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Medet Tyulegenov: Exaggerated Hopes on Young Candidates for Parliament

According to the political analyst, the seventh convocation of Zhogorku Kenesh will be a very difficult period for the country and future parliamentarians will have higher requirements, respectively.

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On October 4, Kyrgyzstan is having seventh election to the legislative body – Zhogorku Kenesh of the Kyrgyz Republic.

Unlike neighbouring countries in Central Asia, the parliament of Kyrgyzstan is a real political centre where disputes, discussions and attempts to reach consensus on various matters take place. Parliamentarians do not forget about their main functions amid these processes – control over the executive branch, law-making and voicing public outcries.

All presidents of sovereign Kyrgyzstan have tried to control the work of legislators, some have even succeeded, but for a while. After the overthrow of the Bakiev regime in April 2010, the interim government issued a new version of the constitution, and in June 2010 it was supported by the people.

According to it, since 2010 Kyrgyzstan is a presidential-parliamentary republic – only the parliament may form the government, control its work, draft laws and introduce amendments. The president has no such powers. At the same time, the president may appoint heads of force authorities and refer draft laws for improvement.

Although, the parliament has gained weight in the political life of the country in these 10 years compared to previous periods of work during the times of Bakiev and Akayev, all successive presidents do not give up trying to take control of its performance.

How much the future parliament will be controlled by the president and his team, what is special about this election campaign and what is the role of young people on both sides of the country’s political life – all these and other questions CABAR.asia asked to the political science instructor of the American University of Central Asia (AUCA), Medet Tyulegenov

CABAR.asia: Despite the coronavirus and other problems in the country, the seventh round of parliamentary election is carried out as usual, the agitation period is going to end soon. Based on your observations, what is the difference between the current period of parliamentary election and the previous one?

In terms of forecast, this election is one of the most uncertain parliamentary election. The only comparable election in terms of uncertainty was held in 2010. Back then, it was unclear who would win – “revolutionists” or “revenge seekers”.

This is due to another peculiarity – the lack of obvious pro-governmental party that can have others consolidate around it. It is obvious that there are at least two parties who are deemed as nominal “governmental” group. However, it was more or less clear in the past: Bakiev was creating a one-party dominating system (Ak Zhol party  – Editor’s note); Atambaev also attempted to build a kind of a governmental pyramid that is based on one party (SDPK – Editor’s note). This is not a point now, this is a peculiarity. 

What is the influence of Covid-19?

I do not see any significant influence. Although, they said that election would be held in a special way during the epidemic. Public expectations that the behaviour of officials and politicians over these years would have impact on their image during the election campaign did not come true; people forgot so fast the events that took place just two months ago. It’s clear that coronavirus is a kind of tense background – the epidemic is in the periphery of our minds, but it has no direct influence. 

What can you tell about the voters? What changes can we see in these 29 years? 

Every time before election, one question arises: now we have a new voter who will see everything differently and will change everything now. There’s no hope for the elite, but hope for people from below who would say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to someone.

Many things have changed in 29 years: first, demography changed – there are people who lived and developed consciously, publicly and politically in various periods and, therefore, they can look at some things differently, and maybe they vote and make decisions differently. This is absolutely so.

On the other hand, it’s hard for me to say how it influenced the whole situation because demographic changes would have been important if all these election platforms and ideas were important. In this case, we could see that a voter who developed back in the Soviet period, unlike a young voter, takes important programme ideas differently. Since programme ideas are not a significant part of the election process, demography plays no important role.

Also, a voter has become crucial. New technologies have been introduced, and the election process has become more or less normal, transparent. Earlier, a voter did not feel oneself a voter – people came and voted, but they did not know how the vote count would be carried out. 

This time, the young people, their role in the country’s political life have a special emphasis, and this factor is deemed very important. Speaking of voters, how active will young citizens be at the election?

Young voters are less active around the world. The global trend about this new generation is that young people do not share traditional political values; they do not want to participate in politics unlike our parents, the percentage of voting youth is less than older people. If we look at the 2015 statistical data, when previous election was held, voter turnout was higher at polling stations where more seniors than young people were registered. 

The young can be active in terms of expressing their thoughts and protests, but when it comes to voting, they are no more active.  So, I wouldn’t say the young people are of significance here. The whole world thinks of how to enhance the role of young people. One prominent European political analyst prepared a report for the European Commission on the state of democracy, including the young people, and raised a question “What to do to involve young people into politics”. He suggested absurd ideas: for example, to grant a voting right at the age of 15, but a teenager can vote only on behalf of their parents for three years, as if this can encourage parents to discuss how to vote with their children. Why am I saying this is because this point of view is actively discussed everywhere, namely, that young people are turned off about the election process, which is a shared problem. 

On the other hand, in this electoral cycle, young people in Kyrgyzstan are more active. First, parties faced a demographic change; experienced politicians are in such age that they feel they need to leave; or maybe there are other reasons. Also, protest actions tell us that young people in the regions participate in some civil political actions and other projects and thus they are involved and increasingly concerned with politics.

