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Analysis: Kyrgyz, Tajik Elections Present Familiar Issues, New Context

  • Daniel Kimmage

http://gdb.rferl.org/492CA695-BB03-4FE3-AA3A-4198C0CC7A51_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/492CA695-BB03-4FE3-AA3A-4198C0CC7A51_mw800_mh600.jpg Voters in Kyrgyzstan on election day Viewed purely within the context of Central Asia's uneven engagement with democracy, parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on 27 February did not mark a radical departure from years past. Foreign observers and the domestic opposition pointed to the authorities' use of administrative resources and manipulation of the media environment.

In Kyrgyzstan, where the political environment has conventionally been viewed as more open than in neighboring countries, pro-government candidates failed to score a knockout blow, and more than half of the seats will be contested in a second round. In Tajikistan, where President Imomali Rakhmonov has been shoring up his power base of late, the ruling People's Democratic Party swept to a crushing victory.

But something new is in the air. The elections in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004 that produced revolutionary change in those two countries marked a broader shift in the post-Soviet world. For those in power and out, the ballot box has become a Pandora's box of political peril and promise. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan confirmed this, but also served up a reminder that regional narratives always have a local telling.

Tajikistan held elections to its 63-seat Majlisi Namoyandagon, or lower chamber of parliament, with 22 members elected through party slates and 41 through single-mandate districts. The ruling People's Democratic Party dominated, winning a total of 49 seats, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 1 March. Kyrgyzstan saw elections to a new, unicameral parliament with all 75 members elected through single-mandate districts. Only 31 candidates scored first-round victories, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 28 February. A number of prominent opposition figures, who are increasingly united in their opposition to President Askar Akaev but affiliated with a welter of parties and blocs, will go into the second round on 13 March. Many of the first-round winners are pro-government, and, as eurasia.net noted in a 1 March analysis, "it remains unlikely that the opposition will enjoy a strong presence in the next parliament." Yet this is not a foregone conclusion, and the second round could still hold a number of surprises.

This summary of the results fails to convey a crucial factor that set these elections apart from earlier ballots -- the context of Georgia's Rose Revolution and Ukraine's Orange Revolution. In Kyrgyzstan, where many observers noted that prerequisites for such change are more numerous than in other Central Asian countries, the specter of revolution was ubiquitous. It dominated pre-election analyses, with observers vying to gauge the odds of a Kyrgyz revolution and guess its color. It haunted President Akaev, who claimed in numerous public statements that political change in Georgia and Ukraine was a well-funded put-up job by outside forces and insisted that nothing of the sort would happen in Kyrgyzstan. And it dogged the opposition, which found itself caught between the expectations of observers and the fears of the authorities. In Tajikistan, where a president firmly in control and bitter memories of the 1992-97 civil war militated against any revolutionary scenarios, the very unlikelihood of another Georgia or Ukraine set the stage for a lackluster race.

Election assessments in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan provided a vivid illustration of the long shadow cast by Georgia and Ukraine, where election improprieties documented by outside observers sparked popular outrage. In its reports on 28 February, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said that Kyrgyzstan's elections, "while more competitive than earlier elections, fell short of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections in a number of areas," and that Tajikistan's elections "failed to meet many key OSCE commitments and other international standards on democratic elections."

Both reports enumerated significant violations of democratic practice. But the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) observer mission served as a counterweight to the negative findings of OSCE observers, pointing out minor flaws while pronouncing the Kyrgyz elections "transparent, open, and legitimate" and the Tajik elections "free and transparent," RFE/RL reported.

The Kyrgyz government was quick to seize on the disparity. The official news agency Kabar devoted the bulk of a 28 February story on election assessments to positive findings by CIS observers, as well as by missions from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) and the "London International Democracy Institute" (an Internet search on various permutations of the organization's title turned up no information). The report mentioned the OSCE report last, saving its negative findings for the penultimate paragraph.

Moreover, in a 1 March statement, the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry disputed the OSCE's critical assessment, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. While the conflicting assessments point to a rift on what constitutes accepted democratic practice, the official Kyrgyz response underscores an increasingly contentious attitude among "first-generation" post-Soviet states toward the OSCE's emphasis on democracy in the wake of election-related upheaval in Georgia and Ukraine.

With Tajikistan's elections completed and Kyrgyzstan's awaiting the second round, the outlines of their political futures are coming into clearer focus. Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov seems more secure than ever, and the country's opposition now faces the prospect of reestablishing itself. Rahmatullo Zoirov, the head of the Social Democratic Party, indicated one possible path when he said on 1 March that he does not rule out protest demonstrations, ITAR-TASS reported.

The situation is more fluid in Kyrgyzstan, where the opposition is still fighting for seats in parliament. The lead-up to the 13 March runoffs will test individual opposition candidates' ability to get their message across and marshal the protest electorate. They face an uphill battle on the information front, with nationwide television in pro-government hands and a leading independent newspaper facing a slew of defamation lawsuits. Protest potential is unclear.

Kyrgyzstan witnessed large-scale demonstrations in the lead-up to elections, when several candidates were removed from the ballot in provincial constituencies. But the protests confounded conventional wisdom: they did not take place along a clear opposition/authority divide and they occurred in regions not traditionally associated with political activism. Thus far, the opposition has not managed to muster more than a few hundred demonstrators in the capital.

And parliamentary elections are only the beginning of the political marathon in Kyrgyzstan. President Akaev recently reiterated that he will leave the race to others in the October presidential election, although he and his allies are sure to select a successor before then. The opposition also has its work cut out for it. Whatever its eventual showing in parliamentary elections, it faces the task of unifying around a single viable candidate and message. If it succeeds, the opposition will face a battle that promises to be even tougher than the fight for parliament.

The terms of engagement have not changed. All of the classic post-Soviet political dilemmas remain, from the dichotomy between opposition and authorities to the debate over the authorities' use of administrative resources and media control. What has changed is that the democratic process itself is increasingly at issue. For the common thread in Georgia and Ukraine was that when protests against the abuse of that process reached a critical mass, long-standing grievances found expression through a suddenly, and perhaps momentarily, united opposition. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are moving along their own paths, but through territory that has been marked in advance by the fact that the democratic process in other post-Soviet countries has shown that under the right circumstances it can produce momentous changes.

For news, background, and analysis on the 27 February parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, see RFE/RL's webpage "Kyrgyzstan Votes 2005" and "Tajikistan Votes 2005".
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