Asel Doolotkeldieva: Local Elections in Kyrgyzstan: Towards a More Closed and Commercial Politics?
“Today a wall of distrust several years thick has formed between political elites and the electorate. It is difficult to break through this wall. Political platforms, ideas and thoughts no longer reach or are perceived by the voters.” – These are the most important tendencies in the dynamics of local elections according to the material written by Political Scientist Asel Doolotkeldieva, exclusively for CABAR.asia.
On 27 March 2016, nearly 900 candidates campaigned in local elections that were held for 22 village councils and 6 city councils in Naryn, Batken, Issyk-Kul, Jalal-abad, Chui and Osh oblasts. The second consecutive parliamentary elections after the constitutional changes carried particular importance for the new semi-parliamentary system in Kyrgyzstan. They were to act as a litmus test for the proportional, multi-party system and for the parties as the key actors for reforms.[i] What are the most important trends that we would like to discuss in this article?
Through the prism of elections, one can identify four primary indicators, which could define our political system as being not quite closed, however it is moving in that direction. The first indicator of a semi-open system is the existence of political competition, which sets the rhythm for the healthy development of society. Based on the experiences of the 2015 and 2016 elections, we see that competition has become limited to affluent elites, which could lead to an oligarchic system of governance. The second indicator is the dynamism of the political processes that we could observe before and during the elections. We witnessed the merging of organizations as well as the expansion and collapse of parties in the lead up to the 2015 parliamentary elections. Even the drawing up of electoral party lists for the 2016 local elections turned out to be a dynamic process, in which various informal networks within the parties grappled for control of the cities. For example, the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) party list became a mosaic reflecting the inner-party struggle between several Osh “clans”. However, this dynamism occurs at the informal level of politics, hence our system is characterized as being semi-open and outside of public control. The third indicator is the unpredictability of the outcome of elections. For reasons not completely understood, some ‘new’ forces were allowed to become a part of the system, so it would seem that this unpredictability is at least partially tolerated. The final indicator is electoral corruption, which jeopardizes the very openness of political competition as well as the earlier indicators of the system’s semi-open nature of the system.
The Dynamics of the 2016 Local Elections
To highlight these tendencies, we shall directly examine the results of the local elections. SDPK replaced Myrzakmatov’s Uluttar Birimdigi on the city council of the nation’s ‘second capital’, Osh, with 30.61% of the vote. They are accompanied by Kyrgyzstan (15.73%), the unknown Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (11.89%), Respublika-Ata Jurt (9.74%), Bir Bol (8.52%), and Onuguu-Progress (8.08%). In Karakol, as was expected, SDPK (13.99%) lost ground to Tabylga (28.51%), a dynamic local party that ran in 2012 as a voter bloc. In addition to these two parties, Kyrgyzstan (10.25%), Respublika-Ata Jurt (8.89%), and Onuguu-Progress (8.31%) also entered the city council of the Issyk-Kul oblast capital. In a different Issyk-Kul city, Balykchy, SDPK was left in ignominious fourth place (11.11%) having yielded to Zamandash-Sovremennik (20.87%), who, it seems, is not ready to be written off quite yet. The ever-present Kyrgyzstan (13.42%), Respublika-Ata Jurt (11.25%), and Onuguu-Progress (9.46%) also gained seats.
