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Kyrgyzstan's elections: a gentleman's agreement

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With Kyrgyzstan’s political parties agreeing to overlook each other’s misdemeanours and the public afraid to speak out, bribery and corruption will continue to be endemic. на русском языке

Anna Yalovkina
30 September 2015

Voters in Kyrgyzstan go to the polls this Sunday to elect a new parliament, with 14 political parties contesting the 120 seats in the Jogorku Kenesh. The ruling Social Democratic Party (SDRK), under its leader President Almazbek Atambayev, is set to keep its hold on government.

But this time, other parties have also been given access to ‘administrative resources’ to help sway the voters, and Atambayev’s political competitors have been happily upholding the tradition of misusing them.

Complaints, what complaints?

Every week, dozens of anonymous public sector workers – teachers, doctors and other professionals – report infringements of election campaign regulations and pressure on voters from political parties to voluntary sector organisations, journalists and even the political parties themselves.

NGO organisations complain, however, that people are afraid to report this officially, to the police or the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), or to put their names to their complaints.

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BIshkek. Vladimir Varfolomeev / Flickr. Some rights reserved.‘We are attempting to collate instances of rule-breaking by parties and officials,’ says Dinara Oshurakhova, who chairs Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, a civil society NGO. Oshurakova has already publicly reported that the parties have been bussing voters from one village to another, creating problems for the country’s voter registration service in compiling electoral rolls.

Oshurakhova adds that there are as yet unconfirmed claims that parties have been using ‘administrative resources’, the use of official powers, to further their election campaigns: ‘Evidently, students who haven’t registered their addresses are being bussed around constituencies and forced to sign up to vote there, and university lecturers are campaigning on behalf of the various parties.’

Meder Talkanchiev, a lawyer and the NGO’s coordinator of long term election monitoring, told me that there have been stand-offs between representatives of different parties at regional rallies. ‘Sometimes voters are paid for copies of their ID documents, so that other people can use them,’ Talkanchiev adds, although this has been very difficult to prove. People are unwilling to talk on the record.

According to Ainura Usupbekova, the director of Taza Shailoo, an association of groups campaigning for transparent, free and fair elections, observers from her organisation have documented numerous instances of public administrative resources being used by parties.

‘The misuse of administrative resources and bribery of voters is endemic,’ Usupbekova says. ‘Residents’ committees, school head teachers and hospital medical directors are all caught up in it. But we can’t report it to the Election Committee based on hearsay from people who won’t write their own complaints or give their names.’

Want your flats repaired – just vote for us!

Anonymous admissions of accepting bribes from political parties are equally common. The residents’ committee of one housing estate has admitted that the Bir Bol party redecorated the entrance hall of a housing block and carried out minor repairs in return for promised votes.

‘A friend of mine works at Bir Bol headquarters,’ one resident told me. ‘One day we were chatting and I asked him if they could help us get our hall redecorated – the residents don’t have the money to club together and pay for it themselves. He promised to have a word about it, and I said I would get all the locals to vote for Bir Bol in return.’

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Outskirts of Bishkek. zsoolt / Flickr. Some rights reserved.‘Most of them were delighted at the idea, and the job was done – the walls and paintwork were all redone; they even put in little borders in. All the other parties do is produce hot air – why not vote for the guys who actually did something for us? The repairs were better than any promise.’

The other parties just produce hot air – why not vote for the guys who actually did something for us?

‘I was planning to go and vote “against them all”,’ said another resident.

‘They all promise the same thing and do nothing. I’d never heard of Bir Bol and still don’t know what kind of party it is. But then the committee told us some party would redecorate if we voted for them, so I agreed. I don’t mind voting for a party if they fix the hall up.’

At Bol Bir headquarters, people deny everything and call it’s a smear job by their opponents. ‘We’re not helping anyone,’ said party leader Dosaly Esenaliev. ‘It’s not the first time we’ve been blatantly accused of something we haven’t done.’

This, of course, is the usual response of any party to accusations of misconduct. The public and bureaucrats’ fear of speaking out allow the politicians to put it all down to dirty lies on the part of their political rivals.

This makes life difficult for the whistle-blowers. ‘We don’t have enough concrete facts,’ says Usupbekova.

‘In the run up to elections we try to report everything we hear to the Election Committee, and then report on their response. But the only proven example of vote buying has come from the Ata-Zhurt party – it’s being investigated by the TsIK. And as for the misuse of administrative resources, we don’t have any detailed hard evidence, but we can see that most candidates are using every available opportunity’.

Smear campaigns

The mostly anonymous and unverifiable accusations against the politicians end up being seen as no more than unconfirmed rumours or smear campaigns.

During the election campaign, Zamira Sydykova, editor-in-chief of the Respublica newspaper, published a photocopy of a form apparently showing that Zhyrgal Abdyzhaparova, head of a district education centre in Bishkek, was trying to find out how many of her teaching colleagues and their families would be voting for the SDRK, the party in power.

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Spectators at a kok-boru game at Bishkek's Ak-Kula stadium. (c) Vladimir Pirogov / VisualRIAN.The completed form showed the names, ID details, places of work and party affiliations of Valentina Kirichenko, head of one of the district’s schools, and her close family. Sydykova said that the form was brought to her at her office. If the document was genuine, that would show that local authorities were putting pressure – at the very least psychological – on teachers in the capital’s schools, not to mention breaking the principle of the secret ballot.