We’ll speak about the young people later. Now let’s speak about the eternal problem of our elections – vote buying. Do fewer voters now sell their votes or do we still have a generally commercial approach to the elections?

I think people still expect some ‘goodies’ from election, which is prevailing. Maybe, because of hopelessness, or because there is no other alternative, or because of a feeling that some country-level benefit promised by the candidates is less tangible. They might think: does my choice in the election have any impact on the country, I’d rather think about specific small things for myself, for neighbours, for the community – like a playground, a bridge, or something else. They’d better do some specific things – at the previous election, one party installed electrical equipment, another party did something of the kind.

Such calls as “Forget about the party system, let’s get back to the majority voting system” also fits this principle when it is clear that one specific candidate has a specific district and will do specific things for it. I think people want this direct communication. It may be natural and it’s clear why it is happening. This is a disease of democracy. People feel they should be related to the state and try to establish this relationship. This is a vicious relationship. Unfortunately, it takes excessive shape when we officially build some party system, but it fails to create what we expect from it. So, it turns out that all the time people come to prefer personal communication and specific benefits in exchange for my vote or our vote. Such preferences are encouraged by local “vote mobilisers”. Such mobilisers come on behalf of a party and find intermediaries locally – household supervisors, village elders, which are key persons in a working team. When they try to mobilise, they should refer to something. They cannot refer to national programmes: let’s attract investments to the country, etc. They’d rather refer to special benefits on site. This system appears to promote such relationships between candidates and voters. 

What about summer outcries on social media amid the fight against coronavirus: say, I’m tired of the situation in the country, let’s change everything dramatically, reform everything, get rid of all corrupt people, etc. Or was it a small group of people, even though effective on social media, and these outcries do not mean that the society demands such changes? 

The group is significant, not marginal, but insufficient in itself, and tiredness does not mean preparedness for something new. Tiredness is a prerequisite for something new, yet someone has to suggest such new things. Here we have something like this: a voter seems to be tired, some politically active elites are also tired, or new persons showed up and said “we are going to be a part of political elite, we are tired”. However, no one is strong enough to say: “we are tired of this, we must be ready for something”, or “we are tired of this, we need to strive for this at this price”, some strategic vision should be suggested. Unfortunately, we do not have such powers, but we have some new parties that promise something interesting, yet they emerged so fast and have no powers that would be prominent, and have some clear agenda and vision shared by many people.

So, it turns out that on October 4 people would come to the election without not knowing about the vision, the perspective of their choice of this or that party.

Kyrgyzstan has been living under the new constitution for 10 years. It provided significant powers to the parliament and the parties that are in the parliament, respectively. What has changed during the party construction?

In fact, this period did not affect the process of party construction, I guess. The symbolical significance of parties has improved. At some point, Bakiev initiated it for his benefit, and everything started in 2007. When the parliament had a formally party system (this refers to the fourth convocation of Zhogorku Kenesh that worked in 2007-2010 – editor’s note), SDPK won and Ata Meken failed at the election, but both won technically because they were parties. Previously, they had been known as some opposition groups, not parties.

Since 2010, after the adoption of the new constitution, the third election cycle began. For the parties, nothing has changed seriously yet. If we judge parties as organisations, they did not exist as organisations. In fact, these are machines for collecting votes, which revive during elections, but between elections they simply sit in the closet. Factions are not related to a party, they are a kind of shadow of a party that does something in parliament, but this is a different organisation, a different structure. It turns out that parties did not play any serious role in the parliament specifically as organisations.

How will this party construction process develop further? 

Today in Kyrgyzstan, a party performs one minimal yet essential function. In any case, politics is a group process in terms of elections and the need to be elected. When it was a majority parliament, the deputies had to “group together”. In the early 2000s, they were about 70, and one could not be alone, one needed to group with others. Grouping is a natural process for both the criminal world and the political world. Formally, the parties provide this opportunity. It is clear that this is a temporary protection: it depends on the leader, who wants to come with whom, on nuances and the context. It turns out that the parties perform this minimal function. And this is what they are needed for and the calls for the transition to the majority system are not clear to me as the deputies will be grouping anyway.

As for the future, it is difficult to say how many election cycles will it take for parties to do something and what prerequisites are necessary for that. Some tell about the need for state funding and then the parties will become more serious, some tell about some other changes – so that they become accountable, inner-party democracy and transparency before the society appear, and so on. It may take some time for the voter to get mature, for a politically active society to get mature to call for these things. For this end, some groups of voters must be formed to have some kind of ties with some parties, like in the UK – the Labour party members and trade unions, someone else, and then the parties will have greater significance as they will have their voters. However, what happens there will also depend on citizens as a structure that creates demand. It takes time. In the next one or two election cycles, some deep things will not change, but then changes will begin. Although, on the other hand, the world faces the process of personalisation of politics with party-switching. In this regard, now it makes no sense for us to ask the questions that Europe raised 40 years ago. Maybe we should not expect too much from the parties. 

