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Qishloq Ovozi

The Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party is expected to do well in the weekend vote.

Official campaigns have wound down ahead of national elections in Kyrgyzstan, where around half of the country's 5.8 million people are eligible to vote on October 4. In the decade since the so-called Tulip Revolution ousted a Soviet-holdover president, the Kyrgyz social and political landscape has experienced periodic convulsions. But the country has also clung to democracy and a free press sufficiently to remain a bright spot in a region otherwise populated by authoritarian and dynastic governments.

RFE/RL's Qishloq Ovozi blogger Bruce Pannier has spent the last two weeks traveling the country to get a read on the atmosphere in the run-up to the vote and will be in the capital, Bishkek, on election day.

In this report, Pannier distills some of the most essential questions about this weekend's poll.

What's at stake?

These parliamentary elections feature 14 political parties competing for all 120 seats in the Supreme Council. The vote has particular significance since Kyrgyzstan has a parliamentary system of government and a unicameral legislature.

Based on conversations during my recent travels and judging from the visibility of party promotions -- posters, banners, flag, car stickers -- it would surprise me if the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) did not fare well. Partly, this is due to people's tendency to associate the Social Democrats with President Almazbek Atambaev, though he left the party upon becoming president, in accordance with Kyrgyz law.

Other parties that are likely to do well are the Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party, the Respublika Ata-Jurt (also Fatherland) party, Bir Bol, the Kyrgyzstan party, and Butun Kyrgyzstan Emgek (United Kyrgyzstan Labor). Some other parties such as Ar-Namys (Dignity) might pick up a few seats.

Only a fraction of the 500,000 to 800,000 Kygryz working outside the country are expected to cast ballots, a drop in the bucket in light of its 2.5 million eligible voters.

This is the first time the country is using biometric data to guard against multiple voting and other forms of voter fraud. Concern about how related information might be used has led some to forego the registration, and hence the voting process.

We can expect democratic elections, right?

At least in terms of voter access to information, the electorate's ability to participate, and the ability of political parties and candidates to spread their message among voters, the process appears to be democratic.

We need to see how voting goes on election day, whether the new biometric system proves reliable, and the tabulation of votes transparent and free of allegations of rigging.

In previous elections, some parties have alleged there was tampering with the vote count or violations at polling stations. This has sparked trouble: protests, sometimes violent, and demonstrations that lasted weeks and even months and included setting up yurts on city squares or blocking traffic along main roads through the country. In the extreme, the exclusion from elections of popular opposition figures and suspected vote rigging in the 2005 parliamentary elections contributed significantly to a revolution that ousted then-President Askar Akaev.

Monitors from the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights described the last parliamentary elections, in 2010, as "a further consolidation of the democratic process," and ODIHR monitors are back for this month's vote.

A voter reads information about the candidates for parliament at a polling station in the town of Belovodsk on September 30.
A voter reads information about the candidates for parliament at a polling station in the town of Belovodsk on September 30.

What are the main issues driving the campaigns and, presumably, Kyrgyz voters' choices?

Most of the problems people have been mentioning to me are connected to the economy. There is concern about employment, particularly the topic of migrant Kyrgyz laborers. Many people here feel it is a blemish on the country that Kyrgyz citizens have to leave to find decent jobs.

Another problem that's often mentioned is the sudden, rapid increase in the cost of living. This is due mainly to factors outside Kyrgyzstan's control -- the falling values of the Russian ruble, the Kazakh tenge, and the Chinese yuan. All three countries are major trade partners with Kyrgyzstan.

There is also a feeling that many of the veteran politicians in Kyrgyzstan have been around too long and it's time for a younger generation to enter government.

We keep hearing about Kyrgyzstan's "north-south divide." What is that, and how does it affect this vote?

This is a complicated question. The country is bisected by the Tien-Shan mountains. Generally, northern Kyrgyzstan is the more industrialized part, southern Kyrgyzstan the more agriculturally based. The southern region is more populous and generally more religious/Islamic.

Based on my observations, people in the south are more enthusiastic about the upcoming elections and have higher expectations for what the new government can do.

People in the north, while perhaps less excited about the elections, seem to me to be following the campaign more closely; they have offered more detailed explanations for what they are seeking from political parties, though at the same time they seem less optimistic that the new government can do much to change their own lives.

