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Uncertain Mood in Kyrgyz Election Campaign

Disillusioned and disoriented electorate unlikely to pick new president for his political views.
By Dina Tokbaeva
  • Voters in the October 2010 parliamentary election. (Photo: Igor Kovalenko)
    Voters in the October 2010 parliamentary election. (Photo: Igor Kovalenko)

Kyrgyzstan’s political upheavals have left voters disoriented and uncertain about the future, so that when they come to the polls to choose a president on October 30, it is more than likely they will pick candidates who appear the best match for their personal interests. 

A record number of candidates are standing in this election, the first time a national leader will be chosen since Kurmanbek Bakiev fled the country following mass protests in April 2010. The interim government that came to power struggled to contain ethnic violence in June last year that left over 400 dead and caused widespread devastation in the south. The country has still to recover from the divisions created by the fighting.

Although Kyrgyzstan has a new constitution, a new legislature elected last October, and a new government formed by the parliamentary coalition that emerged, fundamental changes have yet to take root, especially when it comes to improving the lot of the average resident of this impoverished state. That has left voters disillusioned about the political process, an attitude certain to be reflected in the choices they make at the polls.

IWPR asked Gulnara Ibraeva, a sociology lecturer at the American University in Central Asia, to give an overview of the pre-election atmosphere and how voter choices will affect the outcome.

As of October 19, the national electoral body had approved a list of 19 candidates who had met all the requirements to go forward. The front-runners are mainly high-profile politicians like interim prime minister Almazbek Atambaev, who heads the Social Democratic Party, Ata Jurt party leader Kamchybek Tashiev, and Butun Kyrgyzstan leader Adakhan Madumarov.

But there are plenty of newcomers as well, and as Ibraeva pointed out, some of them may appeal to the electorate’s imagination, at a time when the traditional models like heavyweight reputation and regional affiliation no longer carry as much weight as before.

Gulnara Ibraeva: The presidential race differs from previous elections in that aside from seasoned politicians with experience of holding office and standing as candidates, there are a lot of contestants with no experience of public administration.

Some of them list their status as long-term unemployed, so they are not just politicians who are “between jobs”. They can be seen as representing the marginalised and the vulnerable.

That is a reflection of how authority is now perceived in Kyrgyzstan. Power itself, once seen as the preserve of the few, has ceased to be sacred. Over the years since independence in 1991, there have been numerous revelations about people in power caught out for misusing their position, behaving inappropriately, or for sheer incompetence.

The result is that many people have come to believe they too can have a go – they could hardly be worse at the job. That is a major shift even from the last presidential election, held in 2005, when there was still a sense that only those destined for power deserved to win it.

IWPR: In your view, who among the candidates has a real chance of winning? Are we talking about those who are backed by powerful clans?

Ibraeva: To reply to this question, I’d like to say that as a sociologist, I don’t believe in clans. As a mechanism, clans do not work in politics. It’s a myth which it is convenient to use in order to divide and rule. The reality is that a completely different set of issues are in play in politics.

Who could have predicted, for example, that Kurmanbek Bakiev, a not very popular politician, from a clan that had never occupied a prominent position, would become president in 2005?

IWPR: So what are the factors that do motivate voter choices?

Ibraeva: Rational, pragmatic choices – particularly since the voting process has been “commercialised” [offers of immediate rewards in return for votes]. At the same time, a number of different scenarios may play out in this election. One might be that – again out of pragmatic considerations – people say they are tired of everything, so let’s just leave things as they are, even if those at the top aren’t really the best one might hope for.

The fact that this kind of mood does exist among the electorate is confirmed by various social surveys that have been done. What that suggests is that if some newcomer were to emerge – even a media-savvy individual who wins hearts and minds through successful performances in televised debates – people still wouldn’t vote for him. They sense that once he got into power, he too would pursue his own interests. For the moment, people are not ready for something new.

IWPR: What about those candidates who are seen as charismatic, and who enjoy support in the south of Kyrgyzstan?

