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.
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.
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 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.
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.