What happens in a "managed democracy" in Central Asia when an election does not follow the leadership's plan? Kyrgyzstan is about to find out.
Since the 1991 Soviet collapse, Central Asian political leaders, including Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev, have embraced a governmental system, dubbed "managed democracy," in which the trappings of a pluralistic political society are blended with authoritarian leadership tendencies. In some Central Asian nations, namely Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, overt expressions of opposition to the leadership's established political line are not tolerated. In the others Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan varying degrees of political opposition are tolerated.
Though tending towards authoritarianism, Central Asian nations continue to hold elections on a periodic basis. Until Kyrgyzstan's February 27 parliamentary ballot, elections in the region seemed to follow a pre-determined script, invariably handing incumbent authorities decisive victories amid international criticism over voting irregularities, ranging from media manipulation to outright ballot-stuffing.
While the Kyrgyz parliamentary election featured the usual international criticism about electoral flaws, the results clearly did not hand President Akayev the type of victory that many political analysts in Bishkek had expected. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In 44 of the 75 electoral districts, the tallies were indecisive, necessitating run-off votes on March 13. Some observers see Akayev's inability to secure a sound parliamentary majority in the first round as a stunning political defeat.
The perception of strong leadership is an essential element of "managed democracy." What the February 27 election results have done is plant an impression in Kyrgyz political circles that Akayev may lack the political muscle to coerce the population into going along with his administration's political agenda. Indeed, some opposition activists now characterize the February 27 vote as a popular referendum that voted no confidence in the Akayev administration.
Perhaps the chief danger for Akayev now is that key figures in his administration could start perceiving the president as ineffective. If such a perception took hold, Kyrgyzstan's ruling apparatus could splinter, exposing the country to instability as an unpredictable political realignment played out. The looming presidential election in October raises the stakes significantly. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Prior to the February 27 vote, many pundits believed Akayev would stage-manage the election so that either he himself would remain in office, altering the constitution in the process to enable his re-election, or that he would transfer power to a designated political heir. Given what transpired February 27, analysts can no longer be sure that Akayev's influence will play a determining role in the outcome of the presidential vote.
While Akayev's image may have taken a substantial hit in the parliamentary election, few are ready to count him out at this point. He has proven to be a resilient politician. In 2002, for example, Akayev appeared to be in serious political trouble, as opposition protests grew in southern Kyrgyzstan following the Aksy shooting incident. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In February 2003, however, Akayev secured a decisive victory in a nationwide referendum on constitutional amendments. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Akayev still has time between now and the March 13 run-off elections to dispel any doubts about the effectiveness of his administration. Observers say pro-presidential politicians are well positioned to win the overwhelming majority of run-off contests. Perhaps the most watched constituency race will involve Akayev's daughter, Bermet, who will face Bolotbek Maripov, a journalist, in Bishkek's First Electoral District.
The election district has a heavy concentration of students, and several of them told a EurasiaNet reporter that during the run-up to the February 27 vote they were pressured by Kyrgyz State University officials to cast ballots for Akayeva. Opposition supporters, meanwhile, continue to insist that election authorities also improperly excluded prominent presidential critic Rosa Otunbayeva, the leader of the Ata-Jurt movement, from running for parliament in the district against the president's daughter. That Akayeva did not manage to score a first-round win shocked many observers.
On March 1, the Akayev administration went on the offensive, with Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov refuting many of the criticisms aired about the election expressed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitoring mission. OSCE observers said that while few problems were seen on Election Day, government actions during the campaign hindered a free and fair vote.
Aitmatov said the OSCE's preliminary conclusions did not "reliably reflect the difficult conditions surrounding the pre-election process," the Kabar news agency reported. He appeared to justify government statements during the campaign that opposition leaders were embracing extremist tactics and were striving to destabilize society. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "The government of any country is obligated to ensure domestic stability, excluding the possibility that disorder could arise out of mass meetings" Aitmatov said.
The foreign minister also brushed aside OSCE criticism about government efforts to muzzle Kyrgyz media outlets. Aitmatov insisted that "the Kyrgyz government made a special effort to open flow of information concerning the elections and campaign activities."