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Central Asia: Electoral Season Viewed With Skepticism

By Roger Kangas

Prague 29 January 1999 (RFE/RL/) -- This year is due to be a busy one for elections in the Central Asian states.

Citizens of each country in the region are scheduled to go to the ballot boxes for a variety of contests ranging from municipal and regional votes to national legislative races.

The electoral season will reach its peak in December, when Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan are to have national parliamentary elections. Even Tajikistan, ravaged by a five-year civil war that ended in 1997, is expected to hold parliamentary elections sometime in the year, assuming the peace process remains intact.

These elections constitute a timely opportunity for Central Asian leaders to try to show that allegations their countries are undemocratic are misplaced. But recent practices suggest that they are going to keep these events as controlled as possible.

Kazakhstan's presidential election earlier this month (January 10) may have set the tone for the region's polls. In that election, the incumbent Nursultan Nazarbayev faced only weak challengers after his strongest rival was barred. Nazarbayev easily won the vote.

Officially, Nazarbayev won 78.3 percent of the vote in the race. Runner-up Serkbolsyn Abdildin, head of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, got 13.5 percent of the vote. Two other also-rans, Customs chief Gani Kasimov and lawmaker Engels Gabbasov, received 4.3 percent and less than 1 percent, respectively. But Nazarbayev's only serious prospective challenger, former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, was declared ineligible after he was convicted in absentia last October by a local court for attending an unsanctioned meeting.

Western governments and international organizations have followed the results of Kazakhstan's presidential poll with either disappointment or silence. Western human rights groups had objected to holding the poll this month after it was originally scheduled for 2000. They argued that moving up the poll pre-empted the president's political opponents by giving them too little time to mount effective campaigns.

However, now that the election results are final, Nazarbayev can expect to stay in office until 2006, when his new seven-year term expires.

Uzbekistan has exhibited a similar practice of control from above, which bodes ill for its December election. The legislature, or Oliy Majlis, boasts delegates from a number of parties, but almost all the parties are founded by supporters of President Islam Karimov.

Yet another pro-Karimov party joined the scene as recently as last December, the Fidokorlar ("Self-Sacrificing, or Unselfish People") National Democratic Party. It pledges to work towards democracy and social development in the country --just as does the dominant Peoples' Democratic Party (PDP), which is considered the front-runner in the upcoming elections.

It is highly unlikely that the new pro-Karimov party, even while declaring itself in opposition to the PDP, will pose any real challenge either to the dominant party or Karimov's presidency. Uzbekistan's other mainstream parties are all also founded by the president's allies: the Watan Taraqiyati (Fatherland Progress) Party, founded in 1992; the Adolat (Justice) Social Democratic Party, founded in 1995; and the Milli Tiklanish (National Rebirth) Democratic Party, also founded in 1995.

It is not yet clear whether the few groups that do not support Karimov will be permitted to contest the elections. While few would doubt the fact that the Central Asian leaders are committed to remaining in office for the near future, some may find it curious that they insist upon at least going through the ritual of holding elections and creating opposition parties.

Yet this makes sense if one considers that elections can be used not only for actual political competition but also for the symbolic legitimizing of regimes. Some Central Asian leaders may try to argue that simply holding elections on a regular schedule is evidence that their countries are democratizing. By the year 2000, all of the Central Asian states will have held at least two rounds of legislative elections and by the year 2002, the same can be said for presidential races.

Thus, even as observers from the United States and Western Europe, or bodies such at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, voice their skepticism over the processes, the leaders of Central Asia's states can tell their citizenry that their political systems are indeed free and fair because they regularly hold polls.

When critics point out that Central Asian elections may differ from those held in the West -- for example, in Kazakhstan's banning of candidates for administrative offenses -- the leaders have another argument to explain the discrepancies. Several presidents have attributed the differences to the "Asian," or "Central Asian," quality of their societies. They seem to argue that higher goals, such as "stability" require them to permit only government-approved "opposition" within controlled environments.

Perhaps the most interesting of the upcoming elections this year will be in Turkmenistan. While there has been little movement on creating opposition parties, the government insists that these races will be open and competitive. Instead of having 50 candidates run for the 50 seats in the Mejlis, as in 1994, there is discussion that multiple candidate races will now take place.

Following in line with the other Central Asian states, it is likely that any opposition allowed in Turkmenistan will have to have the consent of President Saparmurat Niyazov and the poll will produce no surprises.

But then, that is already enough to suffice if the true goal of Central Asia's presidents is merely to see that the planned rituals of campaigning and vote-casting take place as scheduled while they themselves continue in power.

(Roger Kangas is a Washington-based expert on Central Asian affairs.)