Democracy is often defined as a game with predictable rules and unpredictable results. Kyrgyzstan is comparatively closer to this definition than its Central Asian neighbours, where electoral rules are bent to ensure the anticipated victories for incumbents. The Kyrgyzstani parliamentary elections held on 4 October and the ensuing protests and popular revolt were another case showing how different this country is from its neighbours, but also tests whether the current political dynamic can be a step towards democratization.
Medet Tiulegenov is a faculty member at the International and Comparative Politics Department, American University of Central Asia. He is a researcher and consultant on civil society, public policy development, and social justice, with direct and extensive experience in the non-profit sector and project and organizational development.
The Overall Context for the 2020 Elections
Kyrgyzstan has been viewed for the entire post-Soviet period as an “island of democracy” in Central Asia. While the term was coined to draw comparison with its neighbours, Kyrgyzstan was in fact making progress in various aspects of democracy according to a number of international indices (Freedom House, Variety of Democracy, Bertelsmann Transformation Index). This year, Freedom House qualified Kyrgyzstan as a partly free country, while the Varieties of Democracy Institute’s 2020 report put Kyrgyzstan in the list of top ten democratizing countries. Yet last year’s report also placed Kyrgyzstan among the top ten countries worldwide with a high probability of an adverse regime transition. The last two years in the country were the consequence of the first peaceful handover of power by a sitting president after elections in 2017. With the exception of Roza Otunbaeva, who served as interim president for a year and a half, all previous presidents had to flee the country in the wake of popular revolts—the first president Askar Akayev in 2005, and the second president Kurmanbek Bakiev in 2010.
Last Sunday, voters chose between 16 parties running for 120 seats in the unicameral parliament, Jogorku Kenesh. It is the fourth election held under closed party lists and a proportional representation system, and the third elections held under the new 2010 constitution which enables greater political decentralization.
What Made This Time Different?
These elections were conducted in the same way as the previous ones. It is the same electoral system, though since last election the national threshold was increased from 5 percent to 7 percent (the regional threshold, i.e. the percentage of votes to be gathered in each of the seven provinces and the capital, also increased to 0.7 percent).
In terms of technology, the biggest change happened in the 2015 parliamentary elections, when biometric voter registration and electronic voting machines were introduced. This significantly affected two major elements of public trust in electoral results in Kyrgyzstan—voter registry and vote counting. With little options for manipulation in these areas, voters became more important, albeit with such side effects as increased vote buying. This turned electoral campaigning into one of the biggest vote-buying endeavours the country has ever seen. One of the indicators thereof was the move by almost half a million voters re-registered at other polling stations, often because of candidates wooing loyal voters to their own districts (the common practice of campaigning despite formalities of the electoral system).
Other than this, the 2020 elections seemingly should not have been much different from the previous ones. Which features of these elections caused them to fail and shaped the context for the post-electoral contention? There are several features of this electoral campaign which made it distinct from the previous rounds and also affected post-electoral outcomes. These relate to the power concentration, change in candidate mobilization, the generational shift, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Diffused Centre
First, there is a notable change in the centre of pro-power groups. For the most part, past elections were held under the control of a centralized group which sought to win by taming opponents and bending rules to the extent possible to ensure its own victory. One exception was the 2010 election, several months after the popular revolt and deadly ethnic conflict which weakened the new government. It resulted for the first time the opposition party Ata Zhurt (Fatherland), which united those who were in power in the old regime, gaining more seats than any other party. The situation this fall also shows the weakness of the centre, which began more than two years ago after the last presidential elections.
For the past ten years, the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) was used as the centrepiece of party politics for the governing elite. Almazbek Atambaev was its leader and dominated the party while serving as a president. His successor, Sooronbai Zheenbekov, was nominated by the same party and was backed by his predecessor. However, they bitterly split a few months after the elections, and eventually the ex-president ended up in prison in 2018, facing criminal charges, while Zheenbekov made all possible efforts to destroy Atambaev’s party but did not rely himself on another one.
