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Qishloq Ovozi

A campaign poster in the village of Arashan, 25 kilometers from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Voters in Kyrgyzstan -- the only democracy in Central Asia -- will go to the polls on October 4 to vote in parliamentary elections.

Following the revolution in 2010 that ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiev, the country’s constitution was rewritten, transforming the country from a presidential to a parliamentary system of government.

Kyrgyzstan has a unicameral parliament with 120 seats, of which 30 percent are supposed to be filled by women.

According to the party lists presented to the Central Election Commission on August 24, there were 1,209 candidates (though some have dropped out and others were disqualified since then) from 16 parties competing.

All deputies are elected through party lists and a party must receive at least 7 percent of the overall vote to make it into parliament. The most seats one party can win in the elections is 65.

Here is a snapshot of all 16 parties:

The (Broadly) Pro-Government Parties

  • The Birimdik (Unity) party was founded in 2020. The party’s leader is Marat Amankulov, who recently was at the center of a scandal over his comments about Kyrgyzstan becoming part of Russia. Among its candidates are President Sooronbai Jeenbekov’s younger brother, Asylbek; Labor Minister Ulukbek Kochkorov; Deputy Labor Minister Aliza Soltonbekova; and deputy parliament speaker Aida Kasymalieva (a former journalist for RFE/RL)

  • The Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (My Homeland Kyrgyzstan) party was founded after the parliamentary elections in 2015. In August, the Ata-Jurt party, which currently has seats in parliament as part of the Respublika/Ata-Jurt union, merged into Mekenim Kyrgyzstan. Mekenim Kyrgyzstan is believed to be receiving financial support from Raimbek Matraimov, a former deputy chief of Kyrgyzstan’s Customs Service who is alleged to have used that position to make hundreds of millions of dollars in ill-gotten wealth. Among the party’s candidates are Matraimov’s brother and current parliament deputy Iskender Matraimov, former Bishkek Deputy Mayor Mirlan Amanturov, and deputy speaker of parliament Mirlan Bakirov. A September 10 report from kloop.kg noted 221 of the 1,209 candidates on party lists have prior convictions and among those, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan had the most: 29.
The leader of the Kyrgyzstan political party, Kanat Isaev
The leader of the Kyrgyzstan political party, Kanat Isaev
  • The Kyrgyzstan party was founded in 2015 and won 18 seats in parliamentary elections that year. The party’s leader is Kanat Isaev. In the 2015 elections, the Kyrgyzstan party was seen as a stalking horse for the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, but with the recent disintegration of that party, Kyrgyzstan has emerged as the veteran pro-government party.

  • The Ordo (The Center) party was founded in 2019. The party’s leader is Mirlan Miyarov. Ordo in comprised mainly of young people. The Kabar media outlet said of Ordo party’s candidates: "there are practically no publicly known personalities on its party list."

The Opposition Parties

  • The Butun (United) Kyrgyzstan party was founded in 2010. It competed in the 2015 parliamentary elections but failed to win any seats. Among its candidates are party leader Adakhan Madumarov, former deputy chief of Kyrgyzstan’s Security Council Omurbek Suvanaliev, the former Communist Party head Iskhak Masaliev, and former Jalal-Abad Governor Bektur Asanov.
Omurbek Babanov founded the Respublika party in 2010.
Omurbek Babanov founded the Respublika party in 2010.
  • The Respublika party was founded in 2010 by businessman Omurbek Babanov, who later served as prime minister. Babanov made an unsuccessful run for president in 2017 and fled the country due to dubious charges against him. He returned after vowing to leave politics, though he has released campaign advertisements for Respublika in the run-up to elections. The party’s leader is Mirlan Jeenchorov.

  • The Meken Yntymagy (Homeland Security) party was founded in 2010. The party is led by Temirbek Asanbekov, who ran for president in the 2011 election. Meken Yntymagy participated in the 2010 and 2015 parliamentary elections, failing to win any seats in those elections. On the party’s list of candidates, under the category of occupation, the third, fourth, and fifth candidates (Sharali Tabyldiev, Jaynagul Nurmambetova, and Azamat Aytbekov, respectively) are listed as “unemployed,” as are nine other candidates in the top 20.

