On October 10, for the first time since independence in 1991 the voters in Kyrgyzstan went to the voting stations with great fear for their safety, amid widely circulated rumors about potential bloody incidents. The electorate was also deeply polarized in their views of the elections. One large group of voters was profoundly frustrated and disillusioned with the democratic experiment in the country. The other group was highly optimistic about the outcomes, claiming that the introduction of the parliamentary republic would finally put to an end the abuses, excesses and corrupt practices of the so-called super-presidential system, where the president played a disproportionally large and often destructive role in the political development of the country.
BACKGROUND: These parliamentary elections were held in the shadow of two violent conflicts: a revolt in Bishkek, which led to the forceful removal of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev from power in April 2010, and inter-ethnic clashes in and around the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan in June. Both events led to the escalation of political instability and numerous casualties among the civil population. In fact the events were probably the bloodiest in the country since the civil war of the 1920s, surpassing even the traumatic clashes of 1990, when several hundred people were killed and wounded. Both events of 2010 spread fear among the general population about threat of civil war and of a break-up of the state into two feuding entities – Southern and Northern Kyrgyzstan. Because of these threats and challenges the ruling coalition perceived parliamentary elections to be the best political solution for the country; while their opponents thought that without proper guarantees for minorities and rival groups the elections would bring a further destabilization of the situation. One of the threats was the 'balkanization' of the country, if the people began voting according to their ethnic and regional loyalty lines, leading to a deeply confrontational composition of the Jogorku Kenesh (parliament). The other threat was a possible permanent stalemate in the legislative body, as hypothetically up to 20 parties had a chance to be elected by passing the five percent threshold.
What made these elections different from many earlier ones was that President Roza Otunbayeva and her government promised not to interfere in the election process, and they largely kept their promise. In fact, according to the election laws, no individual in the transitional caretaking government could run in the elections while in office, and thus government members were required to resign from their position to become eligible for registration as candidates. The stakes were extremely high as this parliament would indubitably redefine the political map of the country; therefore about 3,300 registered candidates from 29 political parties organized their campaigns in order to capture just 120 seats in a new parliament. According to the country’s new Constitution, the winning party or a coalition in the Jogorku Kenesh would form the government and would elect the prime minister, the most powerful figure in the newly designed political system.
IMPLICATIONS: These elections became one of the most expensive parliamentary elections ever in the history of the country, although according to the OSCE they were quite fair, open and competitive. The case of the interception of US$ 700,000 in cash (in a country where a university professor receives on average the equivalent of about US$ 100 per month) by the National Security Service illustrates the amount of resources invested in these election campaigns. Different parties used their resources differently. Some tried to simply buy voters en masse, and the Kyrgyz media regularly reported incidents in which candidates offered voters cash or various goods in exchange for votes. Others tried organizing quite professional Western-style election campaigns, often using Western-educated local election campaign organizers.
Yet, most of the fears about the fragmentation of the electorate and armed confrontation at polling stations proved to be groundless. Already a month before the elections, the list of front runners had narrowed down to half a dozen leading political parties that had a real chance to win seats in the legislative body. The elections were conducted in a surprisingly calm and stable environment amid heavy security provided by both the state police and a large number of volunteers. The OSCE sent about 300 international observers to all regions of the country, including the areas that saw bloody conflicts during the summer of 2010. The five largest and best organized parties – Ata-Jurt, the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), Respublika, Ar-Namys and At-Meken – indeed managed to win the most of the votes and get seats in the parliament. On election day and on the night of the ballot counting, thousands if not tens of thousands of citizens were glued to TV screens to hear the results. Surprisingly, Ata-Jurt, which many observers associated with southern regional grouping (the stronghold of the former President Bakiyev) came first with 8.88 percent of the votes, followed by the SDPK with 8.04 percent, Ar-Namys with 7.74, Respublika with 7.24 and At-Meken with 5.6. Another surprise was that Butun Kyrgyzstan came just a whisker away from entering the Jogorku Kenesh, winning 4.84 percent of the votes, not quite enough to cross the magic five percent mark.
Despite the fears and some gloomy predictions, the parliamentary elections proceeded without violence or confrontation, and seemingly contributed to the strengthening of the new political regime. As the leader of Ar Namys Party, Felix Kulov, announced in an interview to the local Kyrgyz media, "[we] should move forward to achieve prosperity for our country [by] overcoming personal ambitions," though it remains to be seen if the newly introduced parliamentary system will be strong enough to deal with a long list of problems and challenges, including deep political division along ethnic, regional and social lines, endemic corruption and economic recession.
Yet the elections have several important implications. First, they helped the incumbent regime achieve its single most important objective: to gain the sense of legitimacy it had lacked ever since coming to power in April 2010, due to the fact that the old parliament was dissolved, the constitutional court was dismantled, the old Constitution was abandoned and the new Constitution was introduced in a very hasty manner. Second, the elections helped to overcome the southern region's mistrust in the post-conflict political process, as through the elections the representatives of the southern elite gained some stake in the current political system and significant representation in the legislature. Third, the elections helped to achieve a degree of stabilization, as the current configuration of the political forces in the newly elected parliament provides hope that this legislative body would be able to offer a legal and open platform for conflict mitigation, bargains and compromises to all major political players in the country. There is also hope that previously marginalized political groups and ethnic minorities will be able to access a valuable channel of communication with the ruling majority.
After the successful elections, the government and most of the politicians in Kyrgyzstan have been jubilant about the outcome. However, they should avoid over-simplification of the situation in the country and should work carefully on furthering political stabilization and on building bridges and trust between various communities. The political, social and economic development in the country is still complicated by a maze of special interests, regional and local alliances, poor governance, red tape and competing ambitions. The newly elected parliament should consider several important steps to solidify the political changes. The first step is to develop a program and strategy for achieving national reconciliation between South and North, and between Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities.
CONCLUSIONS: The wounds of the April and June events are still fresh and the atrocities were quite severe, therefore it is extremely important for the country and its leaders to work to overcome hatred and mistrust between the communities and find ways to move forward. The second step is to find opportunities for revitalizing the national economy, stimulating the creation of new jobs, especially for youth, and attracting international investments by containing corruption and red tape and developing more transparent and business-friendly legal environment. The third step is to improve governance and to increase reform efforts to move the civil service sector towards a lean, highly motivated, well-trained and well-prepared civil service. Due to the turmoil of the revolutions in 2005 and 2010, political retributions and random firing, hundreds of highly trained young civil service workers left their jobs, moving to foreign countries or to the private sector. The fourth step is to begin dealing with forthcoming humanitarian disaster as thousands of people in conflict-torn areas enter the winter without proper housing, adequate food and fuel reserves, with no incomes or access to medical and social services.
AUTHORS’ BIO: Rafis Abazov, PhD, teaches at SIPA, Columbia University (New York). He is author of Historical Dictionary of Kyrgyzstan (2004), The Culture and Customs of the Central Asian Republics (2007) and the Palgrave Concise Historical Atlas of Central Asia (2008). He was an observer at a polling station during the Parliamentary Elections of the Kyrgyz Republic on October 10, 2010.