It’s boom time for Kyrgyzstan’s political parties. When voters approved a new constitution on June 27, the country became the first parliamentary republic in Central Asia. Since then, the Justice Ministry has registered 148 parties to compete in elections scheduled for this October; more are reportedly waiting in the queue.
But many analysts and politicians are concerned that the variety of competing parties -- often driven by one individual’s personality rather than a political agenda -- could lead to a vicious struggle for power in the months ahead. Violence, Kyrgyzstan’s recent history has shown, has become as legitimate a tool for political change as the ballot box. And with tensions seething since a bout of ethnic bloodletting last month, many are predicting chaos or, at the very least, a nasty campaign full of angry, nationalist rhetoric.
Analysts also caution that Kyrgyzstan could face a “Ukraine scenario,” where power is so divided between the executive and legislature, itself split between too many parties, that the government would be unable to function. [For background, see the EurasiaNet.org archive].
“The number of parties is too many for little Kyrgyzstan,” said Bazarbay Temishov, founder of Ata-Jurt (“Fatherland”), one of the largest and most visible parties. “Some political parties have only the legislative minimum of 10 members and do not represent the real interests of the population,” Temishov told EurasiaNet.org.
“Many parties have absurd names like the party of parents, truckers, farmers, tobacco growers or non-party men. It seems that nowadays political parties are created very much like trade unions,” he added.
In addition to the great number of parties, some experts are concerned that parties are simply covers to enable corrupt elites to seek a stake in the new legislature. Bolot Dzhunusov, a political analyst and former head of the department for international cooperation in the Foreign Ministry, said that “parties will fight between themselves in a Kyrgyz manner” – meaning without rules.
“New political organizations are similar to each other and look like semi-finished products,” Dzhunusov wrote in a July 12 editorial for the 24.kg news agency. Some parties do not work with the electorate at all, he said; they instead recruit members around wealthy individuals rather than platforms. In this situation, parties “will use the same ignoble method of winning the nationwide love -- money.”
The “closed list” system, whereby voters vote for a party rather than an individual, allows party leaders to sell their winning seats to the highest bidder, Dzhunusov lamented. This allows criminal bosses, after the elections are over, to purchase a seat in parliament from a winning party.
In an open-list ballot system, voters not only choose a party, as is the case in Kyrgyzstan, but also indicate preferences for individual candidates within that party. Seats are assigned to each party according to its share of popular support. Proponents of open-list systems believe that by allowing voters to choose among individual candidates, the candidates will be more responsive to the concerns of the voters and new leaders will emerge.
Against this backdrop, the place of so-called “people’s militias,” which provided security throughout the recent instability, is of growing concern. [For background, see the EurasiaNet.org archive]. “In an electoral competition for power, parties can easily cross the thin line of lawfulness and attract militarized security brigades or their own youth wings for a political struggle,” said Kadyr Malikov, director of the Religion, Law and Politics Analytical Center.
Malikov is also concerned that parliamentary contenders will use dirty political tricks, such as appealing to voters’ concerns about ethnic relations, clanship and other conflict-prone issues to win votes and smear opponents. Such rhetoric could send southern Kyrgyzstan, scene of the recent ethnic violence, back into chaos.
The potential for violence remains high, many worry. Turat Akimov, editor of the newspaper Dengi & Vlast’ (“Money & Power”), told EurasiaNet.org that “the upcoming parliamentary elections will be really tough with serious confrontations and clashes.” Despite the surge in registered parties, they will form blocks and “only two or three major political coalitions will be fighting for power and the fight will be up to the very end.”
The fear of violence has prompted some politicians to call for a set of vague principles to which all parties should adhere.
Temir Sariev, a deputy head of the Kyrgyz interim government who resigned on July 14 to run as leader of the Ak-Shumkar (“White Falcon”) Party, recommended that “[p]olitical parties taking part in the elections should sign a memorandum and define ‘the rules of the game,’” the Russian news agency Interfax reported on July 8.
Yet not all is so gloomy, said Akjol Berdiev, a former legal advisor to deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Berdiev welcomes the upcoming campaign season, as it will help identify “real leaders.”
“The parliamentary election will be very heated in October, but without any incidents and serious conflicts,” Berdiev told EurasiaNet.org. People in Kyrgyzstan are aware that failure [of the elections to produce a legitimate government] will lead to a new wave of social, economic and political instability, he said, and will do anything to avoid this scenario.
But Berdiev says he is devoting all his energy to changing the “closed list” ballot system. He is concerned the party list system will prevent “credible and responsible candidates” from winning seats, and instead propel the same old “imposter leaders” back into power.
Ulan Temirov is the pseudonym for a journalist based in Bishkek.