is preferable to high-sounding promises about the future.

“Five dollars is not to be sneezed at,” said one such voter, who did not want to give his name.

“The authorities won because they have created a system where having the money to buy a piece of bread right now is what counts,” said Oksana Malevannaya, a member of the Moya Strana party, another first-round loser. “Voters were bought beforehand, or intimidated at the polling station by people who warned them that it would be possible to find out who they voted for.”

Central Asia analyst Arkady Dubnov, who writes for the Moscow newspaper Vremya Novostei, sums up the ballot as “a wallet revolution” – a reference to speculation that the Kyrgyz election could turn into a repeat of Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” and Ukraine’s orange-tinted protests which brought Viktor Yuschenko to power.

“The only electoral resource that functions in Kyrgyzstan is the bribing of voters, and the existence of individuals whose business interests are dependent on loyalty to the regime,” Dubnov told IWPR.

Former foreign minister Muratbek Imanaliev, who leads the Justice and Progress Party, says the outcome of the March 13 second-round vote now looks like a foregone conclusion – but he warns that public unrest is still a possibility.

“In order to win, the authorities used three factors - tribal division, money and threats,” said Imanaliev. “The authorities will win in the second round as well, and will then attempt to co-opt the independent deputies. But if mistakes are made that upset the electorate, it might become hard for the authorities to remain in control of the situation.”

And what are the prospects for democracy when, en masse, the electorate looks as though it can be bought for a few dollars without regard for politics or ideology? Yrysbek Omurzakov, the editor of the human rights newspaper Tribuna, retains his confidence in his fellow-citizens despite their apparent behaviour on election day.

“The political elite should draw lessons from what has happened,” he said.

“Right now the Kyrgyz people resemble a neglected child who is only given attention during elections. Yet we are undoubtedly an intelligent and talented people who have a bright future.”

Ainagul Abdrakhmanova is IWPR programme coordinator in Bishkek. Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC correspondent and Leila Saralaeva an IWPR contributor in Bishkek. Independent journalists Jalil Saparov in Jalalabad, Alla Pyatibratova in Osh, and Aliya Abdulina in the Naryn region also contributed to this report.