SDPK (36.75%) was victorious in the elections in Tokmok, one of the largest cities in Chui oblast. They were joined in the city council by the local AK Party of Fairness and Development (11.79%), Respublika-Ata Jurt (10.45%), and Kyrgyzstan (20.03%), whose leader was once the mayor. In a different Chui city, Kemin, the elections were once again won by SDPK (35.74%). Seats were also won by Respublika-Ata Jurt (17.42%), Zamandash-Sovremennik (10.13%), Onuguu-Progress (8.50%), and Uluu Kyrgyzstan (8.37%). In the Jalal-abad oblast city of Mailuu-Suu Respublika-Ata Jurt (40.21%) ended up the winner, which is unsurprising upon closer examination of the geographic distribution of votes for that party. Respublika-Ata Jurt placed first in this region in the 2015 elections. They are followed by SDPK (37.98%), Onuguu-Progress (9.97%) and Ata Meken (7.91%).[ii]
In the results of these elections, one can discern a series of not unimportant trends imbedded in the parliamentary elections. First, there is a noticeable trend towards the consolidation of those contesting elections, even though the number of parties participating remains for the high for the moment. If previously there were 6 parties and 14 voter blocs represented in the Karakol city council and 6 parties and 10 voter blocs in the Tokmok city council, then these numbers have dropped to 13 and 12 parties respectively. However, this decrease in the diversification of political forces did not occur thanks to the consolidation of parties, the building of electoral coalitions or high levels of voter passivity (voter turnout ranged from 52% in Balykchy to 61.5% in Tokmok). This is happening due to a decrease in the number of electorally competitive actors (voter blocs, for example, were legally barred from running) and a gradual contraction of the political field to the benefit of established players.
Secondly, regardless of the trend of the political field contracting, “local” parties in a geographic sense continue to appear and take root. The phenomenon of local parties is relatively widespread, because local political formations often understand and present the needs of local communities best and, consequently, receive their support. This year the locals parties formed were Tabylga, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, and the AK Party of Fairness and Development. Of course, the number of local parties taken, as a whole, is not great due to the fact that local leaders still prefer to integrate into pre-existing political structures in particular those that have a chance of gaining access to power. Therefore, the local parties can present elite interests alongside democratic “grassroots” processes. For example, if Tabylga earned its victory on the basis of their close work with the electorate (they prefer hiring agitators for door-to-door outreach) and an active political fight within the city council since 2012, then the third place victory of the earlier unknown local party Mekenim Kyrgyzstan in Osh is, to say the least, interesting.
Thirdly, the dynamics within the parties themselves are curious. It was interesting to learn that Zamandash-Sovremennik did not disappear after an internal schism of the party establishment on the eve of the parliamentary elections. It appears that its regional networks are still functional, considering that the party was able to capture two of six city councils. Furthermore, the results show that Ata Meken, one of the oldest parties (who at the moment has gained seat in only one city council), is continuing to suffer from a steady nationwide decrease in its popularity that began in 2010. A new party, Kyrgyzstan, to the shock of many experts who earlier had rated the party as a single-use political project, showed that its leaders have more long-term goals. Henceforth it will be difficult to judge whether or not something in our political field is a one-time process. As for the party of power, then, as we can see, administrative resources are no longer able to provide unconditional electoral victory. Money now decides everything. Based on these dynamics it follows that, at the moment, the regions are more competitive than the capital and that not all political processes taking place in the regions are controlled by the authorities.
Finally, yet another new characteristic of the local elections is the large-scale use of vote buying. In conditions where entering the already narrow political field is based on access to administrative and financial capital, we find a high level of competition among the already established order of players. Unfortunately, entering a field such as this becomes closed to new forces, young politicians, and grassroots movements. This was made clear by the example of the new Democrat party, which was founded by young professionals and entrepreneurs of a liberal orientation. Wanting to stay true to their democratic principles, the party refused to engage in vote buying and, having gained about 4,000 votes in Osh, was unable to pass the electoral threshold. Observing their defeat, many young parties are asking themselves: is it worth staying true to democratic principles if the rest of the field is playing by different rules? In other words, 5 years after the constitutional reforms to what extent do elections remain an instrument for open political competition and elite turnover? Our field research can tell the story of how the preconditions for this situation took shape.