The north-south rift has been a thorny issue since Kyrgyzstan became independent, but it was clearly exposed when President Kurmanbek Bakiev was ousted from power in April 2010. Bakiev fled to his native region in the south and attempted to rally support there, including through references to the "northerners" who had ousted him.

Officials in Kyrgyzstan rarely refer to the rift. They do recognize it, however, and most of the political parties competing in these elections have ensured they have popular politicians from both north and south on their party lists.

A woman walks past election banners in the capital, Bishkek, on October 1.
A woman walks past election banners in the capital, Bishkek, on October 1.

What about Russia? Is Moscow watching closely?

Absolutely. Russia has little to fear from the outcome, as all the parties regard Russia as a major partner. It is inconceivable, as things stand now, that any new government would reduce ties with Russia, especially in light of Kyrgyzstan's recent entry into the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, which many here in Kyrgyzstan see as a chance to improve the country's rather bleak economic situation.

Beyond that, there are some security concerns connected to Islamic extremism. Many view Russia as the country's best ally if Kyrgyzstan indeed faces such a threat.

Are there implications for the region?

If Kyrgyzstan gets this right and conducts free and fair elections, if the population accepts the results, and if the new government can show it is working to fulfill some of the important promises made during this campaign, it could serve as an example.

Most parties have vowed to battle corruption, though this promise has been made before. Some parties have promised to reduce the number of bureaucrats, as both a cost-cutting measure and a means of fighting corruption. Boosting the economy and creating new job opportunities have been recurring pledges, though candidates and parties have been rather vague on how they plan to accomplish either.

The other four governments in Central Asia might not want to see a smooth transition of government based on transparent elections or effective governance as a result of majority will expressed at polling stations, but the people of those countries would have a regional model to consider.

Central Asians have a checkered relationship with Islam. Is Islam a factor?

I have not noticed that. Certainly the elections are a topic of conversation among the Muslims here, and there are reports that some parties have members -- pious Muslims -- who seem inclined toward conservative Islamic values. I know religious leaders are encouraging people to vote, but I haven't heard anyone accuse them of telling their followers how to vote.

The Kyrgyz have a history of taking to the streets, and the 2005 Tulip Revolution was sparked by fraudulent elections. Is there any danger of instability?

I think the biggest danger is that expectations are so high. If any new government fails to deliver on campaign promises, or if some scandal surrounding the elections emerges that people believe is true, all the energy that is going into the campaigning could be channeled in less positive directions. Simply put, if the people feel let down after all this excitement and effort, there are going to be problems.

That said, Kyrgyzstan is in a difficult situation.

Beyond economic woes, there are problems with supplies of electricity and heating that are acutely felt during the winter months. Despite promises made over the course of many years to harness Kyrgyzstan's vast hydropower potential, most such projects remain unfinished -- others have not even been started. Kyrgyzstan has imported electricity from neighboring Tajikistan the last two years to make up for deficits from its own hydropower sources.

Despite an abundance of water, the country still has not adequately developed its irrigation systems, leaving fields fallow where crops could easily be grown. Some in southern Kyrgyzstan have blamed this lack of proper irrigation for why so many farmers leave the country to find work in Kazakhstan or Russia. Properly irrigated, these lands could provide jobs and income for the agriculturally based south of the country.

Many parts of the borders with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are still not demarcated. This has led to tensions, and even shootings, along Kyrgyzstan’s frontier with those two countries.

Bringing the horses down from summer pastures

Passing through the town of Tash Kumyr and heading up into the mountains that divide southern and northern Kyrgyzstan, evidence of the election campaign fades. It seems logical: The 14 political parties seeking votes for the October 4 parliamentary elections can compete against each other, but they have no chance of distracting attention from the magnificent scenery on either side of the road.

In any case, there are not many people living up here, and the first people we do meet have little interest in elections -- they have many more pressing concerns. They are shepherds from the "jailoo" (nomadic camps). At this time of year, these horsemen are bringing their flocks down from the mountains ahead of winter.

The herds of sheep, goats, cows, and horses are the cause of most of the brief traffic jams along the mountain road, and their presence is so common that drivers just stop and sit back. No one ever honks their horn or gets angry. We get stuck in several of these jams and wait as the herds pass through the stopped vehicles and finally clear the road.

