Kyrgyzstan Prepares To Hold Parliamentary Elections After Turbulent Events

By Bruce Pannier

As the official campaign season kicked off for national Kyrgyz elections on September 10, 29 parties were officially in the running for seats in the country's parliament.

Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary elections have traditionally been among the most eventful in Central Asia, and the recent ousting of Kurmanbek Bakiev as president and deadly ethnic violence in June suggest this poll could eclipse its predecessors.

The 29 parties competing in the October 10 vote represent just a fifth of Kyrgyzstan's registered political parties.

Nevertheless, the figure is a high-water mark in terms of participation, with each party obliged to field one candidate in each of the 120 parliamentary seats. At least one-third of the candidates must be women, with voting by party lists that contain more than 3,000 names.

Only a few parties have any realistic chance of winning significant numbers of seats, however.

Erica Marat, a Central Asian expert who has authored Freedom House's annual "Nations in Transition" report on Kyrgyzstan since 2008, says the most likely parties to succeed in the October election are those whose leaders participated in drafting the country's new constitution, approved by national referendum in late June.

"We have to remember that the main principles of the current constitution have been written by several major political parties' leaders, and these are the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, Ata-Meken, and to a certain extent Ak-Shumkar," Marat said. "The leaders of these political parties -- especially of the Ata-Meken party, Omurbek Tekebaev -- have been the masterminds behind coming up with this constitution. This said, it looks like the parties that came up with the constitution have the greatest chances to succeed in parliamentary elections."

Tekebaev, Social Democratic Party (SDP) leader Almazbek Atambaev, and Ak-Shumkar (White Falcon) leader Temir Sariev are all seasoned politicians who were outspoken critics of Bakiev and his government. All briefly held positions in the interim government of the current president, Roza Otunbaeva.

The SDP seats won 11 seats in the heavily criticized 2007 parliamentary election that saw Bakiev's newly created Ak-Jol Party take 71 of the 90 seats. Ata-Meken received more votes than the SDP but was disqualified because the party had not received a required 0.5 percent of the vote in all the country's provinces and two major cities, Bishkek and Osh. Ak-Shumkar threw its support behind Ata-Meken.

> Map of Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan's political culture is driven by personalities rather than parties, but a handful of parties not led by well-known figures have a chance of making inroads in this poll.

The Ar-Namys (Dignity) party led by Feliks Kulov has rated surprisingly well in polls, considering Kulov was Bakiev's prime minister from 2005 until the end of 2007. To many in Kyrgyzstan, Kulov, who is also a former Interior Ministry official, represents order. And after 86 people were killed during the April unrest that led to Bakiev's ouster, followed by nearly 400 more deaths that resulted from interethnic violence in parts of southern Kyrgyzstan in mid-June, the establishment of order is high on the list of many voters' priorities.

Some of the newer parties could also get a few seats. One is Respublika, a party created in late June by businessmen and led by 40-year-old former deputy prime minister (January 2009-April 2010) Omurbek Babanov. Another is Ata-Jurt, led by former Bakiev officials, including former Emergency Situations Minister Kamchybek Tashiev and Bishkek Mayor Nariman Tyuleev.

For some of the expected also-rans, the main task will be to present a fresh face that will pay dividends in future elections.

Most of established parties are led by well-known figures who have been a part of Kyrgyzstan's political scene since the first days of independence in 1991. But many voters have become weary of the upheaval that has marked Kyrgyz politics. Two leaders have been forced from office in a five-year span, leaving many younger voters looking for new leaders to emerge. And if smaller parties led by such candidates can win even one or two seats, their chances of making a larger dent in the 2015 parliamentary vote would rise significantly.

As Marat explains, this parliamentary polls also stands out because it stands a good chance if being free and fair.

"There is no central power -- no central political party or political leader -- that is in control of the election results. So there is no central force really to push the election results in a certain way and make sure that one political power prevails over other political powers," Marat said. "What is happening in Kyrgyzstan right now is that over 28 political parties are now competing for seats in parliament and the political campaigning is done in an environment where election results are unpredictable. And, importantly, the Central Election Commission is comprised of independent observers and it's not representing the ruling power and basically it is not interested in having any specific political party winning the election."

A more level playing field can be expected, but that doesn't mean name recognition won't play a key role in determining who comes out on top. And this is where the less-established parties are at a key disadvantage.

One requirement for parties to register was that each participating party have a list of 120 candidates, and as Marat explains this has left some parties scrambling to fill the ranks of candidates.

"Apparently about 30 percent of all candidates registered to participate in the elections are unemployed," Marat said. "Most political parties presented extended families of the main leaders. For instance, the leader of the party is a known politician and their extended family members comprise the core of his party's list to run in the elections."

Marat added: "We can see that the first couple of people, even in the bigger parties like Ata-Meken or the Social Democratic Party, are quite well-known to the general public. But as we go down the list we don't really recognize those people, who they are, what they do, and what kind of views they have."

For any party to receive seats in the new parliament that party must have received at least 5 percent of the total vote.

But there is another requirement to be met.

A measure was introduced in the 2007 parliamentary elections requiring any party participating to receive at least 0.5 percent of the vote in Kyrgyzstan's seven provinces and two major cities (Ata-Meken received 9.3 percent of the general vote but was disqualified under this rule for receiving less than 0.5 percent in Osh). The rule is supposed to guarantee that a party has at least some support all around Kyrgyzstan. But as Marat pointed out, the requirement is a major hurdle to new or small parties.

Among other twists in this election, no single party can win more than 65 seats. The idea is that no single party will be able to hold power without forming some sort of coalition with another party. In addition, the parliament that is chosen will select a prime minister who, for the first time in Kyrgyzstan's history, will be running the country. The president will become a figurehead along the lines of the political systems in Germany and the Czech Republic.

All things and parties considered, Marat expects a competitive poll.

"Because these elections are different from previous elections and they take place in an environment of uncertainly, these political parties will really have to compete among themselves, they really have to come up with a convincing political message, a convincing economic program, and this is something most political parties in Kyrgyzstan are not used to doing," Marat said.