Weak Party Institutionalization
In the spring of 2014, we conducted field research on how the parties were developing in the new parliamentary system and how they were preparing for the second elections. While we did not romanticize the new system of stimuli and limitations for the parties, we were still hopeful that in the new proportional, multi-party governance new impulses would appear for parties to institutionalize their activities. It seemed to us that institutionalization in particular would allow the parties to survive the fierce competition in the long-term – recall that in 2010, 29 parties participated in the elections, but only 14 in 2015. Operating under this hypothesis, we conducted our survey among local party members and local representatives in 7 regional cities around the country.[iii]
However, a year before the elections we saw that, outside of a few parties, local cells had not even begun their election campaign, and some the cells of some parties had not even been formed yet. The change in local elections to a proportional system also failed to become a basis for the institutionalization of party politics in the regions. This weak institutionalization that we observed and discussed with local party members manifested itself not only in the absence of basic party attributes such as permanent headquarters and programs but also in the lack of a local structure for political decision making or communicating with the central party committees.
For example, the members of Respublika and Ata Jurt had not been informed of the impending union of their own leaders. The fact that the merger of the parties had not been the subject of discussion involving regional delegations caused flashes of indignation in Talas and Jalal-abad respectively. Even the members of the party of power, SDPK, suffered from an incomplete system of communication with the center and complained about the foggy ambiguity of party plans due largely to the fact that the central hierarchy was run by informal and closed politics.
With the exception of SDPK, all the other parties represented in Parliament suffered from internal schisms. If Respublika lost its own “southern” leadership network after Omurbek Babanov’s resignation, then Ata Jurt had problems in its own Jalal-abad home base, to say nothing of Osh oblast, where former party member Kamchy Tashiev had always had influence. Representation for the new parties Onuguu-Progress and Bir Bol existed only in the southern oblasts,[iv]  and no one had heard of the party Kyrgyzstan up to a few months before the elections.
Against this background, Ata-Meken and Zamandash-Sovremennik appear to be partial exceptions. Ata-Meken traditionally stands out from the other parties with its greater inclusion of its regional party veterans in political activities. Regional representatives from this party were more informed about the legislative efforts of their own central committee. Zamandash-Sovremennik impressed namely with the independence of their regional networks and the high level of coordination with the party central committee.
However, if we return to the weak institutionalization of the majority of parties, this was the main problem that formed the basis for utilizing tactics such as vote buying in the spring of 2015. How else could new parties contend with those who already had some form of regional support networks? However, the use of dishonest tactics by some created a vicious circle for others: other parties “had to” move to vote buying if not to gain a new electorate then to maintain their old electorate. In an academic article by Alexander Wolters, the author believes that monetization and commercialization of the party lists has become a new tactic that enabled parties both old and new to quickly acquire client networks and win elections.[v]
Osh City Council Elections: The Openness of Political Struggle?
In topping off this analysis, I would like to more fully elaborate on vote buying, which creates tremendous risks in exasperating the weak institutionalization of parties.
What was most surprising in the election campaign for the city council of the nation’s second largest city was the utter lack of any active campaigning of citizens, even though 13 parties were fighting for influence in the city. While there was a struggle between parties, it was less a fight for voters and more over party lists. As such, all of the more or less important people in the city had already been identified and mobilized for the party of power. If its selected list was adorned with the heads of local agencies with large staffs such as Tazalyk[vi], Osh Elektro, Kyrgyz Telecom, and the Municipal Oncology Hospital, lest we forget the faculty of local universities and acting city councilors, then the other parties were not so lucky.[vii] Other than this struggle for candidates, however, there was no noticeable voter outreach. When asked how a party can “find” 5,000 necessary votes over the course of the remaining 10 days a party agitator answered: “the parties don’t need to hustle for them like in the past; they simply show up two days before the election and buy the necessary votes.” Local independent observers from the NGOs Taza Shailoo and the Coalition confirmed this prevailing, dangerous precedent for Democracy.[viii] According to Taza Shailoo, most cases of vote buying were observed in Osh and Tokmok.[ix] Even the head of the Central Election Commission, Tuigunaaly Abdraimov, spoke out about incidents of vote buying.[x]
Vote buying in our country has always taken place in an informal and indirect way. In Kyrgyzstan’s conditions, indirect vote buying has, in recent years, taken the form of “infrastructure projects” and philanthropy, by providing entire quarters with gutters, transformers, free medical care and access to rented tractors at low rates. However, this move to direct financial methods of vote buying in the lead up to the parliamentary elections is a new and negative turn in the development of national parliamentarism.
