The registration period for Kyrgyzstan's presidential hopefuls has ended. But the controversy surrounding the registration process, specifically the requirement that candidates demonstrate proficiency in the Kyrgyz language, seems likely to continue right up until election day on October 29.
In all, Kyrgyzstan's Central Electoral Commission (CEC) has registered six candidates, including incumbent President Askar Akaev, for the election. Twenty politicians declared their intentions to register as candidates, yet most had been disqualified by the CEC by the September 23 registration deadline. An oft-cited reason for disqualification was the failure of potential candidates to pass the Kyrgyz language proficiency test. Meanwhile, one prominent opposition figure, Ar-Namys Party leader Feliks Kulov, refused to take the test.
Akaev opponents, led by Kulov, say the government has engaged in manipulation of the language exam in an attempt to gerrymander the vote and ensure the incumbent's reelection. The test was administered by a panel of seven academic experts appointed by the Central Election Commission (CEC).
The controversy surrounding the test stems from an apparent lack of standardization. Some candidates seem to have had clearly different standards applied to them. Many candidates who supposedly failed the exam demonstrated at least some ability to speak Kyrgyz. However, their performance on at least one section of the test was deemed inadequate. For example, when President Akaev was tested on September 4, he passed with no objections from the linguistic panel, despite reports of "grammatical and spelling errors." Conversely, the linguistic commission described candidate Yryslan Toichubekov as "fluent" in spoken Kyrgyz, but failed him for "making mistakes" during the written segment of the test.
The vaguely worded Constitution does not specifically identify the need for a test. It additionally does not establish procedures for the conduct of a language exam. The Electoral Code does describe the basic design of the test, but it was left to the CEC to work out exam details.
In conducting the language proficiency test, officials have cited article 61 of Kyrgyzstan's Electoral Code, which states that each candidate should demonstrate his or her "ability to read, write, express thoughts/ideas and make public speeches in the state language." But this provision would seem to directly contradict the Kyrgyz Constitution, which forbids (Article 5:3) the denial of citizens' rights "based upon lack of knowledge or command of the state language." To confuse the matter, however, the Constitution also states (Article 43:3) that presidential candidates are to have "a command of the state language."
Throughout the language test controversy, the CEC has faced criticism for allegedly not acting independently. One international observer who has had close dealings with the CEC noted that the President's office exerts formidable influence over the election commission. "The February elections to the Jogorku Kenesh [parliament] offer supporting evidence of this," the source said. [For background see Kyrgyzstan Election Watch]. CEC Chairman Suleyman "Imanbayev has been known to jump from his chair whenever summoned by Akaev."
The 2000 presidential campaign is the first occasion in which the tests have been used, despite the relevant Law on the State Language having been on the books since 1989. No attention was paid to the regulation during previous presidential contests in 1990, 1991, and 1995 - years when the incumbent was on surer footing against fewer and weaker opponents.
Some observers say that the use of a subjective language test is an expedient strategy to rid President Akaev of challengers. Rather than simply failing the strongest contenders, though, the strategy seems more designed to reduce the overall field to a supposedly manageable level. With only six contenders in the race, Akaev is much less likely to be forced into a run-off election, observers suggest.
Less subtle forms of manipulation and harassment of opposition figures have also been employed. One candidate, Sultanbek Sadyrbaev, reported that his official representative in Naryn Province was beaten by a local official and denied treatment for his injuries at the local hospital. Candidates Toichubekov (who later failed the language test) and Omurbek Tekebaev also reported that their representatives have faced ongoing intimidation by authorities in several regions. Among the alleged abuses is the destruction of signature lists in support of the candidates.
More chilling is the criminal case recently brought against Kulov, the former vice president and mayor of Bishkek. In March, shortly after Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary election, Kulov was arrested on fraud and embezzlement charges. Following a closed military trial he was acquitted and released in August, and immediately declared his candidacy for the presidency. Later, when it appeared that Kulov was gaining support against Akaev, the court suddenly announced on September 11 that it was reviewing its verdict. Whatever the merits of the case, the timing of his arrest and the secretive nature of the court proceedings raise questions about the nature of the government's decision to prosecute Kulov.
Meanwhile, Kulov who reportedly has only tenuous knowledge of Kyrgyz issued a statement on September 13 in which he condemned the language tests, and announced that he would support Parliament Speaker Omurbek Tekebaev's candidacy.
Kyrgyzstan has until recently been lauded as a model for democratic reform in Central Asia. Taken together, the ambiguous constitutionality of the language tests, along with controversy surrounding the independence of the language commission and the CEC, would appear to call into question the government's pledge to hold free and fair elections.
Opposition politicians in Kyrgyzstan have perhaps more opportunities for legal redress than their counterparts elsewhere in Central Asia. But unless the courts and commissions dramatically reverse their current trend of rubber stamping government decisions, Akaev will likely be able to maintain enough control over the election process to avoid having to engineer outright vote stealing on October 29.
Matt Curtis is a Program Associate at the Open Society Institutess Central Eurasia Project.