By the time of the electoral campaign, there were two parties allegedly representing the group in power. One of them is Birimdik (Unity), whose party list included many MPs and state officials. The president’s brother, ex-speaker of the parliament Asylbek Zheenbekov, is running with this party. Another frontrunner party is Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (Motherland Kyrgyzstan), which has a mix of the old guard as well as new and young faces and is allegedly backed by a powerful tycoon, ex-deputy chair of the State Customs Service Raiymbek Matraimov. He was the reason for several large-scale demonstrations in Bishkek which began after journalists released an investigative report on tax evasion schemes running into the hundreds of millions of US dollars. His brother Iskender Matraimov, an MP in the outgoing parliament, is also on the party’s list. Another party simply called “Kyrgyzstan” also hosts a number of old elites and is viewed as a satellite to the main contenders.
The Faces of the Campaign
There is also a change in the composition of party lists. One can easily observe quite radical changes among parties, but more importantly within the candidate lists. Among 16 contending parties, only three from the current parliament (Ata Meken, Bir Bol (Be One), and Kyrgyzstan) are taking part in the elections. There has been little continuity in the parliamentary elections, with parties emerging in the political space just a few months before the elections and yet ending up in parliament.
There are more radical changes in the party lists this time. Party switching was common for many MPs in the past and still is practiced. More than 80 of 120 MPs from six incumbent parties are participating in elections. More than two thirds of them are concentrated in three parties which were considered to be pro-government parties—Birimdik, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Switching to other parties was as notable this time as it was before, for example in the Ata Meken party, out of seven MPs only three were in this party’s parliamentary group.
What was different this time is a quite significant change in the party lists. New parties take part in elections with people who are notable in their own spheres of activities but were new to electoral politics. Some old parties, however, changed the composition of their candidate lists almost completely. One example is the Bir Bol party, which took on board a lot of young and professionally successful people. The Reforma party is another example of a party that was campaigning with slogans about the renovation of the political elite.
Dissatisfaction with the old politicians is present despite growing activities of new parties. One month ago, one poll showed that more than half of respondents (58 percent) did not know whom to vote for. A poll conducted by the same organization two months earlier placed that figure at 82 percent—an indication that the campaign did not bring much clarity. There is also significant resentment towards many parties, so that 15 percent of respondents answered they would against all.
Was the Pandemic a Factor?
One must also factor in the global COVID-19 pandemic, which is a unique situation—it was the for first time that elections were held under such conditions in Kyrgyzstan. One expected effect was related to limitations on campaigning. Indeed, there were fewer observable posters and no more crowds in stadiums, although it was not dramatically different from previous elections. The public’s critical stance towards the government was to have a bigger effect on campaigning. For example, during the pandemic, the government resorted to several rather awkward actions: in the spring, the country was quarantined when the number of cases did not yet appear threatening. Then, when a real surge in COVID-19 cases occurred in July, the country was unprepared, which sparked growing criticism of the government.. This was viewed as detrimental to the campaign by incumbents in all parties.
However, one of the biggest effects of COVID-19 was not the growing distrust of the government, but collective self-organization by Kyrgyzstani citizens. Seeing the government as unable to provide needed support and help, tens of thousands volunteered throughout the country in various groups and organizations. They have built a coordination mechanism which later some of them, who went on to run for election, translated into their campaigns. One notable example is the Reforma party’s successful crowdfunding campaign to raise 5 million Kyrgyzstani som (more than 53,000 euro) to register for the elections.
A Generational Shift
Fourth, there is also a looming transition within the post-Soviet elite, which is beginning to affect politics in the country. Politics during the first three post-Soviet decades was shaped by the elite, which in turn matured in key moments, such as the immediate post-transition 1990s or the popular revolts of 2005 and 2010.
Those who grew into leadership positions sought to secure them and fend off others’ to rise to political prominence. Intense struggles in those years as well as on other occasions squeezed out some from the political space. Some, like Ata Meken’s leader Omurbek Tekebaev or Respublika’s leader Omurbek Babanov, were hit with dubious charges of corruption or inciting ethnic hatred during elections.
This was accompanied by an increase in the number of relatively young people entering politics. This started during the 2005 popular revolt when the first youth organizations emerged with the specific goal of giving a voice to the young generation. They contributed to a growing public expectation that real change may come with new politicians.