  • The Yyman Nuru (Ray of Faith) party was founded in 2020 by Aybek Osmonov, but he stepped down as party leader and Nurjigit Kadyrbekov, a young religious leader who studied in the United States and Japan, took over as Yyman Nuru’s head going into the elections.
Maksat Mamytkanov is the leader of the Chong Kazat party.
Maksat Mamytkanov is the leader of the Chong Kazat party.
  • The Chong Kazat (Great Crusade) party was founded in 2012. The current leader is Maksat Mamytkanov, a former member of Kyrgyzstan’s State Security Committee. Chong Kazat is seen as a nationalist party.

  • The Mekenchil (Patriotic) party was founded in 2010. The party’s leader is Sadyr Japarov, but he is currently in prison for his role in fomenting unrest in the northeastern town of Karakol in October 2013. The current leader is Kamchyek Tashiev, the former leader of Ata-Jurt.

  • The Party of Afghan War Veterans and Participants in Local Conflicts was founded in 1994. The party’s leader is Akbokon Tashtanbekov. The party won two seats in the 2000 and 2005 parliamentary elections.

  • The Zamandash (Contemporary) party was founded in 2007. The party’s current leader is Jenish Moldokmatov. The party was originally created to support Kyrgyz migrant laborers in Russia. Among Zamandash’s candidates are former Deputy Interior Minister Melis Turganbayev and Almurza Satybalidiev, a former prosecutor-general, later adviser to former President Kurmanbek Bakiev. Satybalidiev was convicted for the deaths of protesters in the 2010 revolution but was released in 2016.
Omurbek Tekebaev is the leader of the Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party.
Omurbek Tekebaev is the leader of the Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party.
  • The Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party was founded in 1992. The party’s leader is Omurbek Tekebaev, a former parliamentary leader and veteran opposition politician. Tekebaev will not participate as a candidate in these elections, however. The top spot on the party’s list was given to young politician Janar Akaev, a former presidential press secretary and current parliament deputy (and former RFE/RL employee).

  • The Reforms party was founded in 2020. The party is led by a former judge in the Supreme Court’s constitutional chamber, Klara Soronkulova, but most party members are young activists and academics. Reforms’ candidates have the second lowest average age (38). Reforms has relied on crowdfunding for much of its finances, including the 5 million soms (about $63,000) needed to register for the elections.

  • The Bir Bol (Stay Together) party was founded in 2010. The party’s leader is Altynbek Sulaymanov. It is one of the three parties competing that have seats in the current parliament (12), but prior to the party congress in August the party restocked itself with young members and its candidates for the 2020 elections have the lowest average age (37).

  • The Social Democrats of Kyrgyzstan party was founded in 2020. It is what is left of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), which splintered. Former President Almazbek Atambaev’s son, Seyitbek, is leading the party and is a top candidate on the party’s list along with other former SDPK members.
A car drives past a campaign banner in the village of Arashan, some 20 kilometers from Bishkek, on September 30.

Campaigning for seats in Kyrgyzstan's parliament is ending, and on October 4 the country's voters -- along with thousands of expatriates -- will head to the polls to choose from 16 parties in a vote whose outcome is completely unpredictable.

Like all of Kyrgyzstan’s election campaigns, this one has had its share of controversies, but it has also shown once again how very different -- and far better -- this Central Asian country's elections are compared to its authoritarian, undemocratic neighbors.

Campaigning

Due the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit Kyrgyzstan hard, this election campaign has been conducted with special rules for candidates who meet with the public. The rules boil down to: Don’t meet with crowds or hold rallies.

It is too bad because Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary campaigns often feature large crowds gathered in stadiums and -- more often -- in the hippodromes that even modest-sized towns have.

It is part politics and part festival, complete with musical performances and usually someone dressed like the Kyrgyz mythical hero Manas riding around on horseback.

There are 16 political parties representing a broad spectrum of views competing in these elections. There were 14 in the 2015 parliamentary elections and 29 in the 2010 elections.

Far fewer parties compete in elections in neighboring countries and -- with Tajikistan being the lone exception – the other countries only field pro-government parties for the voters to choose from.

Kazakhstan had six parties competing in the country’s last parliamentary elections in March 2015. The ruling Nur-Otan party, the party of first president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, took 84 of the 100 seats available. The others went to parties that are puppets of the government.

A woman sells fruit on the side of a road in front of a campaign billboard for the Bir Bol (Stay Together) party in the village of Koy-Tash, some 20 kilometers from the capital, Bishkek, on September 30.
A woman sells fruit on the side of a road in front of a campaign billboard for the Bir Bol (Stay Together) party in the village of Koy-Tash, some 20 kilometers from the capital, Bishkek, on September 30.