Ibraeva: What’s very interesting is that this time, the south is not united. Southern political figures seem to have decided they don’t need to consolidate their efforts.

We have observed frictions between some of the southerners, for example between Ata-Jurt party’s leader and official candidate Kamchybek Tashiev and Ahmatbek Keldibekov, the speaker of parliament, also from Ata-Jurt. Keldibekov has close ties to Adakhan Madumarov, the Butun Kyrgyzstan party’s candidate and another southerner. Tashiev has said in interviews that as a member of his party, Keldibekov should be working for him.

IWPR: Will we see a clear front-runner emerging from the southern candidates?

Ibraeva: That doesn’t seem likely. I think that in the north of the country, we will see “administrative resources” deployed on candidates’ behalf. Plus there is the support they can call in from [Muslim] religious leaders, who are likely to work part-time in favour of more than one candidate as well as for their own man, Tursunbay Bakir-Uulu.

IWPR: Would you say, then, that southern candidates don’t stand a chance, especially as they are divided?

Ibraeva: Adakhan Madumarov is still in with a chance. It would be very disappointing if we ended up with a confrontation between a northern and a southern candidate. That might spark a prolonged series of protests.

IWPR: What about general public attitudes, which – judging by what we see in the media – encompass rising nationalist sentiment, and pro-Russian and pro-American views?

Ibraeva: It’s very hard to talk of a pro-American mood. I can’t see where that would come from, except the American University of Central Asia, and maybe people who live around the Manas airbase [used by the United States military]. As far as I can see, America isn’t doing anything in particular to make itself more popular. It doesn’t need to. It has economic and political leverage it can use on Kyrgyzstan, and nothing else.

As for pro-Russian sentiment, I believe this has been shaken by the Kyrgyz-language press. The rise in nationalism is eroding pro-Russian views. But then again, it is by definition impossible to be a complete nationalist in today’s Kyrgyzstan, given that so many people from here are earning a living in Russia.

To sum up public sentiment, I would say what we’re seeing is a surprising mixture of attitudes. Each individual voter will have a little bit of everything.

The defining factor now is a high level of uncertainty, irrespective of what region you live in, and of whether you’re a politician or an unemployed person.

IWPR: Will this uncertainly be a determining factor in the way people vote?

Ibraeva: Unfortunately, yes. What you need to understand is that previously, there were centres of power and influence – a leadership, government, and local authorities that told people what to do and what to think. Now that centralised power has been completely dispersed.

Voters, or the majority of them anyway, don’t have stable identities or certainties in their lives, so what’s important to them is the here and now. It’s about pragmatic choices.

I should add that for better or worse, we do have another kind of centre of power that has formed over the last 20 years, and that is civil society. There are cabinet ministers who wish they could be as popular as [NGO leaders] Dinara Oshurakhunova or Tolekan Ismailova, who can open any door and force senior officials to take action.

IWPR: What do people actually believe in?

Ibraeva: Over the last 20 years, we’ve been fed a view, a set of cultural values, that it’s great to be rich and live life however you choose, and that as long as you’re rich, you aren’t bound by ethics or morality. That’s actually the reason many people would like to become president.

IWPR: So you’re saying presidential office is just viewed as a stepping-stone to personal enrichment?

Ibraeva: Yes, that’s what politics is equated to.

If you make a bit of money, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to hold onto it. You need a whole lot of money to become a real player, and then you need to use some of your assets to buy political protection so that no one can touch you. If you are a businessman, you’re beginning to do well and you’re seeking a bit of security – political patronage – then it makes sense from a pragmatic point of view to become a politician yourself.

At the same time, I am not so pessimistic as to warn that the clouds are gathering over our heads, or that previous generations had a better time of it. All this is a normal and natural process. What’s more, compared to earlier times, there are fewer and fewer areas that are off-limits for discussion. In fact there are practically none. That gives people a degree of freedom. But they don’t have anything to believe in.

Dina Tokbaeva is IWPR regional editor in Central Asia.

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