Kyrgyzstan holds parliamentary elections on the 4th of October, the first real test of the new constitution adopted after the country's 2010 revolution, the second since independence. Corruption, political scandal, and restrictive voting requirements have stymied voter interest and are likely to limit the impact of the elections on Kyrgyzstan's democratic and political development.
The Kyrgyz Republic will hold elections on October 4th for its parliament, the Jogorku Kengesh. This is only the second election under Kyrgyzstan’s new Constitution, which went into effect in 2010 (the last being in October of that year). The main object at stake is Kyrgyzstan’s economic development, which is facing major strains after its ascension to the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the collapse of the ruble and Russia’s economy. However, the campaign is dogged by scrutiny over new voting requirements and political scandals, but this is unlikely to lead to major changes among the ruling elite.
The Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan is campaigning on anti-corruption, and the successes of President Atambaev. Under his leadership Kyrgyzstan has made some major changes, most recently joining the Eurasian Economic Union, increasing its ties with Russia, and distancing itself from the West. Membership in the EEU unfortunately required Kyrgyzstan to sacrifice one if its main industries: re-export. New border restrictions are suffocating the large bazaars that thrived under the former trade-friendly import regime. The Dordoi Bazaar in Bishkek (which employs approximately 60,000 people) has seen an 80% decrease in trade turnover since July. Increased trade with other EEU members has not softened the blow, largely because Kyrgyzstan’s institutions are not able to meet the non-tariff requirements such as phyto-sanitary standards. Concurrent to the trade issue is concern over revenues from gold. After the 2008 financial crisis, gold (Kyrgyzstan’s main export, totaling 12% of the country’s GDP) was rising in the world markets, but now that confidence in fiat currencies has returned, gold futures are bleak.
All of this is compounded by Russia’s own economic troubles, which bleed into Kyrgyzstan via migrant workers’ remittances. Almost a million Kyrgyz laborers work abroad, mostly in Russia, but as Russia’s economy collapses more workers are returning home. Income, either in Kyrgyzstan or in Russia, is increasingly hard to come by and the drop in the currency value compounds the effect of lower wages. The mass return of migrants to Kyrgyzstan may be an opportunity for compelling positive change, but they are highly likely to destabilize the country if economic conditions decline further.
Voter Eligibility and Political Scandal
Citizens abroad face a particular issue in the upcoming elections, eligibility to vote. The country recently instituted regulations requiring all voters to submit biometric data. If a citizen did not register their data with the government, they do not have the right to vote. Only 2,751,414 voters have complied and are eligible to participate in the elections under the new regulations although the government estimates that over 3.7 million citizens are of voting age. The problem is most acutely felt among the expatriate population, where only an estimated 10,000 of a surveyed 700,000 can vote (1.4%) because of the biometric data requirements and proximity to polling stations. While the new requirements were justified as a solution to the voter fraud that marred prior elections—a main driver of the 2005 revolution—the policy has been met with strong skepticism.
The election is facing many other scandals among the main contending political parties: Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK, the unofficial party of President Almazbek Atambaev), Respublika-Ata Jurt (an alliance of two parties), Ata-Meken, and Ar-Namys. Most recently, a co-chair of the Respublika-Ata Jurt Party (Kamchibek Tashchiev) physically beat a candidate of the Onuguu-Progress Party who was hospitalized because of the incident. Elsewhere, another member of the Respublika-Ata-Jurt Party stabbed a member of the Kyrgyzstan Party three times. The central election committee has since given the party a warning and removed Tashchiev from the candidate list.
Ultimately, the SDPK is expected to receive between 20-30% of the vote while the distribution among the other parties is uncertain. A poll this summer found that 38.2% of voters were undecided and almost an entire third (29%) were against all parties and had no intention of voting. In the same poll, SDPK received 12.4% and Respublika - Ata-Jurt 6.4%. Some new parties, Bir Bol and Onuguu-Progress, were founded by former members of Tashchiev’s Respublika-Ata Jurt party. Their entry into the elections combined with the party's recent scandals will likely reduce the party’s influence—in the current parliament Respublika and Ata Jurt currently have 51 seats while the SPDK has the second largest presence at 26 MPs.
The 2010 Constitution took most power from the President and gave them to the Jogorku Kengesh to avoid future presidential efforts to hijack the political process. Kyrgyzstan’s two previous revolutions in 2005 and 2010 are a testament to the people’s desire for good governance and a political voice. Unfortunately, the lack of economic development since 2010, persistent corruption, and an overarching preference for stability has led to a highly apathetic citizenry. Further, the elections use party list voting, where voters simply select a party based on its declared platform and seats are distributed proportionally. This contributes to anonymity among politicians and a spot on the party list can allegedly be purchased for $300,000 to $500,000. The process’s lack of transparency and the shifting of names on the party lists weaken voter faith in the system.
Shifting International Influences
The media’s current focus on scandal over policy debate limits constituent education at an important juncture in Kyrgyzstan’s domestic political development and regional alignments. Beyond having just joined the EEU, new legislation concerning foreign agents and LGBT propaganda (following Russia’s lead) are bringing the country closer to Moscow's orbit. Deepening political ties with Russia at this time appears tenuous considering Russia’s economic condition and Kyrgyzstan’s dependence on that struggling economy. Vis-à-vis Washington, Moscow has secured a dominant military relationship with Bishkek. Kyrgyzstan recently denounced a treaty on Cooperation To Facilitate The Provision Of Assistance with the United States, which had been in effect since 1993. Also, in 2014 the government did not renew a lease for the US Transport Center “Manas,” abandoning a large source of revenue.
It is unlikely that there will be any large changes to the Jogorku Kengesh’s composition after the election, except the potential dilution of Respublika–Ata-Jurt’s power. The political elite has ruled the country since independence and despite an electoral shake up they are unlikely to disappear. The main concern for both the elite and population is the prospect of unrest in the wake of voting fraud. Prime Minister Temir Sariev has made it very clear that the only way to voice disagreement is through the courts and not by occupying government buildings or blocking roads.
The first prospective turnover of power will be a major indicator of success for Kyrgyzstan’s democratic experiment. Regardless of the efficacy of Sunday’s elections, corruption will remain a major roadblock to political development as efforts to combat the issue are consistently maligned for further perpetuating corruption. The use of advanced technology like biometrics may limit ballot stuffing and voter fraud, but its hasty implementation and the loss of anonymity keeps citizens away from the polls. In the end, the level of faith that is not lost in the system rather than how much trust politicians have earned may become the measure of political success in Kyrgyzstan.
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