In Tajikistan’s parliamentary elections in March, seven parties competed. There was a solitary, genuine opposition party taking part as the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan was on the ballots but officially received just 0.3 percent of the vote in elections that were carefully managed from above. The ruling Democratic People’s Party of Tajikistan took 47 of the 63 seats available.

In Turkmenistan’s last parliamentary elections in March 2018, three parties competed, though there were 116 so-called independent candidates. The Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, the country’s only registered political party until 2012 and therefore traditionally the president’s party, took 55 of the 125 seats in parliament, with the mislabeled "independents" taking 48, and the two other pro-government parties -- the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and the Agrarian Party -- each receiving 11 seats.

Uzbekistan’s parliamentary elections in late December 2019 and early January 2020 featured five parties. The Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, the party that has nominated Uzbekistan’s presidents as its candidate since 2007, took 42 of the 125 seats available; the others went to parties supportive of government policies.

In all of the elections in these four countries and in previous ones, praise for the president is effusive during campaigning.

That certainly has not been true during Kyrgyzstan’s current campaign.

Criticism of President Sooronbai Jeenbekov and the Kyrgyz government has been heard frequently on the campaign trail and in the many debates that are held on prime-time television almost every night on a range of topics and with pro-government and opposition candidates taking part.

Those candidates have also criticized each other during the debates, quite a change from Kazakhstan, as a recent report from Eurasianet noted, and Uzbekistan, where there were debates during the last parliamentary elections for the first time. Though they were popular, the debates came up short in addressing some of Uzbekistan’s most pressing problems, such as government corruption, home demolitions, and a lack of heating and electricity. In addition to those issues being largely ignored, there was also little evidence of any disputes between the parties.

I Know Whose Party That Is

Parliamentary elections in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan routinely feature candidates about whom most of the electorate knows little, if anything. Since all the parties are completely loyal to the president, they are more like “hydra” parties -- many heads that lead one pro-government body -- and fail to produce charismatic candidates.

Kazakhstan’s political parties are similar. There are some veteran politicians whose names are known, and the ruling Nur-Otan party has taken to including celebrities on its party list during the campaign, though none ever end up taking seats in parliament.

Kyrgyz children sit on benches next to an office for the now-fractured Social Democratic Party of former President Almazbek Atambaev in the village of Arashan on September 30.
Kyrgyz children sit on benches next to an office for the now-fractured Social Democratic Party of former President Almazbek Atambaev in the village of Arashan on September 30.

Kyrgyz elections have generally been about personalities more than they have been about politics.

People in the country know, for example, that the Ata-Meken party is former parliamentary speaker Omurbek Tekebaev’s party; that the now-fractured Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan was former President Almazbek Atambaev’s party; and that Ar-Namys (Dignity) is former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov’s party.

Most of the parties taking part in these parliamentary elections were founded after the 2010 revolution that ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

Vote-Buying

Some of these new parties in Kyrgyzstan are, as professor and columnist Asel Doolotkeldieva recently wrote, only a cover for "long-standing, informal elite political and economic networks."

The presence of these groups has altered campaigning in a bad way.

Parties with access to greater finances stand a much better chance on election day, and not just because they can put up more campaign billboards along the roadside.

Allegations of vote-buying have been made since at least 1995, but then it was often on the level of people standing outside polling stations offering a free shot of vodka to anyone willing to vote for a candidate.

Vote-buying has been one of the most frequent complaints during this campaign, and a vodka shot is nowhere near enough.

Kyrgyzstan’s economy has never been great and the spread of the coronavirus has made the situation worse. Many people could use some extra money, making the temptation to sell one’s vote an attractive offer.

And there seem to be some parties willing to hand over enough money to feed a family for a week or more.

But even this points to a difference between Kyrgyzstan and the other Central Asian countries.

Votes are rigged in the other countries. The ultimate results might be known to a select few officials well in advance of election day.

The voters and ballots are merely props. There is no need for candidates or parties to buy their votes, or even to pay much attention to them.

But political parties in Kyrgyzstan must pay attention to voters. Offering money for votes is unsavory attention to be sure, but it does give voters in Kyrgyzstan an importance that the electorates in neighboring Central Asia do not have.

So if these parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan are far from perfect, they are still at a level not yet achieved in neighboring countries.

Should the other Central Asian governments ever loosen their systems and allow truly competitive polls, they will likely encounter the same small-scale problems Kyrgyzstan is already working its way through -- the kind of things all democratic countries face to one degree or another.

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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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