Elections in Kyrgyzstan: a step towards democracy?

Will Kyrgyzstan’s progress towards democracy, initiated after the April Revolution, be undermined by victory of the non-democratic parties at the recent parliamentary elections? Or might possibly these parties surprise everyone and accept the changes? Asel Doolotkeldieva weighs up the probable outcomes.

Asel Doolotkeldieva
18 November 2010

When the history books about Kyrgyzstan’s recent political past are written, October 10 2010 may well come to be regarded as a key date. After the violent overthrow of the previous regime in April and the ethnic clashes of June, the parliamentary elections held on that day were a test of the provisional government’s political reforms.  In the event, the elections produced by far the most curious change of all.


October's inconclusive elections could yet prove a turning point in Kyrgyzstan's troubled recent history

According to preliminary results, “Ata-Jurt” led the list of victorious parties, winning 16 % of votes (some 8.89 % of the eligible electorate).  The other parties were SDPK (8.03 % of the electorate), “Ata-Namys” (7.74 %), “Respublica” (7.25), and “Ata Meken” (5.6 %). The five parties that broke the 5% barrier reflect only 37.51% of the total voting population, with 62.49% of voters staying at home or opting for one of the remaining 24 political parties. The turnout was only 55.89 %, relatively low for Kyrgyzstan. Butun Kyrgyzstan received votes amounting to 4.84 % of the electorate, and is currently petitioning the Central Election Commission to be included into the list of winners. 

Even if these election results don’t shape the final structure of the future parliament and government, they raise genuine questions within the population and political class. Nobody expected, for example, that [former President] Bakiev’s supporters would gain maximum support and the so-called “people’s” parties to encounter such difficulties in getting past the 5% barrier.

More than simply a “north-south” story

The most striking outcome of the election was the unexpected victory of Ata-Jurt and its leader Kamchy Tashiev. Many experts saw this as confirmation of a north-south divide, a consolidation of “southern elites” against “northerners”, and a shift of power towards the south.

This is somewhat of a distortion. In fact, the voting breakdown indicates that no more 18% of the overall southern electorate could have supported Ata-Jurt. Indeed, Ata-Namys and Respublica — parties led by so-called “northerners” — came second and third among “southern” voters respectively, making it clear that the region is not perhaps quite as homogenous as is sometimes perceived.

Nor did Ata-Jurt present any discernable agenda, “southern” or otherwise. While the party certainly looked to mobilize support by appealing to nationalist sentiments, which are stronger in the south after the June events, at no time did it develop a policy on the Kyrgyz language or national minorities (let alone a nationalistic narrative). It is perhaps more accurate, therefore, to see Ata-Jurt as a collection of ambitious politicians, determined to exploit any resource for gaining power.

The people have spoken, but did they really realize what they were voting for?

The new constitution allows the President to keep radical elements away from the levers of political power. President Otunbaeva thus retains the prerogative to invite any of the parties that passed the 5% threshold to form a new government. This explains the cautious response of Ata-Jurt’s leadership to demonstrations organized by the Meken Sheitteri movement – representing victims of the April Revolution and campaigning against Ata-Jurt entering parliament.

From the day the CEC issued preliminary results, each party has positioned themselves as willing co-operators and coalition builders. Despite their very different political backgrounds, for example, it is expected that Ata-Jurt and Ata-Namys will reach an agreement, if only because both want to enshrine in the constitution a return to a presidential regime. But the union raises potential problems for both parties. Many Uzbeks, for example, voted for Ata-Namys as a protest vote against Ata-Jurt, which they felt intimidated the Uzbek community. Any union between Ata-Namys and Ata-Jurt would be seen as a political betrayal by a large number of Uzbeks.

More generally, the leader of Ar Namus, Felix Kulov, who presented himself as the guardian of national minorities during the campaign, would have to explain to what extent he agrees with Tashiev’s concept of citizenship, i.e. that “if Russians, Uzbeks and Turkish say that they are equal or above the Kyrgyz, the state will collapse” [link in Russian]. Perhaps Ata-Jurt’s national-patriotism will turn out to more moderate than many people imagine? Clearly, there is a very real danger that such an awkward alliance could play a big role in the upcoming presidential election, in which both Kulov and Tashiev want to participate.

In another scenario, and if these two parties succeed in dragging Butun Kyrgyztan and its leader Adakhan Madumarov into parliament, this could become a coalition of authoritarians. All the parties refuse to accept the post-April reform agenda, which was aimed at widening the political arena and sharing power between different political actors. They prefer something closer to the ‘power vertical’ model favoured by the Kremlin.

The role of SDPK and Respublica in forming coalitions is less clear. Both are close to Otunbaeva, both represent business interests, and both are little concerned with democratization. Some believe they too might join Ata-Jurt and Ata-Namys, thus excluding Ata-Meken from the power table, and condemning it to eternal opposition. However, at present these negotiations are not going smoothly, because the personal ambitions of the party impede the possibility of a compromise. The new government can offer fewer prime-ministerial positions than these politicians would like.

It is hard to guess how stable a coalition will be, since party structures and alliances are typically opportunistic and short-term. Moreover, since parliamentary procedure in Kyrgyzstan does not bind deputies to their parties, most candidates joined parties knowing there was no further obligation to stay there. This internal instability could well lead to cracks within future coalitions.

Lessons learnt

Kyrgyzstan has experienced its first free and fair election, while at the same time managing to avoid the clash of ideas that usually accompanies elections. October’s poll, in truth, was more about a basic struggle between the businessmen left over from Bakiev’s entourage and the old opposition parties. It was, however, an open election. And yes, that meant that ”unwanted” political forces linked to the previous regime could not only run, but actually win. Ata-Jurt has thus become the beneficiary of the new atmosphere of openness created by its ardent rivals, the “revolutionaries” Omurbek Tekebaev and Rosa Otunbaeva.

Unpredictability and political opportunism point to an underlying trend away from authoritarianism in Kyrgyzstan. There is undoubtedly a danger that this will change if Ata-Jurt and Ata-Namys are successful in returning the country to a strong one-man regime. If this is the case, corruption and further criminalization of the state are inevitable. But at the same time signs are also clear that such a reversal would not go unopposed. Indeed, with the electoral barrier set so high, it is clear that Ata-Namys’s and other parties' strategies of regionalism won’t be sufficient next time.

One final, extremely encouraging point is the fact following the election, political forces from both the south and north are likely to be officially represented in the main institutions of power. A parliamentary system demands compromise with opponents, so that political conflicts can be resolved within an institutional framework and not through violence.  This presents both an opportunity and a great risk for the prospects for democracy in Kyrgyzstan.

Asel Doolotkeldieva is a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter. She was a political analyst for OSCE ODIHR election observation mission in Kyrgyzstan. Here she writes in a personal capacity.


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