Voting System Still Flawed as Kyrgyz Head for Referendum

The system by which voters will decide the fate of a new constitution is obsolete and open to abuse, analysts say.

Voting System Still Flawed as Kyrgyz Head for Referendum

The system by which voters will decide the fate of a new constitution is obsolete and open to abuse, analysts say.

As voters in Kyrgyzstan prepare to go to the polls to approve or reject a new constitution, analysts say the system used for compiling the electoral roll remains deeply flawed.

While there is no suggestion that the current authorities plan to fix the October 21 referendum, most analysts interviewed by IWPR agreed there was plenty of scope for anyone with an interest in skewing the result to do so.

Kyrgyzstan’s past record is not encouraging – notably, two rounds of parliamentary elections in early 2005 produced so many allegations of irregularities and wrongdoing that they sparked a mass protest movement which culminated in the ousting of President Askar Akaev in March that year.

Two areas, in particular, worry analysts to whom IWPR has spoken – an outmoded electoral registration system based on residence records, and the likelihood that many of the hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz nationals working abroad will miss out on a chance to vote.

Because the constitution contains new provisions for parliamentary elections, voters in the referendum will be asked in addition to approve a new electoral law to implement the shift from a constituency-based system to proportional representation, where seats will be filled from candidate lists according to how a given party has performed nationally.

The referendum was announced by President Kurmanbek Bakiev only a month in advance, on September 19, when he also revealed the version of the constitution he would like to go through.

This followed a Constitutional Court ruling five days earlier that the current constitution dating from December 2006, as well another version from the month before, were null and void. This forced the country to revert to the 2003 constitution introduced in 2003 under President Akaev.

Constitutional reform was one of the main demands put forward in a series of protests since March 2005, when a Bakiev came to power.

In November 2006, after coming under pressure from opposition demonstrations, the Kyrgyz parliament changed the constitution to strengthen the role of parliament and limit the president’s authority. However, a month later, parliament passed another version of the constitution which restored the president’s powers, causing an outcry amongst civil society activists who argued that it gave the head of state too much power.

In their ruling, Constitutional Court judges found that changes to the rules of parliament - introduced expressly so that legislators could pass constitutional amendments without referring them to the court - were not legally valid.

Critics of Bakiev say the constitution he is now proposing leaves him and his successors with excessive powers, and is not conducive to creating a more democratic society.

Experts on the electoral system warn that the validity of the referendum which will decide this crucial issue could be marred by abuses such as multiple voting.

In Kyrgyzstan, people are registered to vote in the administrative district where they have a “propiska”, a record showing their place of residence. In Soviet times, the system was used to control population movement.

These day, large numbers of people move around the country or go off to work abroad. The complexities involved in shifting one’s propiska means that many migrants do not bother to do so. Voting stations will therefore be left with many ballot papers in the name of long-absent voters.

Yelena Voronina of the non-government group Interbilim said that since her organisation began monitoring elections in 1998, it has identified cases where unclaimed blank ballots – assigned to either absentees or dead people - have been filled out by unscrupulous officials to help the incumbent authorities win.

“There were dead souls and discrepancies on the electoral roll,” she said.

Voronina said similar problems could reappear in the forthcoming referendum.

“It seems the current authorities are blindly repeating these practices without learning the lessons from unpleasant experiences of the past,” she said.

She believes that basing voter registration on residence criteria in a country with such high levels of internal and external migration is wrong.

“I am against voting with the propiska system; we should move away from this legacy of the Soviet Union,” she said.

By some counts, there are up to a million expatriates – a fifth of the country’s population – mostly in Russia and Kazakstan either as seasonal workers or more permanent residents.

The sheer numbers of potential voters and the short advance notice given for this referendum mean that even those who have the right papers could find they are denied the right to vote abroad.

In Russia, where the largest number of expatriate Kyrgyz nationals are based, polling stations will open in Moscow, Yekaterinburg, and Novosibirsk, while in Kazakstan, it will be possible to vote in the capital Astana and Almaty, the largest urban centre. Kyrgyz nationals living far from these major cities will be effectively excluded.

Alikbek Jekshenkulov, a former foreign minister, doubts Kyrgyzstan’s small diplomatic missions will have the capacity to cope.

“There are usually about five to six diplomats working in our missions abroad, although the embassy in Russia is an exception. So it is unrealistic to expect the staff of these diplomatic missions to manage such a flow of people,” he said.

The deputy speaker of parliament, Erkin Alymbekov, warns that “the entire labour migrant vote represents an opportunity for abuse by the administration, especially since there isn’t a mechanism to guarantee fair voting or to observe the process abroad”.

Another factor that will reduce the expatriate vote is that many migrants are living and working illegally, so they will be reluctant to reveal themselves for fear the Russian or Kazak authorities will take note and deport them.

Emil Imakeev, head of the external labour migration department of the Kyrgyz state committee for migration and employment, said only 10 per cent of the Kyrgyz citizens in Russia enjoy full status, whereas the figure for illegal immigrants is “beyond all calculation”.

Some argue that despite its flaws, the residence-based system is the only workable way of registering voters at the moment.

Nina Mukhina, head of information at the Central Election Committee, CEC, said the propiska system was the only effective way of preventing multiple voting on a massive scale.

“If we were to get rid of the propiska [system], mechanisms would have to be introduced to replace it. Otherwise, instead of two-and-a-half million voters, we could end up with a list twice as long, since many voters have a propiska in one place but live somewhere else,” said Mukhina.

In any case, Mukhina said, there was already provision to people to cast an absentee ballot. All they have to do is go back to the place where they are recorded as living and pick up the papers.

But critics say it is difficult and expensive for people who are by definition economic migrants to make such a trip.

Juma Abdullaev, whose Zamandash group helps labour migrant and other diaspora members, said his organisation had offered to help set up mobile polling stations, as employed in the 2005 election in which Bakiev became president, but the CEC had rejected the idea.

“The Central Election Commission told us that a decision had been taken not to deploy mobile polling stations this year,” he said.

Political analyst Svetlana Moldogazieva, of the CFG legal consultancy, says that despite the criticism of the current system, no viable alternative has been put forward.

She also believes pressure groups are making a fuss about potential hitches for their own ends.

“I believe certain NGOs are exaggerating this issue - criticising the principle of voting by residence registration and thereby alarming the public merely to draw attention to themselves,” she said.

Nevertheless, some election officials admit that current voter registration practices are in need of improvement.

CEC member Jyldyz Joldosheva told the AKIpress news agency on October 12 that she had noticed irregularities on electoral lists earlier this month when she visited the southern Osh region. Eligible voters were omitted, while deceased people were still listed.

“On October 7, there was a local election for Osh city council, and large numbers of voters did not get on to the main electoral roll. Additional lists of up to 300 people at a time had to be compiled in most constituencies,” she said.

“Moreover, in nearly every constituency the names of deceased people had been included. This is wrong, not only because it’s in breach of the law but also because it’s highly unethical.”

Joldosheva blamed the local mayor’s office for the mix-up, and warned that it would have to do better when it came to the referendum.

In a recent television interview, another CEC member, Akylbek Sariev said, “Problems with the voting lists certainly exist. Sometimes there are dead souls. It can’t be rule out that it will happen again. I agree that there are deficiencies in our work.

“But if everyone [in the CEC] approached their duties responsibly, we could avoid this problem. Unfortunately, there are individuals on the local election committees who do not carry out their obligations honestly.”

Jipara Abdrakhmanova is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.

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