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Kyrgyzstan: Candidates Fight For Publicity In Crowded Election Campaign

In any election, the greatest difficulty facing candidates can be making themselves known to the public. That is particularly true in Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary election, which is on 27 February. In the contest, there are sometimes up to 12 candidates running from the same constituency. But the country’s media industry is small and advertisements are costly. As RFE/RL reports from Bishkek, that is making for some fierce and sometimes unprincipled competition.

Bishkek, 24 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Election campaigning is due to end in Kyrgyzstan tomorrow, two days ahead of the election. And in the run to the finish line, the 420 candidates vying for seats in this country’s parliament are using all available means to attract voters.

The large number of candidates has made the amount of time state television can offer cost-free to any individual competitor very limited. Under the campaign rules, each candidate gets just 15 minutes of airtime. Ten minutes can be used for campaign speeches and the remaining five minutes for debates with rivals.

So, the focus for much of the campaigning has become commercial television. The result, say commercial station operators, is a windfall of profits for an industry that most of the year has trouble meeting its expenses.

Javlon Mirzahojaev heads the Mezon-TV station in Osh Oblast. He said that “if you take dollar equivalents, prices look ridiculously low, but for our region the prices are good. For one second of commercial time, we usually take 6.5 soms [$0.16] . Now we have increased the price and made it 10 soms for a second. Thank God, we have many clients.”
Some candidates say the spending limit is too low for them to reach a large numbers of voters.

The fact that some candidates can afford commercial television, and others cannot, has fueled debate in the country whether running for office is an exercise only for the wealthy.

According to the Kyrgyz Electoral Code a candidate is allowed to spend up to 500,000 soms ($12,228) on campaigning. That is a significant amount in a country where teachers and doctors receive some $25 a month.

But some candidates say the spending limit is too low for them to reach a large numbers of voters.

Kubatbek Baybalov is currently deputy speaker of the Kyrgyz parliament and a candidate from the Jal district constituency of Bishkek. He described the spending limits this way:

“No, the amount is not enough to have a campaign on a European level. The limit used to be 2 million soms [$50,000], but deputies made a decision to reduce the bar to 500,000 soms. Of course, if you want to have a good campaign, this amount is not enough, but candidates try to manage somehow,” Baybulov said.

Another candidate says he has spent more than 125,000 soms just for gas to drive to places to meet with voters. He said the legal spending limit should at least be doubled.

Candidates are not only vying for television time but also competing for advertisements in newspapers.

Zamira Sydykova is editor in chief of the opposition “Res Publica” daily. She said print advertising ranges from printing booklets to placing ads in newspapers.

“I think they spend more on booklets, leaflets, placards, and so on. However, from my own experience -- I worked with some candidates -- I can tell that newspapers are much more effective, but they are also very expensive. They are much more expensive than a leaflet or a placard,” Sydykova said.

Because Kyrgyzstan is a post-Soviet country where elections are still something of a novelty, everybody -- including candidates -- seems to have a different opinion of how to get the most publicity for one’s money.

Candidate Baybulov said that print advertising is not very effective. “As for me, I use very little [print] campaigning because of its limited effectiveness," he said. "I bring my campaign materials to every house, so people could read them in a warm, relaxing atmosphere. My experience is that print ads are not very effective. I think other candidates also realized this specific side of our electorate and therefore they don’t use it a lot.”

Some observers say that the uncertainties surrounding the use of media advertisements lead some candidates to adopt a more direct -- but illegal -- method of soliciting support: “buying” it with payments to voters.

Accusations of vote buying and bribery appear to be increasing as election day nears. It is almost impossible to know now -- before any court proceedings -- whether the accusations are justified or are themselves an election tactic used to discredit or disqualify opponents.

The primary reason for the mass protests which started on 21 February in Kochkor Raion was that the local court canceled the registrations of opposition candidates Akylbek Japarov and Beishenbek Bolotbekov. Officials said one woman filed a lawsuit against Japarov and two other women complained about Bolotbekov, accusing the two candidates of bribery in exchange for their votes.

Both candidates deny the accusations.

Valentine Bogatyryov, head of the state-run Institute for Strategic Studies of Kyrgyzstan, recently told “The Bishkek Observer” weekly that election campaigns are “the happiest time for voters.”

“In the south they are given 200 soms for a vote," he said. "All the candidates give money. Voters take everything, but they will vote for whoever they want.”

[For more on the elections in Kyrgyzstan, see our dedicated "Kyrgyzstan Votes 2005" webpage. For more on the region, see our "Central Asia" webpage.]