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Central Asia: Elections Fail Democracy Test

  • Bruce Pannier



Five former Soviet countries in Central Asia have held elections in the last 15 months. But in most cases the elections were neither free nor fair. RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier reports these countries are merely sporting the trappings of democracy.

Prague, 31 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Last week's elections in Tajikistan to the upper house of parliament nearly complete a cycle of elections held in five post-Soviet Central Asian countries since January of last year. In Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, candidates from opposition parties tried to participate, then watched as violations and obstacles prevented them from being elected to public office.

Mary Struthers of Human Rights Watch spoke to RFE/RL's Tajik Service (Thursday) about Tajikistan's elections to the lower house of parliament in February. She says the election was not democratic.

"The authorities and the state media have in general put the elections across as a successful, democratic exercise. We wanted to draw attention to the fact that in our reading, as far as we can see, that is not the case. They (the elections) have been marred by almost as many flaws as you can imagine in any electoral process."

While Struthers was speaking about Tajikistan, her words could apply equally to the other four countries. Election violations occurred in every one of them, both during the campaign process and on election day. While each country exhibited its own peculiar shortcomings, some problems recurred throughout the region.

One of the most basic problems in all five countries was interference in the vote by local government officials.

Hrair Balian runs the elections section of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. He says officials typically interfere directly in the work of election commissions:

"Those who were making progress or had made progress in the past years in terms of human rights seemed to have regressed during the elections. In all of the Central Asian countries we are seeing similar problems. The main problem being that of local officials, executive branches of government, interfering in the work of the election commissions."

In all five countries, officials interfered in opposition campaigns by refusing to allow candidates to meet with voters or to hold rallies. Officials frequently instructed employers in their regions to discourage employees from attending the few opposition rallies that were held.

Balian says the most direct form of influence is the appointment of election officials.

"The next problem in essence derives from the first -- that is the dependence of election commissions from the local level, on up to the central level, on the executive branches of government. From there you can understand [that] the transparency of the process, of producing election results, will suffer. One starts to question the credibility of the results we've obtained from most of these elections."

That is exactly what opposition candidates point out. Opposition parties attempted to place their own representatives at polling stations and counting centers, usually without any success.

Many opposition parties say they doubt the accuracy of the vote tallies.

In Tajikistan, for example, President Imomali Rakhmonov was re-elected in November with a remarkable 97 percent of the vote, and his People's Democratic Party took the lion's share of seats in the lower house of parliament.

In some cases, it was apparent before election day that the standards the OSCE sets for free, fair and democratic elections would not be met. Such was the case in Turkmenistan's December elections to parliament, which the OSCE did not monitor. The Turkmen election was essentially a competition between members of the only registered party in the country, headed by president Saparmuat Niyazov.

The same was true in Uzbekistan's parliamentary election in December, in which all five parties were pro-government and had nearly identical platforms. As for Uzbekistan's January presidential elections, it is enough to note that the reluctant "opponent" of incumbent President Islam Karimov said that even he voted for Karimov.

All five countries say they are moving toward democracy. When Westerners say Central Asia's progress toward that goal is not readily apparent, the governments' usual response is to say they are traveling a unique path to democracy which takes into account their culture, history and traditions.

It appears, however, that Central Asian leaders are learning less from Westerners about the practice of democracy and more from each other about how to simulate it.

(Abbas Djavadi of the Tajik Service and Merhat Sharipzhan of the Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)
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