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The road to electoral perfection in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan’s October parliamentary elections revealed a number of teething problems in law and systems, write Alexey Semyonov, Baktybek Abdrisaev and Kuban Taabaldiev. The Kyrgyz electoral bodies would be well minded to adopt an holistic approach to solving them — from the introduction of technological solutions such as e-voting, to involving key stakeholders in the counting process.

Kuban Taabaldiev Alexey Semyonov Baktybek Abdrisaev
18 November 2010

On October 10, after months of turmoil and violence following the April regime change, Kyrgyzstan held generally fair, free and orderly Parliamentary elections that nevertheless revealed numerous problems with the current election law and systems. The official results were announced by Central Election Commission (CEC) after an almost two-week recount: of the 29 parties 5 exceeded the 5% electoral threshold and divided almost evenly the 120 Parliamentary seats. They now have to create a coalition government and elect a Speaker.

In its analysis of the elections, the OSCE noted that “The counting was assessed much less positively, with observers noting procedural violations and problems with completing protocols. The observers noted that the legal framework for elections is not yet consistent with the constitution and is in urgent need of comprehensive reform. The quality and accuracy of voter lists remained a serious concern. This could affect the composition of the new Parliament as parties must surpass thresholds calculated on the basis of the number of registered voters. In addition, deficiencies in the residency registration system resulted in the disenfranchisement of thousands of internal migrants and people displaced by the June violence.”

Similarly, ENEMO (the European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations) reported that “…the most common problems observed were poor performance by precinct election commission members, violations of ballot secrecy, inaccurate voters' lists and the presence of unauthorized persons in polling stations.” ENEMO recommended improving the training of election officials at every level, regularly updating the voter register, and revising the electoral thresholds to be based on the number of votes cast instead of the number of registered voters.

Some of the parties that failed to reach the threshold level demanded a recount, while others protested the CEC’s decision to increase the initial list of voters nationwide by more than 200,000, which left one of the parties just below the 5% threshold and with no Parliamentary seats.

Two weeks of CEC’s recounts confirmed the above problems. In addition, quoting serious violations of electoral law, CEC voided results from 15 precincts abroad, causing a joint protest by the heads of the Kyrgyzstan’s diplomatic missions. The estimated 600,000 migrants from Kyrgyzstan are usually very active politically. Unfortunately, mandatory preliminary registration and other restrictions make their participation in the elections very difficult. In the event, of the 375,000 Kyrgyz migrants registered in Russia, less than 60,000 could take part in the last contest.

Kyrgyzstan Elections

Kyrgyzstan’s October Parliamentary Election was generally fair, free and orderly but nevertheless revealed numerous problems with the current election law and systems (photo: fergana.ru)

If not corrected, the above problems may seriously diminish or destroy the legitimacy of future elections and thus derail Kyrgyzstan’s new Constitution. On the other hand, conditions are right to streamline the election law and system and to introduce appropriate technological solutions. The people of Kyrgyzstan have demonstrated that they will not tolerate a dictatorship and that they want a legitimate Government based on fair elections with trusted results.

Having adopted a new Constitution that made Kyrgyzstan a Parliamentary Republic, the country now needs to update its election system in a way that ensures public trust and provides a basis for a stable Parliamentary democracy. Election systems (understood as people, organizations, laws, procedures, and material resources involved in elections) are always less than perfect implementations of a philosophical ideal of determining the will of the people.

There are fundamental contradictions:

a) voter anonymity — extremely important in situations where voter intimidation or coercion may exist, e.g., in Afghanistan — also tends to reduce the ability to verify results and to reassure voters that everyone’s vote was recorded correctly;

b) more stringent registration requirements tend to suppress participation; and, even more importantly;

c) participation by different groups may vary depending on the implementation of the registration (e.g., address-based registration may have a disproportional effect on the youth as the more mobile part of the population) etc.

Modern technology (electronic e-voting systems) may be very effective in resolving specific issues but does not change the fundamental difficulties.

For a young democracy like Kyrgyzstan, the way to build and maintain trust in the electoral system is to design the national system in an open democratic process that acknowledges the difficulties present in different approaches and makes reasoned and known trade-offs appropriate for local conditions. A comprehensive set of stakeholders must be involved in the process from the start. In our opinion, those stakeholders would include in general the Central Election Commission, the presidential Administration, Parliament, representatives of all parties, local NGOs, and respected international NGOs (e.g., IFES, Human Rights Watch).

Open public discussion would help the stakeholders to determine the basic characteristics of an election system which would suit the needs of Kyrgyzstan, and to recommend legal adjustments. Then, an appropriate technological solution can be formulated that would best fit the high level requirements.

It is likely that electronic voting technology (e-voting) would be effective in Kyrgyzstan. E-voting is already widely used in Europe, the Americas, and Asia. There is also one country (Estonia) that has successfully implemented a web-based e-voting system (this type of e-voting may be especially effective in resolving the problems of participation for migrant workers both inside Kyrgyzstan and abroad). Unfortunately, many of these systems are proprietary and closed, which will never do as a basis for public trust in a country where the populace is extremely — and justifiably — suspicious of corruption. Again, maximum openness and involvement of different organizations and NGOs in the design and fielding of the system can help.

The emphasis for the design should be on transparency and monitoring as general principles. That means that all software and hardware components must have open specifications in such a way as to allow every stakeholder (or even any 3rd party) to verify any implementation against the standard one. The system should have built-in self-diagnostics and self-monitoring capabilities as well as the capability for remote monitoring by every stakeholder. For example, activation of the system may require joint action by all stakeholders (or designated subset) and any interruption during the elections would be immediately reported to all stakeholders.

More detailed requirements and features (e.g., use of biometric identification for registration and voting) need to be determined through the same open design process and public discussion as described above.

Like most countries, Kyrgyzstan would probably need a combination of traditional, custom, and on-line voting systems. A mixed implementation would allow for an incremental development and deployment; as a pilot project can be limited to a specific population segment (e.g., migrants) or a geographical location (e.g., Osh) that would benefit the most from an updated system.

Implementation of a modern election system in Kyrgyzstan requires political will, particularly from the elected Parliament, investments (especially, for the extremely high data and communication security requirements), legislative and regulative framework, organizational and social arrangements in addition to technological infrastructure. It will require a holistic approach that includes legal and technological solution with civil registry and migration system for accurate data of the potential voters; electronic or mobile identification cards with smart chips). The e-voting system must be considered within the comprehensive framework for Electronic Governance in order to ensure high impact and benefits for society, an effective return on investments achieved by integrating with the other systems at the design stage and during development as well.

Alexey Semyonov was IT advisor of the Kyrgyz government on a number of projects and now is vice president of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes civil society and democratic development in the former Soviet Union  

Baktybek Abdrisaev was Kyrgyzstan's ambassador to the United States from 1997 to 2005 and is now a visiting professor of history and political science at Utah Valley University

Kuban Taabaldiev was Fulbright Scholar in Journalism in 2007 and now the head of independent news agency ZAMANDASH-PRESS, which focuses on problems of migrants.

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