In Central Asia, a region known for gleaming statues to glorified leaders, economic hardship, and hard labor in the cotton fields, something noteworthy is about to happen. The international community should take note.
On October 4, Kyrgyzstan will hold parliamentary elections, and unlike in most elections in the region, the outcome is highly uncertain. The rising political dynamism in this country defies the region’s tendency toward authoritarianism. It is not the quality of political parties that makes this election exceptional; most political formations are rife with patronage relations. Nor are these parties led by visionaries fighting to bring democratic changes; all of Kyrgyzstan’s top political leaders, even the young generations, have a history of autocratic decision-making. In fact, few voters are demanding democratic leadership. Instead, much of the population still supports leaders who base their campaigns on traditional values that sometimes go against political pluralism.
What sets the country apart from its post-Soviet neighbors is a system of political competition that is the product of two violent regime changes within the past decade. Each time an autocratic, corrupt leader was ousted, political elites hoped a fairer system would result -- a system that would allow all political groups to compete for representation in the parliament.
The government that came to power in 2005 chose Kurmanbek Bakiev as a consensus leader who would balance among rival elite interests. However, within a matter of months, Bakiev emerged as an autocrat who suppressed his former allies. Over the next five years, Bakiev established his control over the national economy, threw opponents into jail, or saw them die in mysterious circumstances. When antigovernment protests gathered in front of the government building in April 2010, Bakiev’s security forces shot and killed 96 people and wounded hundreds more. He then fled the country.
Learning from the Bakiev era, the interim government installed in April 2010 tried to eliminate the possible emergence of another autocrat by changing the constitution. A special constitutional council was set up to draft rules for fair competition among all political forces. Thanks to a push from civil society groups, the new constitution also sought to better include women, ethnic minorities, and young leaders in the political system. The new constitution prevents any one political party from gaining more than 60 percent of the seats in parliament and grants seats on important parliamentary committees to the minority coalition. The president is allowed to serve only a single, six-year term. The president cannot dismiss parliament and call for new elections. Finally, the constitution cannot easily be amended in favor of the president or parliament. In effect, the law is designed as a unique system of checks and balances based on the belief that all political actors in Kyrgyzstan are inherently greedy and authoritarian.
Yet Kyrgyzstan’s seeming democracy is not one by design, but by default. It was born from a deeply corrupt authoritarian system in which a multitude of political and entrepreneurial actors decided to block the future emergence of a single authoritarian leader. The new system is designed to ensure that no one political faction gains or loses everything. However peculiar, the system has worked for the past five years. The fact that elections are being held at constitutionally defined intervals is an achievement in itself. The regional norm in Central Asia is to hold parliamentary elections as needed to strengthen the power of the incumbent leader’s party. The dispersion of political capital across the country mirrors the diffusion of economic capital. Kyrgyzstan may have few energy resources, but it is famous for its ability to transport Chinese goods. Thanks to the shuttle trade and the decentralized nature of the economy, entrepreneurship has flourished in Kyrgyzstan. While some entrepreneurs relied on the transit of Chinese goods, others made their fortunes smuggling Afghan heroin through the infamous “northern route”. Over time, these entrepreneurs looked to the political system for legitimacy and protection. Thus, the birth of Kyrgyzstan’s competitive political landscape reflects the distribution of economic capital across the country.
The parliament elected in 2010 is largely comprised of wealthy political actors who gained their fortunes through entrepreneurship -- legal or illegal. As they spread their influence across the nation and into the very halls of parliament, long-time political actors have had to adapt to the new situation. They had to learn how to craft their political ideas, attend to their constituents, and demonstrate their ability to produce results. The more recognizable a lawmaker became, thanks to his legislative initiatives, the better his chances of reelection.
More Stable, More Transparent
During this learning process, there were many lapses back to the old modes of governance. For instance, MPs from Ata-Jurt, a party notorious for nationalist rhetoric, demanded the nationalization of the country’s largest gold mining company, Kumtor. Various parties routinely came up with legislative initiatives to increase taxes and place new restrictions on already struggling small and medium businesses. MPs also sought to institute a ban on gay “propaganda,” drawing criticism from rights groups and Western governments. A female lawmaker in her 30s even proposed a ban on travel abroad for women under 23 years of age without their parents’ consent. Her initiative failed, and she is not running for reelection.
Nevertheless, during the five years since the new constitution came into effect, Kyrgyzstan has proven to be more stable and more transparent politically than neighboring states. While parliament still has not enacted laws that strengthen the country’s economic growth or fully protect the rights of all citizens irrespective of their ethnic, cultural or gender background, real debates have taken place within the walls of parliament.
This political dynamism has come at a high cost. In June 2010, ethnic violence broke out in Osh, while infighting undermined the legitimacy of the interim government in the capital. Roughly 500 people died and hundreds were injured, mostly ethnic Uzbeks. The violence lasted for four days, but five years later most ethnic Uzbeks still experience discrimination at the hands of Kyrgyz law-enforcement agencies. The overall political representation of ethnic minorities woefully lags on the local and national level. The current president, Almazbek Atambaev, has been able to reclaim some of the powers of the president that were shifted to parliament by the new constitution, sideline his opponents and shut down the independent press. His government was also able to pass a new law requiring citizens to provide biometric data as a condition to exercising their right to vote. Yet, Atambaev’s efforts to bend the constitution to his interests and emerge as an all-powerful leader have been stymied by the sheer number of political actors.
Is Kyrgyzstan a democracy in the making? Without launching into a debate on definition of democracy, one can say that, at a minimum, Kyrgyzstan is not an autocracy.
For instance, the country defies the widely held belief that post-Soviet states that ally with Russia are likely to be authoritarian, while an alliance with Europe and the United States is often associated with striving for democratization. Kyrgyzstan today is perhaps the most pro-Russian country among the post-Soviet states. All of Kyrgyzstan’s gas imports come from the Russian energy giant Gazprom, while Russian President Vladimir Putin has a mountain peak named after him. At this year’s celebration of Kyrgyz independence, Russian pop stars sang in central Bishkek.
Kyrgyzstan also breaks the stereotype that a new generation of leaders must come to power before the old Soviet pattern of authoritarian leadership dies down. The past five years have demonstrated that veteran political actors can adapt to a new political system, while younger politicians sometime reproduce authoritarian behaviors.
With days left until the elections, amid corruption, a legacy of authoritarianism and bloodshed, Kyrgyzstan is embracing the uncertainty of a democratic election.