Results and Prospects
The day after the election, protests over the results spilled into clashes with police, which then led to the popular uprising in the capital city and some country’s regions. The quick power turnover in the centre is not a definitive victory for the opposition, and there are several features of the current situation (which partially stem from the pre-electoral context) which may define in which way the ongoing political crisis could further evolve. These primarily include the issues of coordination, the shaky balance of power throughout the country, as well as issues of legitimacy and law and order.
Coordination was an issue while many political groups were preparing for elections, and many likeminded activists ended up in different parties. It still remains the biggest problem for the opposition in terms of formulating a common course of action. The context in this regard is very different than the 2005 popular revolt, when the opposition coordinated their activities over many weeks of protest, and a bit closer to the 2010 revolt, when given the quick change of power in the capital, the opposition had to find a quick path out of the crisis.
However, analogies can be misleading, as the current opposition is more divided on publicly announced principles and lacks experience of prior coordination. Some older parties (Respublika (Republic), Ata Meken, and others) have such experience and tend to band together, while civic activists (Reforma and some young activists from other parties) who went into politics for the first time had more pre-existing personal ties and are based on these networks of trust. The principal divide between these two groups is the presence of the older politicians in the political scene. There are other parties which float in between these two or form their own ad hoc groups. The release of political prisoners (who could be viewed as being associated with previous presidents) and their re-emergence in politics further complicates the spectrum of active political forces and prevents smooth coordination.
Despite a quick victory in Bishkek, the lack of coordination is one of the major obstacles to definitively shifting the balance of power and taking control of the country. The president’s whereabouts are not clear, although he appears to be in the south of the country. His brother, ex-speaker of the parliament Asylbek Zheenbekov, organized a demonstration against the opposition in the southern city of Osh. Control by the president and his bother over their loyalist networks, primarily in the country’s south, complicates the chances of the opposition aiming for Zheenbekov’s impeachment and weakens the bargaining position of the entire opposition. Worsening the situation is the possibility of the standoff becoming one of the south versus the north. Although Zheenbekov’s power base may dwindle with time, it does not guarantee that it will become an asset to the opposition, as the ongoing crisis leads to various political entrepreneurs taking over positions in various regions of the country and forming their own alliances with either of the two major opposition groups.
The ongoing crisis should be resolved with as much legality as possible given the circumstances. Since its onset, it has gone in a different direction then what happened in the 2010 revolt—with the interim government suspending many legal provisions, disbanding the parliament, and ruling by decrees. Maintaining legal legitimacy is one of the primary objectives of the opposition lest it become a tool for their opponents. Making any further decisions, the opposition will need to resort to institutions which are controlled by incumbents—the president and the parliament.
Forward, Backward, or Sideways
While things change every few hours, the general course of events could very well look like the following.
New elections would be the main driver for setting the agenda and the course of action for the next weeks and months. While power sharing and the struggle for legitimacy continues, various opposition forces could use this momentum for their own gain. Overall, it would mean that the old guard attempts to remain in power, while the new political forces attempt to take control.
On Tuesday, 6 October, the Central Election Committee annulled the election results. This was the first official decision made since the start of the upheaval and paves the way for further actions. According to law, the president has to announce parliamentary elections no earlier than 100 days before election day. Presumably, elections would take place in January or February of next year, and until then the country would be put on hold with a sort of a stalemate situation. On the one hand, the current opposition will prepare to run in new elections with new optimism, hopefully taking on the lessons learned from the failed elections. One the other hand, those against whom the uprising was directed will have time to cling to power until the new elections and use it to regain some control over the situation.
The Way Forward
Overall, once scheduled the new elections would pave the way forward. It would manage the expectations of various political actors and give them some common purpose. It would also legitimize the situation and give a sense of certainty to the Kyrgyzstani public. There are various conditions, of course, under which the way forward may become if not the shining path, then at least a move towards the light at the end of a tunnel—whether the power balance would start to tip in favour of the opposition, whether the opposition would find a way to come to agreement, and how this would be legitimized by its various constituencies and support groups.