However, according to Kirichenko herself, all the details given on the form, apart from her name and job, were incorrect. ‘The form gave me a non-existent nephew and a brother, my husband isn’t a minibus driver, and I don’t live in Block 15 – in fact there’s no such block on our estate. My ID details were also made up.’

Kirichenko says that the only campaigning that goes on in schools is aimed at getting parents to come to party meetings. The Social Democrats held one meeting with voters in neighbouring school playground, but then the government banned the use of school grounds for political purposes.

Zhyrgal Abdyzhaparova has admitted that the address on the form was her own, but categorically denies that she had anything to do with it, or that schools were collecting information about staff’s political preferences. And a survey of parents and teachers in five schools in the same district, including Kirichenko’s, as well as four schools in other Bishkek districts, has not revealed any pressure being put on them.

What it did reveal, however, was that teachers were offered money to use their work time for campaigning rather than teaching, and some agreed to do so. But no pressure was put on them. And given that Zamira Sydykova has refused to reveal the source of the form, its authenticity and her inferences from it remain in doubt.

Teachers were offered money to use their work time for campaigning rather than teaching

There are also numerous anonymous accusations against the ruling Social Democrats on the Internet, claiming that they are forcing every teacher to bring along two to four other people to vote for them.

One such accusation, apparently from a teacher at a city school, was published in the Evening Bishkek online newspaper, but it turned out that teachers had never heard anything about it.

So are the authorities putting pressure on public service employees on behalf of one or other political party, or are these rumours spread by their opponents?

Chynybay Tursunbekov, the leader of the Social Democrat fraction in parliament, gave the question short shrift: ‘It’s pure provocation. We do no such thing and it should never be happening.’

Residents’ committees, Form No 2 and dysfunctional technology

The most active parties have been quick to report their rivals’ misdemeanours, whether they involve banners with derogatory slogans or the removal of local government posters. And there is no shortage of things to report.

Taalaigul Toktakunova, a lawyer working for the Ata-Meken party, for example, claims the SDRK has been falsifying voting figures, using No 2 Forms (for people who want to vote somewhere other than their registered place of residence).

‘People from Ata-Meken saw them delivering about 200 completed forms to a local Electoral Commission and telling the Commission Chair that they were votes for their party’. Toktakunova also reports that in the south of the country whole villages have been bussed to other constituencies where the party might be weak and registered there.

Another widespread trick is to avoid registering people on these lists. ‘In constituencies where this fraud is taking place’, says Toktakunova, ‘there are long queues of locals clutching their No 2 Forms, but they are refused permission to vote elsewhere on the grounds that they need to show extra proof of residence in the area. They are sent from pillar to post, made to produce various bits of paper, none of which are actually essential to the process.’

Among the polling stations where these scams have been taking place are Kirichenko’s school and the neighbouring school where the illegal meeting was held.

Voters are sent from pillar to post and made to produce various papers, all of them unnecessary

The lawyer for the Butun Kyrgystan Emgek party, Makhabat Zhumagulova, has also reported suspicious activity.

On 18 September, the last day for people to register to vote in a different constituency, all the computers at another Bishkek school went down, leaving 250 locals unable to cast their vote.

A similar thing happened elsewhere. ‘In fact not one polling station processing No 2 forms was working normally’, Toktakunova says. Toktakunova believes the local electoral commissions have been deliberately preventing voters from registering, so that their votes can be used by others.

The political parties also work through other local bodies and community groups. Ata Meken has evidence to show that local government employees, teachers, heads of neighbourhood and residents’ committees call on every voter whose biometric details are on record and try to persuade them to vote for the Republic Party. Information about who has or hasn’t submitted their biometric data is, by the way, supposed to be secret, and only certain officials of the State Registration Service have physical access to it—evidence of official intervention.

Toktakunova has also reported that in two villages the local authorities took down Ata Meken posters. But then Nurmukhammad Bayakhunov, the council chief in one of them, is No 46 on the SDPK’s candidate list.

A gentlemen’s agreement

The various parties are, however, in no hurry to complain to the Central Election Committee about their opponents’ dirty tricks. They have all signed up to a so-called ‘Code of Ethics’, i.e. there is to be no ratting to the CEC or the police – unless it’s question of mud-slinging or direct interference with their election campaigns.

‘We’re not going to bring the authorities into it. We’ll see what happens on Election Day. It’s the responsibility of the area electoral commissions to follow up on any irregularities we report – it’s not our job.’ says Makhabat Zhumagulova, the Butun Kyrgystan Emgek party’s lawyer.

Toktakunova, her counterpart at Ata-Meken, agreed that it was not the job of her party’s observers to draw up complaints against its rivals: ‘Our Code of Ethics means that we just assemble and analyse information about fraudulent practices, with the help of our experienced observers. But we know that we have our supporters who will vote for us, no matter who tries to influence them against us.’

Bir Bol also confirmed that the parties had agreed to turn a blind eye to one another’s irregularities. In other words, none of them would ever encourage any attempt to outlaw bribery and the misuse of public resources. Instead, they use others’ misdemeanours to justify their own.

Meanwhile the CEC, which is responsible for handling any grievances, is at a loose end. Rashid Bekbasarov, who heads the committee’s working group on complaints of election irregularities, reports that they have been few and far between, and none have been connected with bribery or administrative resources. So the parties are exonerated from any criticism or punishment, and this Sunday’s elections will be declared free and fair.

This article was prepared with support from Bureau for Investigative Journalism of Institute of War and Peace Reporting. The author has participated in a investigative journalism course organised by IWPR in Kyrgyzstan.

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