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Kyrgyzstan: What Do Amendments To Election Code Add Up To?

Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission announced yesterday that amendments and additions to the Election Code have been approved. Some of the changes are significant and likely to affect not only potential candidates and political parties but the way the media cover election campaigns.

Prague, 28 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- With a year to go until parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan, the Central Asian nation has approved a series of amendments and additions to its election code. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so it is with Kyrgyzstan's electoral changes.

Supporters of Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev say the modifications will make elections more democratic. Members of the political opposition see a change for the worse. So what, in the end, is different about the updated Election Code?

Central Election Commission Chairman Sulaiman Imanbaev, speaking yesterday, said the changes have brought the Election Code in line with international standards. "We think that [the Election Code] turned out well enough. [The regulations] meet international standards for elections. I think we did everything possible to take into account everything [necessary] for the Kyrgyz Republic," he said.

"Now we don't have a quota -- about 10 people can vote, and if a contender receives six of those votes, he can be elected in the first round. I think such a person cannot be called 'a representative of the people.'"
Imanbaev said a total of 206 changes were made to the Election Code. One of the biggest is the modification of the process by which the members of the Central Election Commission are named. Formerly, the president appointed half the members and the parliament appointed the other half. Now, four members will come from the upper house of parliament, four from the lower, four will be presidential appointees, and Imanbaev will remain as chairman.

The commission chairman also said checks on voter lists will become more stringent, with what he called "state establishments" playing a greater role in approving the lists. The changes, he said, "will increase the authorities' responsibility on issues related to citizens' registration." This is an apparent attempt to fight instances of people voting twice or on behalf of their entire family, as has happened in past elections.

In a setback for opposition parties who united efforts in the last parliamentary elections, Imanbaev said participation by election blocs is now "out of the question."

Several candidates from parties that missed the registration deadline for the last parliamentary elections simply merged their parties with others that had registered. This option now seems to be unavailable.

In another change that appears to work against the opposition parties, the party-list system has now been dropped entirely from the revised constitution adopted in February 2003. In the last election, 15 of the upper house's 35 seats were reserved for party lists. The 70-seat lower house used no party-list arrangement.

This new rule may keep some leading opposition figures out of the next elections. But deputy Ishenbai Kadyrbekov says opposition deputies were present during discussions of the draft election amendments and therefore have no justification for complaints at this point. "We can say that both the opposition parties and the president's supporters are in agreement with the new amendments to the Election Code because the same draft was proposed to parliament," he said.

But Azimbek Beknazarov, an opposition deputy, criticized the changes. He pointed to one amendment eliminating the 50 percent-plus-one criteria for a vote to be declared valid, saying: "There was no bottom line adopted [for voter turnout]. Now elections will be counted even if there are only 10 voters. I don't agree with this situation. Now we don't have a quota -- about 10 people can vote, and if a contender receives six of those votes, he can be elected in the first round. I think such a person cannot be called 'a representative of the people.'"

This would mean the elimination of a regular feature of Kyrgyzstan's previous parliamentary elections -- runoffs. A second round has typically been held in most voting districts, and even third rounds are not uncommon. Usually the runoffs are contests between the pro-presidential candidate and a representative of the opposition, but the interval between elections in the past has given opposition groups time to unite and rally around the opposition candidate.

One of the biggest changes in the Election Code affects the foreign media and its coverage of elections. Foreign media are now "forbidden to engage in pre-election propaganda in [foreign] media outlets operating on the territory of the Kyrgyz Republic."

These clauses may be meant to prevent Russian-owned newspapers in Kyrgyzstan from endorsing ethnic Russian candidates. But as it reads, the restriction may be used against all foreign media -- like radio programs from the BBC, Deutsche Welle, or Radio Azattyk (RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service), which do not endorse candidates but do grant air time to many opposition candidates.

(Tynchtykbek Tchoroev of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)