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Kyrgyzstan’s Parliamentary Elections: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

On October 4, 2015, the people of Kyrgyzstan cast their ballots in the fifth parliamentary elections of the fledgling democracy.

Though the months leading up to the election were laden with concerns on a wide range of issues – the introduction of new voter technology, the requirement for all citizens to register their biometric data in order to vote, the near abolition of the Constitutional Chamber and Kyrgyzstan’s ever-strengthening ties with the Russian Federation – the election was largely hailed as a success by the international community. In total, 1,563,456 citizens voted, nearly 60 percent of all citizens who registered their biometric data. Although voter turnout did not reach 77 percent, as found in IRI’s recent poll, it was marginally higher than previous elections. Moreover, despite some citizens not being able to find themselves on the voter lists, the use of biometric identification systems was seen as effective. Overall, six of the 14 parties participating in the elections met the seven percent national electoral threshold and entered the 120-seat Jogorku Kenesh (Parliament).

It is a fair assessment to say that the election was operationally sound. Optical scanners (more or less) matched the manual ballot counts and the use of biometric data was by-and-large a success. However, these are only signs that the technical machinery used on Election Day functioned properly. They are not a true indicator of Kyrgyzstan’s democratic trajectory.

From one president to another, Kyrgyzstan has been marred by corruption. Tax dollars are seen as a waste of hard-earned money. Salaries (particularly civil service) are low, and public trust in the political system or the leaders who manage it is even lower. So it’s no surprise that voters sell their seemingly meaningless vote to the highest bidder, and move on with their lives. Ahead of the elections, the Kyrgyz government did not properly prepare the population, and as a result, public trust has not increased – many citizens still believe the system may have been tampered with and party leaders are still believed to be representing only personal interests. While some international observers noted that they didn’t see vote buying or pressure being placed on voters by party representatives, it was more likely a sign of more sophisticated party tactics rather than the absence of vote-buying itself.

One of IRI our training participants from Karakulja, Osh oblast stated:

I do not believe that the elections will be fair this year. All the same, the government will find ways to influence the election results. I think they will bribe voters or find a way to influence the electoral process. I think that even the electronic ballot box will not help to hold elections fairly.

To prepare for the parliamentary elections, IRI launched two voter education training series utilizing its women’s network Zhenskaya Demokraticheskaya Set (ZDS) and youth program alumni. Through the nationwide trainings, IRI trained 5,363 people across Kyrgyzstan and gave informational materials to another 9,000 voters. In addition, IRI assisted ZDS to produce and broadcast eight voter education videos (on topics including registering to vote, documents needed on Election Day, polling station hours and ballot secrecy) on Kyrgyzstan’s most popular national television network. During IRI’s trainings, the shortcomings of Kyrgyz government efforts to prepare the population for the elections became largely apparent. ZDS trainers estimated that for 80 percent of participants from rural areas in Osh oblast, IRI’s training served as the first opportunity to learn about election processes, as the Central Election Commission and other government bodies had not held similar trainings. In addition, trainers reported that 70 to 80 percent of participants were unaware of the gender quota requiring parliament to be composed of 25 percent women and had limited knowledge on recent amendments to electoral legislation.

There is a lack of information.  We don’t have access… We want to thank you for mobilizing people and sharing information…  Usually, we only deal with the candidates.  For the first time, we have communicated with neutral people.  We learned a lot from you.  To be honest, it is from your training that we learned that we can’t vote without registering biometric data.  All of our friends and neighbors have never passed biometric registration.  We wouldn’t be able to participate in the elections without your training.

As a nation, Kyrgyzstan operates between extreme polarities. On one hand, the Kyrgyz have now firmly established what many consider a “client status” with the Russian Federation, having fully acceded to the Eurasian Economic Union, sold the nation’s natural gas network and begun proposing alarming legislation which mirrors that passed by the Russian Duma. In addition, it is widely believed that Kyrgyzstan’s president has spent the past two years trying to ensure that less parties were elected to parliament and that the executive was severely strengthened. Despite that, Kyrgyzstan managed to elect six parties to parliament (the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, Respublika-Ata Jurt, Kyrgyzstan, Onuguu Progress, Bir Bol and Ata Meken). Amidst a sea of democratic backsliding, the Kyrgyz people still chose plurality.

It is necessary to remain optimistic and resist the temptation to lose hope in the young democracy. In the end, Kyrgyzstan has shown that, as a nation, it is capable of technically administering a fair election and despite its flaws, the country does deserve praise for that. As Kyrgyzstan looks toward local elections in 2016 and presidential elections in 2017, it is necessary to return to the basics of democracy. Now, more than ever, it is time to inform the populace on the value of their choice and the need to exercise their voice. To complement this, the Kyrgyz government will also need to educate the population on electoral processes, especially newly-introduced election technologies, in order to ensure people can exercise their right to vote. These initiatives are absolutely essential to building public trust, civil society and real democracy. Without change, Kyrgyzstan will continue to be led by corrupt, clan-based patronage who go wherever the proverbial “winds of change” blow, shifting to new parties and politically maneuvering their way into office. And in the absence of real leadership and representation, citizens will never fully buy into the notion that their vote holds value. Fortunately, if this election taught us anything, it has taught us that the window of opportunity for pluralism, open society, transparency and rule of law has not yet closed. Parliamentary democracy, however fragile, still manages to exist. And if there is anything worth celebrating, it is that.

Women in Issyk Kul oblast learn about election processes through informational brochures developed by ZDS and IRI.


 IRI’s “My Choice” trainers hand out informational brochures to youth hanging out in the main square of Talas city.