Lessons in How to Steal Elections
Lessons in How to Steal Elections
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 5 minutes

Lessons in How to Steal Elections

Don't expect a Georgian-style revolution in Central Asia--or the West to pay more than lip service to promoting democracy.

The two recent elections in the Caucasus should give food for thought for Central Asia’s autocrats.

In the first instance, Azeri President Heidar Aliev passed power to his son, Ilham, with only the merest nod towards democratic processes. The voting was rigged, but the United States and the West hardly batted an eyelid, merely mouthing the expected rhetoric of regret over electoral malpractice.

In the second election, for the Georgian parliament, the ruling party failed to win a clear majority--despite widespread vote-rigging and intimidation. (The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was “shocked” by the conduct of the election.) But the rigged results still did not manage guarantee a pro-government parliament. Popular discontent at the election fraud finally toppled Shevardnadze, and brought the opposition to power.

These two contrasting results have been widely and carefully watched in Central Asia--an area where the next few years could bring the possibility of political transition (for the first time since independence, in the cases of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan).

The lessons are twofold. In countries where the elite strike some kind of deal on succession among themselves; the opposition is divided and weak; and elections fully under the control of the regime, autocratic leaders can put their favorite children into the driving seat. There won’t be much objection from the United States or anyone else (as long as oil contracts and military bases are not at risk). That’s the Azeri model.

But when there is division among the elite, an active opposition with credible leaders, and at least some semblance of a fair vote, the ruling elite will have problems retaining power. In this case, attempting to flagrantly falsify the election results will risk violence--and even revolution. That’s the Georgian model.


In Kazakhstan, it is already clear that the Azeri variant has proved an inspiration. Dariga, President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s daughter, has created a political party that should sweep her into office--in much the way that Ilham gained power: first, by getting elected to parliament; then, being elected speaker; and then soaring up the ranks from there. And Dariga Nazarbaeva’s media empire will certainly help.

As for the Kazakh elite, they know they could do worse than accept a deal from Dariga. Kazakhstan’s oligarchs will be able to carry on doing what they do best--making money from the oil economy and filtering it into offshore banks. The opposition has been stamped down, with its leaders imprisoned or silenced--and many Kazakhs will probably acquiesce to the dynastic succession, as long as the economy keeps growing.

At first glance, the Azeri model looks even easier to follow in Uzbekistan. Gulnora, the ambitious elder daughter of President Karimov, seems ready to take over once her father steps down. There will be no free vote, and there is no real opposition candidate that could mount an election campaign even if choice were allowed.

But Gulnora is not popular with all the different groups that make up the Uzbek regime, and pushing too hard for the top job could cause serious dissension within the regime. Other candidates from inside the system will try hard to keep her out. While Karimov ruled by balancing different power groups off against each other, his daughter admits she is a “maximalist,” and there are more than a few powerful Uzbek politicians who would fear for their futures if she were to come to power.


In all these countries winning power matters, because business and politics are so intertwined. Whoever controls the political system ultimately controls business, and so losing power is tantamount to losing everything. In the worst case, new leaders may court instant popularity by seeking to prosecute ousted presidents, following the old Soviet tradition of blaming all ills on one’s predecessors.

For the Kyrgyz ruling family, the fear of prosecution by a successor prompted a new law that granted former presidents immunity. But the feeling may be that laws are there to be amended or broken, so there is a real fear about any change in leader. Akaev has announced he will step down at the elections in 2005, as he is required to do by the constitution. So the search is on to retain power, while creating the impression of giving it up.

Without oil wealth, and with much of the budget coming from Western sources, it is slightly more difficult for the regime in Kyrgyzstan to ignore international criticism. True, the Americans now have a base in Bishkek, which might help tone down the worst criticism, but Akaev also likes his image as the region’s democrat, however disputed it might be. Going too far down the Uzbek road is not an option. In Bishkek, the Georgian example might be more pertinent than the smooth transition of Azerbaijan.

And the Kyrgyz family succession is not as straightforward. Akaev’s daughter, Bermet, is widely thought to be a potential political player. Smart, multilingual, and much courted by the international community (she is head of the Aga Khan’s foundation in Kyrgyzstan), she is seen as the progressive wing of the family regime. But still in her early thirties, she looks too young for the post.

Her mother, Mairam Akaeva, also seems to have political ambitions, but Uzbek-style voting would probably be needed to get her elected. Akaev might think it better to stay on himself, a move that would get support from at least some in the elite who fear someone worse might take over.

But then there are those annoying voters. True, Kyrgyz elections have never been labelled “free and fair”; the main opposition candidate Felix Kulov is still locked up, and the other opposition groups are unlikely to find a credible joint candidate. Still, dissatisfied constituents have developed a dangerous habit of getting out onto the streets when they are unhappy. Last year, one such demonstration in the Aksy district left five people dead and almost caused a national political crisis. Fixing the constitution and blatantly rigging the election to allow the Akaevs to stay in power could produce a serious danger of unrest in some regions. If the opposition begins to organize itself, the unrest could even end in Georgian-style mass street demonstrations.

And in all three countries, there is traditional male chauvinism to be overcome, not an easy task in these conservative societies. Expect increasing stress in government propaganda on women’s rights, and much talk of Benazzir Bhutto and Margaret Thatcher (neither perhaps ideal examples)--but it is still not clear if the old men who still run much of these countries will stomach taking orders from young women.


So the internal dynamics are not as simple as they might seem. And in all three countries, the options are still being discussed in family circles. But one thing Azerbaijan’s election did show was that it won’t be the international community that stands in the way of dynastic political systems developing in Central Asia. Too many diplomats still think that only strong men (or women) in the Caucasus and Central Asia can somehow ensure stability in a volatile region--and so best not to rock the boat by promoting free elections too strongly.

But this alternative is not attractive. Central Asian countries face serious problems that need new approaches and new ideas. However, in most cases the existing ruling elites seem to have run short of inspiration. Hanging on to power will only increase popular dissatisfaction and weaken any belief in democracy as a way to change governments.

If people can’t change unpopular regimes through voting, they will eventually try and do it some other way. This plays into the hands of extremists, increasing the explosive potential of these societies. Radical Islamists who say democracy is a sham, and that justice will only come through an Islamic state, are finding a growing audience.

Not a happy prospect for any of Central Asia’s rulers. Nor indeed for their Western allies.

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