Copyright © Shutterstock; All Rights Reserved

Elections in Kyrgyzstan and the Pluralization of Politics360°ANALYSIS

Analysis on Kyrgyzstan’s recent elections, and insight on the political atmosphere in the country.

On October 31 the voters in Kyrgyzstan elected Almazbek Atambaev, leader of the Social Democrats party and current Prime Minister, to become the fourth president of independent Kyrgyzstan. Atambaev won the first round with 62.5% of ballots cast while his major competitors, Kamchibek Tashiev of the Ata-Zhurt party and Adakhan Madumarov of Butun Kyrgyzstan, gained 14.3% and 14.8% of the vote respectively. Only 60% of the voters went to the polls, a 20% drop compared to the last presidential elections in the summer of 2009. International and local observers reported the misuse of administrative resources—that is using state agents to secure desired election outcomes. They further accused the Central Election Commission of mishandling the voter list compilation. On election day many voters did not find themselves on the electoral rolls and were prevented from casting their ballots. On the other hand, other observers evaluated the elections as free and fair and Atambaev was quickly recognized by major foreign partners as the legitimate heir to interim president Roza Otunbaeva, who took office after the overthrow of Kurmanbek Bakiev in April 2010.

The presidential race: No hope for a new politics

If the simple fact that free and fair elections in Kyrgyzstan is considered a progressive step forward, then the political situation and its trajectory remains a source of concern for most observers. The recent campaign failed to yield political ideas and programs to initiate reforms. In addition, while Kyrgyzstani citizens hoped to vote for integrity and a vision for a better future, the election contestation instead produced a smear campaign of unprecedented scale and nurtured fears of possible explosions of ethnic and inter-regional violence. In the end, each candidate only hoped to appear less corrupt than his competitors; almost every candidate used the recent Osh events in June 2010 and the ever-growing tension between the South and North to promote unity in the face of possible state break-up or to call for allegiance among the voters of one region to mobilize against those of another.

For the public audience in Kyrgyzstan, the election campaign turned into a theatre of discredited figures who were asking for the electorate's trust by providing scare scenarios of state collapse and ruin. For those who looked behind the curtain of the election this picture did not improve. Rumours of secret deals between the contesting candidates followed the campaign from the very beginning. Voters were left to decide between staged fears of violence or backroom-deal politics. In both cases politics in Kyrgyzstan promised not to take a progressive turn after the elections.

Now, some weeks into the post-election era most observers still don't expect change for the better. Negotiations between the winning party, the losing parties and neutral players have started. Since Atambaev will no longer perform the duties of prime minister, the new constitution of June 2010 dictates the formation of a new government. That in turn raises a question for the existing party coalition in the parliament, who will elects the prime minister: whether to continue its agreement or not. So far this majority is made up of the three parties, Ata-Zhurt of Kamchibek Tashiev, the Social Democrats of Almaz Atambaev, and Respublica of formerly acting Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov. Out of the two opposition parties in parliament—Ata-Meken of the Father of the Constitution Party as well as Omurbek Tekebae and Ar-Namys of Feliks Kulov—the latter demands to be included in the existing coalition. The concern of any side of this question for a new parliamentary majority is rooted less in programmatic congruence and more in the quest for power, it seems. Ministerial posts are subject to deal-making and bargaining, as are lucrative positions in the state economy that promise access to vast rents.

What Kyrgyzstan cannot expect from such negotiations are reforms. A collapsing security system, a decaying educational infrastructure, the legacy and pain of the ethnic clashes in Osh, a corrupt judicial body, and a poorly functioning social care system all ugently need government attention; good governance and reform to address these matters, however, seem elusive. On top of that, some experts raise concerns over prospects that earlier state decisions might be revised and that the new president will revert to an authoritarian state model. Will Atambaev change the constitution, enhance the powers of the presidency, and follow the steps of his predecessors Bakiev and Akaev? Or will the power bargaining actually fail and will instability ensue and tensions rise between the North and the South and between ethnic groups?

It is difficult to find positive signs of development given a current perspective that offers little more than political stalemate and widespread societal frustration. However, if this perspective is to be changed, a second story can be told. In it, Kyrgyzstan and its political trajectory appear as a remarkable experiment—less in terms of daily political decision-making and more on a structural level.

