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Democratic 'Blackout'? Latest Kyrgyz Parliamentary Elections Can't Escape Controversy


Voters stand in line before casting their ballots at a polling station during the parliamentary election in Bishkek on November 28.

Voting in Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary elections had ended and many thousands of people both live and online were carefully watching the Central Election Commission (BShK) monitor that was tabulating the votes -- anxious to see how their parties and candidates had fared.

Only a couple of hours had passed since polling stations closed on November 28, but some 70 percent of the ballots had been counted and the numbers showed 10 parties passing the 5-percent threshold to win seats in parliament.

But the monitor suddenly went blank and when the stats returned some 40 minutes later with 90 percent of the vote counted, the numbers were significantly different and several parties that earlier appeared set to be in parliament were suddenly below the threshold.

The so-called monitor "blackout" was a shocking twist to what had been a relatively calm day, where the main story had been the low voter turnout for the vote -- less than 35 percent.

Not surprisingly, the parties that had just seen their hopes for seats in parliament literally disappear before their eyes were the first to cry foul.

The Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party had 6.17 percent of the vote before the screen went dark but had 3.4 percent when the counting finished. Ata-Meken leader Omurbek Tekebaev said his party had lost some 30,000 votes when the monitor came back on.

Omurbek Tekebaev (file photo)
Omurbek Tekebaev (file photo)

Uluttar Birimdigi (Unity of Nationalities) was approaching the 5-percent barrier with 4.47 percent of the vote when the monitor blackout occurred and the party finished with just 2.39 percent. Party leader Nurlan Adaev said his party had about 17,000 fewer votes when the monitor switched on again.

Kyrgyz officials compounded the problem by offering various accounts of what had happened.

BShK chief Nurzhan Shaildabekova gave a convoluted explanation, complete with two spreadsheets as a visual aid, to convince people the temporary outage was a technical error that affected only the monitor and had no bearing on the tabulation of the votes.

Nurzhan Shaildabekova (file photo)
Nurzhan Shaildabekova (file photo)

Other officials said the system had been hacked and it was noted by some observers that the monitor at one point had indicated 150 percent of the electorate had cast ballots and the parties in the lead had received some 130 percent of the vote.

It was also noted that when the monitor went off, the pro-government party Ata-Jurt Kyrgyzstan had some 30 percent of the vote. When the monitor resumed functioning, Ata-Jurt Kyrgyzstan was down to some 16 percent of the vote.

The percentages for other pro-government parties such as Isehnim (Trust) and Yntymak (Harmony) also decreased.

President Sadyr Japarov did little to ease tensions when he threatened that if any member of the BShK had falsified the vote count, they would answer for it "with their head."

That did little to mollify those who went into the elections suspecting the government would resort to some trickery to ensure their people won seats.

And naturally the explanations of officials did not satisfy members of the El Umutu (People's Hope), Azattyk (Liberty), Ata-Meken, or the Social Democrats, which were all headed toward seats in parliament until the monitor malfunction.

Representatives of the Ata-Meken, Uluttar Birimdigi, Azattyk, and Social Democrats held an early morning press conference on November 29 to vent their anger, call for the cabinet and BShK members to resign, and demand the election results be annulled and a new election held.

About 100 of their supporters demonstrated outside the BShK building in Bishkek later on November 29 to echo the demands of the party leaders.

BShK chief Shaildabekova met with the demonstrators and apologized for the "mistake" on the monitor while guaranteeing that there was no rigging or manipulation of the vote.

The BShK monitor blackout was not the only issue that has raised concerns for those disputing the voting results. The BShK also threw out 116,246 ballots -- some 9.64 percent of the vote -- that were declared invalid.

The BShK has not yet explained why all those votes were declared invalid, but there were concerns going into the elections that the mixed system of voting being employed -- whereby 54 of the 90 seats in parliament were selected by party lists and the remaining 36 seats in single-mandate districts -- might confuse some voters.

Particularly the party-list ballot, since it required voters to choose one of 21 parties and then, on the same ballot, indicate which one of the 54 candidates from that party they wanted in parliament.

Anecdotal evidence suggests some voters marked two candidates or marked a candidate and neglected to specify a party on some of the ballots. But it is unclear how often this happened and it seems unlikely that would account for 10 percent of the votes cast being declared invalid.

The elections generally went better than usual, certainly better than the parliamentary elections of October 4, 2020, which were characterized by abuses and violations and quickly resulted in unrest that ousted the government and then the president. Though some violations were reported, it was not on the scale of previous elections and nowhere close to what happened during those elections.

The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) sent hundreds of monitors and the group's November 29 assessment noted the elections were "competitive" and "transparency was overall ensured."

ODIHR also referred to constitutional changes in April that weakened parliament and led to a "stifled campaign and overall voter disillusionment [that] hindered meaningful engagement."

Votes are now being counted by hand in a process that might take several days. The BShK has proclaimed that the hand count will be the final results.

It is unknown if the results of that count will significantly alter the preliminary results announced late on November 28 that had only six parties -- Ata-Jurt, Ishenim, Yntymak, Alliance, Butun Kyrgyzstan, and Yyman Nuru (Ray of Faith) receiving seats in parliament.

Such a result will be very unsatisfying to many in Kyrgyzstan.

So will the fact that all the winners in the single-mandate districts were men. Kyrgyzstan has rules that require at least 30 percent of the seats in parliament be occupied by women -- which in practice has not been the case -- but this time it appears parliament will be well short of that quota.

So while the aftermath of the election has thus far have been relatively calm compared to the chaos following the October 2020 elections that upturned Kyrgyzstan's political culture, the groundwork has been laid for complaints and protests in the future days.

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 the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

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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