Kyrgyzstan is about to conduct what are, arguably, the most important elections in Central Asia's post-Soviet history. For the first time, the field going into parliamentary elections appears to be wide open among the 14 political parties competing.
Just as important for Kyrgyzstan, these elections could go a long way in restoring the image of the country as Central Asia's best hope for democracy, an image that has been damaged by two revolutions and an outbreak of interethnic violence since 2005.
Kyrgyzstan is the only country in Central Asia with a parliamentary system of government and these are the second elections to be held within the framework of this system.
The day of elections is October 4. More than 2,000 candidates are running for 120 seats in the Jorgorku Kenesh, or parliament. All the new deputies will be selected from party lists, so voters are casting ballots for parties, not individuals, though many of the candidates at the top of those party lists are familiar political figures.
No party can win more than 65 seats in parliament. At least 30 percent of the seats must go to female candidates and spaces are also reserved for representatives of ethnic groups and those with physical handicaps.
Kyrgyzstan's media has been reporting that, at most, six parties will win seats in parliament. But even so, driving around Bishkek it is clear that all 14 of the parties have been free to advertise themselves on billboards and other places around the Kyrgyz capital -- which speaks well for their ability to campaign, and in those neighboring Central Asian states that have had genuine opposition parties.
With only a few weeks left until the elections there have been no complaints by candidates or party supporters of interference in meeting with voters. Such accusations have been made in previous elections in Kyrgyzstan, and in neighboring Central Asian states where there are genuine opposition parties.
Not Without Problems
That said, Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary elections have never been free from controversy and these upcoming elections are no exception. There are 234 candidates on the party lists who have previously been charged with crimes; some have been sent to prison, three are currently fugitives. The head of Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission, Tuygunaly Abdraimov, said on September 4, the day campaigning officially started, that each party participating in the elections had "10 to 25 people previously charged" with some offense.
To register voters, Kyrgyzstan is using a new biometric system that has confused some voters. The population is currently at about 5.8 million, but only about 2.5 million are registered to cast ballots. There are several hundred thousand citizens outside the country, most working as migrant laborers in Russia. There will be six places where Kyrgyzstan's citizens in Russia can vote but Deputy Prime Minister Tayyrbek Sarpashev said at the start of September that he expected that "out of some 500,000, maybe 11,000 will go to cast ballots."
There have also been complaints from some political parties that their campaign posters have been removed from public places. Ata-Meken said some of their campaign posters had been removed from areas of Bishkek but authorities in Kyrgyzstan's capital explained that those posters were placed on the walls of businesses or private residences without the permission of the owners. Respublika-Ata-Jurt similarly complained about the removal of some of their campaign ads in the capital, but Bishkek officials said the party's pledge to have "roads without bribes" was insulting to local police. However, such campaign posters from Respublika-Ata-Jurt were still visible around Bishkek.
Something special is about to happen in Kyrgyzstan and, depending on the results and how the population accepts the final outcome, the country could go far in regaining its image as an "island of democracy" in Central Asia.
For the next couple of weeks I will be traveling around Kyrgyzstan speaking to as many people as possible about the upcoming poll, how they view the elections, what they know about the political parties, what they want from their elected members of parliament, and other matters related to the elections.
So if you want to know more about the upcoming parliamentary elections and what people think, or simply wish to have a short geography lesson on Kyrgyzstan, you can follow along as I make my way through the country, visiting not just the big towns and cities, but the smaller villages and settlements you'll have a hard time finding on any map.