Political Transition in Kyrgyzstan: Problems and Prospects
Asia Report N°81
11 Aug 2004
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Kyrgyzstan’s society has become more mature since independence but its government more authoritarian. Parliamentary and presidential elections in 2005 offer the chance of a democratic transfer of power that would be an example for all Central Asia. If President Askar Akaev leaves office and allows candidates to compete fairly, it will be an historic moment for Kyrgyzstan and its less democratic neighbours. If he tries to retain power, directly or indirectly, in fraudulent elections, serious unrest is possible, and 2005 could mark the end of the region’s democratic experiment. Prospects are finely balanced, and the international community can help tip the balance.
Kyrgyzstan has had a troubled transition from Soviet rule, although it has retained a relatively liberal political environment, with some independent media and opposition representation in parliament. But previous elections have seen extensive malpractice, and the Akaev family has come to dominate both politics and the economy, making any transition difficult. The constitution does not allow Akaev to run again, and he has said publicly he will not. However, scenarios are under consideration for him to continue to dominate politics and ensure that members of his family and entourage retain economic privileges.
The regime’s support is relatively weak. Beyond the family and a few powerful advisers, the loyalty of its power base is wavering. The business elite, which should be a natural ally for Akaev’s economic policies, is irritated by the family’s forays into business. Officials are increasingly critical of the way the political system works and rising corruption. A younger generation of officials supports the liberal policies Akaev rhetorically advocates but is increasingly dissatisfied with the reality of ineffective governance.
The opposition is divided and in many cases dependent on the regime, its members making implicit deals over parliamentary representation or other advantages. Society has changed significantly since the last elections in 2000 and in many places is highly politicised, but it is still not well-educated in the democratic process and often favours clan leaders over issue-based politicians. Local elections in October 2004, a first guide to the new electorate, could throw up some surprises for the regime.
President Akaev will attempt to ensure that loyal candidates win a majority of seats at parliamentary elections in February 2005. A reliable parliament would give him a base for further moves to assert control over the political process. These elections will be highly contested, with considerable pressure on opposition candidates. There is potential for conflict around controversial races if the government seeks to rig results.
The parliamentary elections will set the stage for a presidential election in October 2005. Their results will determine the balance of political forces and may suggest mechanisms for Akaev to retain or pass on political power. The regime has a number of options to avoid a presidential ballot it would likely lose -- for example, a referendum to prolong the president’s term or change the political system to diminish the power of the presidency and promote the parliament as the key institution. But such moves could well provoke an angry reaction, not only from society at large, but also from many influential elite figures.
If presidential elections go ahead, there will be several opposition candidates, the most formidable of whom at present is a former premier, Kurmanbek Bakiev. Akaev may seek to promote his own reliable successor but while several names are mooted, the process would not be simple. Few possess the required combination of loyalty to the present regime and popularity, and there is a real possibility that a weak choice would split the elites.
Kyrgyzstan has a relatively lively civil society, and the participation of NGOs and independent media in the process is important. Although a new electoral code will make traditional mechanisms for fraud more difficult, many possibilities remain, and well-trained election observers are needed. Many officials have little training, particularly in the new electoral rules, and they face constant interference by state officials. Corruption has also heavily tainted past elections.
The international community has a key role to play, but so far its response has been slow and poorly coordinated. A UN election assistance plan has focused on narrow technical assistance to the Central Electoral Commission, but more support is needed for media, civil society and other non-government groups. It is vital to stress the deterioration in relations with governments and international financial institutions that would result if there is not a peaceful, democratic transfer of power. On the other hand, a successful transition should reasonably bring significantly more assistance, especially if a new leadership begins to tackle corruption, economic stagnation and poverty.
1. Make a public commitment to free and fair elections, in a joint statement with opposition forces pledging all political players to abide by the electoral process.
2. Reiterate publicly that there will be a real transition of power and refrain from improper interference in the electoral process, such as ordering electoral authorities to ensure the victory or defeat of certain candidates, as has occurred in previous elections.
3. Refrain from manoeuvres to restrict the ability of voters to decide themselves on the political transition process, such as special referendums or constitutional changes designed to preserve the status quo.
4. Provide candidates equal access to airtime and balanced news coverage.
5. Establish a joint commission, including representatives of leading political parties, candidates and NGOs, to monitor and report regularly on media coverage of the electoral campaign.
6. Make the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) more transparent by:
a) moving it to separate premises outside the Government House, with public access;
b) provide regular press conferences and briefings on election preparations; and
c) open CEC decision-making procedures to public and media scrutiny.
7. Ensure that the electoral commissions at all levels include not only pro-government, but also genuine independent and opposition representatives.
8. Compensate members of precinct electoral commissions for their work.
9. Prosecute corrupt electoral officials.
10. Form joint platforms supporting a fair electoral process, including commitment to united action against fraud.
11. Widen political debate and direct it more to key issues than personalities by developing issue-based platforms and participating in political debates.
12. Develop programs to train candidate representatives to monitor the elections.
13. Seek support for full-scale observation missions to monitor both parliamentary and presidential elections and work with the OSCE centre in Bishkek to develop a wide range of election-related activities.
14. Link technical assistance to the Central Electoral Commission to the actions of the authorities in ensuring free and fair elections, using local elections in October 2004 as a measure of government compliance.
15. Revise the UNDP program for electoral assistance to include:
a) more direct involvement of NGOs, representatives of political parties, and media outlets; and
b) training for judges and lawyers in the new electoral code.
16. Develop a coordinated program of electoral assistance, focusing on providing:
a) voter education, for example through media programs, publications and seminars;
b) training of observers representing candidates and political parties;
c) training of electoral commission members at all levels;
d) support for media electoral coverage;
e) monitoring of election-related human rights issues, and legal advice and support for candidates and other political actors;
f) temporary resource centres in regional towns for the use of NGOs and political parties; and
g) support for NGOs to establish a central information node in Bishkek to coordinate data from the regions and release periodic running vote counts on election days.
17. Emphasise to the Kyrgyz leadership that concrete political and economic support, as well as the country’s prestige, is directly dependent upon success or failure in managing a genuinely democratic and peaceful transfer of power in the upcoming election cycle.
Osh/Brussels, 11 August 2004