Kyrgyz Elections Test Democratic Path In Autocratic Neighborhood
October 03, 2015
by Pete Baumgartner
Voters are going to the polls in Kyrgyzstan on October 4 in parliamentary elections that analysts are calling highly unpredictable.
Hundreds of candidates from 14 parties are vying for the 120 seats in Kyrgyzstan's unicameral legislature, known as the Supreme Council.
The most established parties -- the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK); the Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party; the Respublika Ata-Jurt (also Fatherland) party; Bir Bol (Unity); the Kyrgyzstan party; the United Kyrgyzstan Labor party; and Ar-Namys (Dignity) -- are battling for votes against upstart parties such as Azattyk (Freedom); Aalam (Global); Zamandash (Contemporary); and the Congress of Peoples of Kyrgyzstan.
Deputies will be elected from closed party lists for a five-year term in one nationwide constituency.
Nearly 2.7 million voters are registered to vote after receiving biometric ID cards -- a first for Central Asia – which, with the help of a scanner, will be used to identify each voter by his or her fingerprint in a bid to stamp out voter fraud.
The system caused red faces in the government on September 3 when Deputy Prime Minister Taiyrbek Sarpashev tried to demonstrate it to the media and it failed. IT specialists jumped in and got it working.
On the eve of Kyrgyzstan's third democratic election since a 2010 revolution that ousted its authoritarian leader, President Almazbek Atambaev has declared the Central Asian nation the 'most stable country in the region.'
Atambaev boasted on October 2 that the former Soviet republic has 'outran the neighboring countries' in democracy, adding that the October 4 parliamentary elections will be his country's fairest ever.
The vote will indeed prove an important test for the budding democracy.
Speaking in Bishkek, Atambaev urged voters to conduct an 'honest election' and not to sell their votes 'for vodka [or] for 1,000 soms ($15) or 1,500 soms ($22).'
The Prosecutor-General's Office took steps to dissuade fraud by announcing that anyone found guilty of attempting to bribe voters will be fined and could be punished by up to two years in prison.
Atambaev -- who under Kyrgyz law had to drop out of the SDPK when he was elected president -- has been criticized for making public appearances and speaking engagements seen as campaigning for his former party.
The party, likewise, has placed its billboards around the country announcing: 'Think about your country, let's support the president. The Social Democratic Party.'
The link between Atambaev and the Social Democrats has led some analysts to tip the party as likely to do well in the elections.
Several rights activists and NGOs have complained to the Central Election Commission about the connections between the president and the party.
There have also been media reports about local officials attempting to force teachers, doctors, students, and government workers to vote for the Social Democrats.
Atambaev said Kyrgyzstan had 'already gone through two 'Arab Springs'' with the 2005 and 2010 revolutions in the country that ousted authoritarian leaders.
These parliamentary elections will be the third since Kurmanbek Bakiev was forced by demonstrators to flee the presidential office five years ago.
The previous two votes in Kyrgyzstan -- parliamentary elections in 2010 and a presidential election the following year -- were deemed free and fair by international monitoring groups, something that has not occurred in any other Central Asian country.
That recent history puts pressure on Kyrgyzstan to continue along a democratic path, and a multitude of observers -- both international and local -- will be watching the elections closely.
All of the main parties in the elections hold pro-Russian positions, mirroring the recent shift by Atambaev and his government toward Moscow and away from the United States that began with the closure of the U.S.-run Manas Air Base in 2014.
This trend was highlighted earlier this year by Kyrgyzstan's entry into the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and Bishkek's rescinding of its intergovernmental cooperation agreement with the United States that was first signed in 1993.
Such actions have been accompanied by noticeably anti-American comments from Atambaev.
With the majority of Kyrgyz political parties generally supporting the same policies, the lack of clashing positions on certain issues makes it hard for voters to differentiate between many of the parties.
This is a key reason why analysts say it is difficult to predict which parties will come out on top and be tasked with forming the next government.
That fact alone makes Kyrgyzstan stand out in its neighborhood, where elections in other countries are a nonevent and the eventual winners are known well in advance of election day.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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