At this election, they speak much of young, fresh blood in the parliament; young people are on the promotional materials of many parties. If some of these candidates come to parliament, what will change in its performance?

Previous experience has shown that no significant changes would follow. If we recall what happened in the previous five years in parliament, we can see that youth was not a factor that allows us to single out some groups of deputies who somehow do something in a new way. There were specific cases when some deputies tried to do something, but in general, youth as a factor was not significant. On the other hand, there were young deputies who behaved much worse. Therefore, youth is not yet an indicator. 

There is, of course, some groundwork, the hope that they have no past baggage, they form their image from a basic position and they have many perspectives where they can move and then they will shape something of themselves. But it depends on specific aspirations, on individuals. There are few such deputies because many come from business, other spheres, and some of them, like other older deputies, remain a mass, and it is difficult to understand why they came to parliament at all.

It means that the hope for young candidates in this election is exaggerated?

Super hopes are probably exaggerated.

Based on the candidates, what predictions can be made: will the future convocation be better than the previous one?

This convocation had its own context in which it developed, and the people who were part of it contributed to the obedience of the sixth convocation.

The work of the seventh convocation depends on the outcome of the election: who will pass, how many seats they will get, what groups will be formed. This convocation will also be at the crossroads just like the previous one: the next presidential election will take place in the middle of their term. This flexuous cross coincidence will also affect the work of parliament.

On the other hand, the current president, unlike the previous ones, does not have a coherent strategy for the work of parliament. It is clear there are some groups, there is some kind of process, attempts, but this is somewhat different, this is something so sluggish and vague, and it creates favourable opportunities for the parliament. This is not 2015, when, under the strict control of Atambaev, the parliament had to start something. Now, perhaps, work can be started in a different way, and it does not matter if Matraimovs’s or conditionally pro-government parties come. This will be a different context anyway.

The future convocation will have a more difficult situation: all kinds of crises and epidemics, post-epidemics, problems in health care, economics. And the next five years is the most predicted peak in debt repayment. There will be more demand from the parliament. The parliament will be elected, and, first of all, it will consider the budget for the next year and such issues as a quarter of all this money is spent on payment, debt service, and so on. Therefore, candidates are now trying to choose not entirely quiet and serene places for themselves. It’s going to be such a tough environment for them. But it may be good, it can be a chance for the seventh convocation to be better than the sixth one because there will be more demand from them. 

What will be the role of parliament in these reforms? Or will it depend on the president?

Parliament is a representative body, from this point of view, it performs an important function in the state, but at the same time it is a kind of a  the composition is always a kind of hodgepodge. In these conditions, it is always difficult to gather all of them and adopt a strategy. And retrospectively you understand why Atambaev tried to informally coordinate the work of the parliament. Sometimes it were his own ambitions, and sometimes he might be bound to do that because the parliament could not fulfil this function. It’s a different matter if a specific party held 60 seats, formed a coalition, chose a prime minister for a few years with certain ministers. But the situation will be different, and the parliament’s only role is not to become a strategic place, but to be the place of inquisition. Even if the president designs something, the presidential office and the prime minister try to work out something, the parliament must perform some supervisory function. They will not develop or promote a strategy, but anyway they can act in regard to some norms, execution of laws, performance, whatever the government promises. So, it has a certain basis for the performance of the parliament. Parliaments around the world are not a strategic place, but a place where the government is born and should design such strategic things. But we won’t have it here because the choice of the parliament is one of the first and important steps for the new convocation. In this regard, the parliament is unlikely to be perfect. 

Do you mean that in our situation, the president will continue to be a kind of informal coordinator of the parliament’s work?

I believe so. The fact that the current president is like that is also a disadvantage. On the one hand, it’s good to have a weak president. But when the country has a weak president and a weak parliament, it’s not good. Of course, the presidential administration will continue to draw up programmes, concepts, and so on, and then will have them coordinated with the government because the government adopts some functional strategies. In any case, it will be a coordinated process. Once again, it will depend on winners and the composition of the coalition after October 4.

When will voters become more exacting to their deputies, parliament performance?

There must be a very big, serious crisis that will affect everyone. As in life: no habits revised until the crisis comes. When the National Bank of Iceland collapsed in 2008, the citizens said, “That’s it, we don’t trust these politicians.” Citizens, using crowd funding, actually created a new constitution, organised a referendum and practically tried to rebuild their political system. But in our country it is still difficult to say what kind of crisis should occur. Many people probably thought that the epidemic was the very crisis, and it seems that everyone has relatives, acquaintances who have been ill and died. But, apparently, this is not the crisis yet. Only when a crisis happens, people get out of their comfort zone.

Thank you for talking with me. 

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project

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