The new pluralization of voices in politics

The first evidence of this new pluralisation is the lack of post-election disturbances. Supporters of Kamchibek Tashiev and Adakhan Madumarov gathered in the southern towns of Dzhalal-Abad and Osh to challenge the results in demonstrations. But their numbers were few, and despite a short-term invasion by some of the protesters into Osh's regional state administration, the actions were soon halted. Both candidates agreed to solve any disputes related to the elections within the court system. This is quite a new development. Kyrgyzstan, which saw the term ketsinism (ketsin is Kyrgyz forget off or go away) define an era of ousters by mitingi and protests, follows a different path today.

Two things can be learned from this episode. First, the public space that was used to provide the background for such actions of ketsinism has evolved. Secondly, the structure of the political system has changed and offers multiple centres of power today. Both lead to new levels of contingency in state affairs and public reaction.

A general public that was once only used by politicians for manipulation in times of the Tulip Revolution in 2005 and post-revolutionary turmoil is much more in control of affairs today. It is able to distinguish the show in the election campaign from the reality of negotiations. It easily unmasks calls for a hunger strike and threats to “march on Bishkek,” made, for example, by supporters of Madumarov in Osh as mere tactics in a game rather than as an authentic political claim. In Kyrgyzstan in 2011, public claims are scrutinized by a multitude of observers as a result of the nation’s public TV stations, emerging print media, and increased Internet access by several hundred percent every year, Ata-Meken member Erkin Alymbekov had this development in mind when he recently referred to public opinion becoming the decisive factor in politics in Kyrgyzstan. In such conditions, it is a risky enterprise for any politician to mobilize supporters with radical calls to the public audience. Like the protests in Osh and Dshalal-Abad, at best public opinion may not react and at worst, it may ridicule such action.

The new political system in Kyrgyzstan has several addresses to which demonstrators can direct their protest. Still, the presidency holds a number of powers. Roza Otunbaeva, for example, used these powers in fall of this year to prevent revisionist forces in the Ata-Zhurt party from occupying the judicial system. The executive branch, consisting of the prime minister and his cabinet, possesses all actual decision-making power, even in regard to police matters and the military which before were under the direct control of the president. In the past the cabinet was an adjunct of the president and its administration, but today it is a political player of its own weight. The Kyrgyz parliament in turn has become the primary locus for debating political questions. Numerous committees and commissions not only control the executive branch of power but are responsible for the formulation of new laws. This is a revolutionary change compared to practices of presidential decrees, widely used in the past by Bakiev and Akaev. This change is secured by the strong role of opposition factions in the legislature. They hold the right to appoint the chairmen of strategically important committees and they are entitled to propose one third of the candidates to the boards of central state agencies. Thus the judicial body and agencies like the Election Commission or the Court of Auditors can perform their duties without political interference.

The new continuity of politics in Kyrgyzstan

A second reference to highlight the change can be made to the fluidity of the current situation. Even after the presidential elections, all players tried to strengthen their positions and build up their political power bases. This became apparent in the final stage of the electoral race when it suddenly lost its momentum. Most candidates had understood the likely victory of Atambaev and prepared for the round of contestation that would follow. Whereas past elections had a marked endpoint where all forces get as close as possible to the centre of power, today the political contestation continues beyond single decisions. The political system has pluralized and likely offers enough space for different forces to build up independent power bases.

In fact, such fluidity is consolidated by minor reform steps that further establish the parliamentary system in Kyrgyzstan. Recently the parliament was granted the right to declare a state of emergency, a right that Carl Schmitt in Political Theology called the sign of sovereignty. This reform is accompanied by minor steps such as the increase of faction discipline in the parliament or the ban of multiple voting by deputies for absent colleagues. In total, these little changes strengthen the new constitutional order and make it difficult for any political force in Kyrgyzstan to return to an authoritarian state model. Many players in Kyrgyzstan seem to understand this when they hesitate to fling themselves at the new president. The new order offers sufficient options to develop an independent political position.

For Kyrgyzstan and its citizens, such developments bear good and bad news. A more informed public opinion, a political system with different centres of powers, and more fluid politics make the outbreak of politically motivated violence unlikely. There is always enough space to start another initiative for protest and negotiation. However, the task ahead today is to transform the constant negotiation of power positions into a competition of political programs. In this regard the recent elections were less a sign of hope since they promised old cadres to continue the very game they have been playing for over a decade. Only today, they are being surrounded by a public audience that puts forward more and more demands and grows more frustrated every day when observing the chaotic stalemate and the absence of reform ideas.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.