"Jailoodan?" my driver calls out to one of the shepherds to find out if he is from the jailoo, and the shepherd nods.

Are you planning to vote in elections, I call out, and the shepherd gives me a puzzled look, then says, "I never vote. I'm busy."

That's understandable, since these shepherds have likely been in the pastures high up in the mountains for several months as they always are in summer. And perhaps that is also why none of the political parties seems interested in advertising themselves in this largely uninhabited area. There are no billboards along the roadside at all, and it is not until we approach the town of Toktogul on the north side of the immense Toktogul Reservoir that the campaign trail reappears.

On the hillside just outside of Toktogul, an arrangement of stones high up on hillside spells out Ar-Namys (Dignity). It is the first place I've seen the stone arrangements since the road south of Osh, and also one of the rare promotions for the Ar-Namys party. Ar-Namys campaign posters appear as we drive by Toktogul.

Feliks Kulov is the leader of Ar-Namys and a veteran politician in Kyrgyzstan. Kulov was in the Interior Ministry when Kyrgyzstan was a Soviet republic, and after independence he served as interior minister, vice president, national security minister, mayor of Bishkek, and prime minister. It was this last position that might be doing harm to the Ar-Namys party in these elections.

On the road through the mountains
On the road through the mountains

Kulov was prime minister as part of the "tandem" with now-exiled former President Kurmanbek Bakiev. Both were seen as potential presidents after the 2005 revolution that chased longtime President Askar Akaev from office and the tandem -- one as president, the other as prime minister -- was the compromise the two worked out.

Kulov was prime minister for only some 18 months, but people I've spoken with in Kyrgyzstan have mentioned Kulov's past ties to the now unpopular Bakiev as the reason they would not vote for Ar-Namys.

Kulov is from Talas Province and it seems he is putting most of Ar-Namys's campaigning efforts into his home region. There are Ar-Namys posters and billboards on the sides of roads and houses as we descend from the mountains heading toward the city of Talas.

As we get closer to Talas, the advertisements of other parties start to appear, but I notice there are fewer of these than in the south. We pass a rally for the Kyrgyzstan party in a park off the road, where a few hundred people look to be in attendance.

The population of the city of Talas is officially about 33,000. I have no idea where they all are as we drive into the nearly empty center of town on a Saturday afternoon.

We do manage to find some groups of people to speak with about the elections. Although most say they will vote, there is a sense of cynicism here that I did not detect in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Higher up into the mountains
Higher up into the mountains

I walk up a group of five young men who are busy inspecting the engines of two cars, which I hope -- and presume -- belong to them.

"Are you planning on voting?" I ask.

They all say they are and that they are voting for Ar-Namys.

"What do you expect the new parliament will do? Will they make changes for the better?" I ask.

"Probably not," one says.

"What do you want them to do?" I ask.

"We need them to pay more attention to the economy of our province," another says. "For example, look at the condition of the roads here," and waves his hand vaguely at the dilapidated road.

He is correct. A lot of the roads in Talas could use some repaving.

I ask for directions to the administration building, the flashpoint for the 2010 revolution.

On the way there, I see a young couple out for a walk with their small children. I say hello and ask, "Are you planning to vote?"

They are, but they won't tell me for which party, although I could make a good guess, after they tell me about their expectations for the new government.

"There are more young people running as candidates this time. Look at the SDPK," the young mother tells me, in a reference to the Social Democratic Party.

Her husband follows, saying, "The new government won't have so many old politicians. They [old politicians] don't have any new ideas. That's why we have such problems. We need people in government who have fresh ideas."

We arrive at the Talas administration building. On April 6, 2010, a group of demonstrators stormed this building and occupied it. Throughout the day, the occupiers and police clashed as police tried to eject the protesters from the building. When the sun rose on April 7, the demonstrators were still occupying the building, and just a few hours later protests broke out in Bishkek that chased Bakiev from power before the sun set.

When we arrive at the building, there is no one in sight.

Talas is a sharp contrast to the bustling political campaigning in Kyrgyzstan's southern provinces. There is a possible reason for this: Less than 5 percent of Kyrgyzstan's population lives in Talas Province, so political parties might well be focusing more effort on other, more populous regions.

Our next stop will be Naryn Province, where the population is only a bit larger than in Talas.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.



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