Some elites find it easy to use poverty as an explanation for the “venality” of voters. However, in our opinion, the marketability of votes is related to other political crises. Today, key political features such as national leaders, their values, the stability of their behavior over time and party platforms do not send signals that would allow the electorate to decode political realities. They no longer serve as reference points, which help society conceptualize political events, make connections, come to conclusions, or, most important of all, determine their own political choices. In vain attempts to make sense of the rapidly mutating and vacuous politics, many voters renounce politics and, consequently, elections. They are overcome by confusion, frustration, and anger.
Then why are these monetary transactions or the so-called venality of the voters so surprising and jarring for us? Among all of this cacophony of party platforms, leaders and slogans, only a monetary transaction is simple and understandable. “I’ll give you 1000 som, and you’ll give me your vote. I’ll give you 5,000 som, and you’ll bring me the votes of 5 of your relatives.” What other responses are left to the electorate in the face of empty politics? A vote of no confidence? It was voiced long ago. A protest? What would that accomplish? So, before judging the voters for their cynicism, it would be better to view the sale of a vote as yet another sign of distrust towards the political system.
Today a wall of distrust several years thick has formed between political elites and the electorate. It is difficult to break through this wall. Political platforms, ideas and thoughts no longer reach or are perceived by the voters. Only the parties that promise to repair a courtyard and replace a roof are able to pass through their peculiar form of face control and move onto the regular elections. However, the practice of vote buying is incredibly dangerous, because it negates the attempts of other parties that are oriented towards the long-term, sustainable development of their membership and organization. It negates the efforts of political old-timers like Ata-Meken, which received much more modest results then the unripened Kyrgyzstan. In this case, we will need to wait a long time to see the institutionalization of parties and the differentiation of the electorate along ideological and policy lines. Vote buying can also become a powerful obstacle for new parties and young politicians with progressive, political ideas but meager financial capabilities.
The vote buying utilized in the 2015 parliamentary elections and the 2016 local elections has scrambled the cards and overturned the processes that were set in motion by the democratic reforms after the events of 2010. It is difficult to say where these processes will lead. It is possible that vote buying is a transitional phenomenon in those post-communists states, where hyper-competition between oligarchic elites is not yet completely regulated by common rules of the game. Much in Kyrgyzstan will depend on whether or not this dangerous precedent will be comprehended at the highest levels and whether or not the political elites will take responsibility. While this is not done no one dares to predict with any confidence the potential and future of party development. The next presidential elections will only whip up the existing inter-elite competition and, consequently, the use of dirty tactics.
[i] E. Huskey and D. Hill, “Regionalism, personalism, ethnicity, and violence: parties and voter preference in the 2010 parliamentary election in Kyrgyzstan”, Post-Soviet Affairs, 29:3, 2013.
[ii] The article reflects the Central Election Commission’s (CEC) preliminary data. CEC did not provide final election results by percentage http://www.shailoo.gov.kg/LOCAL_ELECTION_2016_MARCH/
[iii] More detailed information is available (in Russian) in the report “Развитие партий и предвыборная ситуация в регионах. Взгляд региональных представителей партий (The Development of Parties and the Pre-election Situation in the Regions. The View of Regional Party Representatives)” available at: http://www.nisi.kg/ru-researchesinkg-1375
[iv] The results were obtained by compiling the data received from the CEC and the secretariats of the various city councils. The results of the 2012-2014 city and village council elections are not available on the official CEC website. CEC also does not have information on the changes in the council compositions, which makes academic research in this area difficult.
[v] Asel Doolotkeldieva & Alexander Wolters, “Uncertainty Perpetuated? The Pitfalls of a Weakly Institutionalized Party System in Kyrgyzstan”, Central Asian Affairs, forthcoming.
[vi] Department of Sanitation
Author: Asel Doolotkeldieva, Political Scientist (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan)
The views of the author may not coincide with the position of CABAR.asia