Attempts to legitimize the situation came (besides annulling elections by the Central Election Committee) with the parliament starting to work on resolving the crisis—trying to appoint a new prime minister and elect a new speaker. At the extraordinary meeting of the parliament on 6 October, it dismissed the prime minister and appointed Sadyr Zhaparov. Zhaparov would face many issues on this position, if he could maintain that position until the elections. An immediate question is his legal legitimacy. Just released from prison, he has not cleared his name of criminal charges as required by law to hold an official position. Alongside rather obscure legal issues is the lack of clarity as to whether the parliament’s meeting, which took place behind closed doors, met quorum and had the right to appoint a candidate without a new cabinet and other elements of due process required by law. However, the biggest issue is political legitimacy, disputed by groups calling for the lustration of veteran politicians. The election of a new speaker is viewed as less controversial, although there is public resentment in this regard as well.
That said, just announcing and carrying out elections alone would likely be viewed as an insufficient to move forward. Perhaps changing the rules of the game, such as lowering the electoral threshold, introducing preferential voting (when votes are cast not only for a party, but for candidates on its list as well), along with measures to prevent the use of administrative resources and vote buying practices could enter the agenda. The chances for agreement on these steps are high. The likelihood of bringing all parties on board when it comes to the demand for Zheenbekov to step down is lower, as well as for constitutional reforms. These are also among the demands of some protesters, but the overall reform agenda is not clearly defined among most of the opposition.
The Way Backward
The risks of crisis mismanagement are considerable at the moment, and would mean a step backward in terms of growing instability and governmental chaos. The possibilities for systematic violence to emerge and escalate are not large, but may grow under two conditions: namely, forceful attempts to gain or regain control by both sides, or acts of violence (towards business, governmental officials, among opposing groups) may break out under the country’s current weak leadership. The chances for new conditions are unclear. The arrival to Osh city of its ex-mayor Melis Myrzakmatov, who enjoys broad popularity since the ethnic conflict of 2010, may signal an attempt to build up a stronger anti-oppositional coalition with a wider and more aggressive support base. Additionally, the criminal groupings connected to some politicians may begin to mobilize their own resources. This could constitute second condition, perhaps more likely to emerge due to the weakness of the central government and various opportunistic actors emerging with their own agenda and violent means of gaining and controlling political and financial assets in various localities.
Besides risks to the existing order, the way backward would entail smashing the hopes of those who had high expectations after Monday night. There are two kinds of hopes: one is more general, that given the experience of the two prior revolts, this one would be of a higher standard, maintaining peacefulness and an ability to prevent the worst from happening. With attempts at looting in the capital city and violent takeover of some mining sites in the provinces, this hope is currently diminishing. However, Monday’s peaceful protest and the ability of Bishkek volunteers to prevent looting is countering that despair. Another hope relates to specific expectations, which relate in the short term to preventing the associates of the current and previous regimes from coming to power either in the current moment or after new elections. The way things are unfolding now may also significantly diminish these hopes. The appointment of a new prime minister, self-appointments to various public positions (including the position of Bishkek mayor) throughout the country, and the inability to formulate legal means to purge the state apparatus of the old guard would put a number of opposition supporters into the state of despair and give them the distinct impression that the country was going backward.
The Path Sideways
A sideways scenario is also plausible, implying nonlinear back-and-forth movements and attempts to find solutions to the current crisis. As mentioned above, fragmentation of the opposition is one of the major reasons for an inability to move forward. It was fragmented before the elections and, despite expectations for some of them to unite around one party, they have instead dispersed into many. It remains disunited, affecting the outcomes of many events ahead. Some of them went on to form a coordinating council which united six parties: the SDPK, Respublika, Ata Meken, Byutyun Kyrgyzstan (Integral Kyrgyzstan), Bir Bol, and Zamandash (Contemporary). All of them took part in the elections (SDPK under the brand of the Social Democrats). However, not all of their leaders took an active part in the protests. Some of them had just been released from prison.
Other parties refused to take part in this council. The Reforma party, for example, announced that although it was invited and shared the council’s goals, it could not accept the membership of discredited politicians. The idea of purging the apparatus, known as “lustration”, had been floating around for almost a dozen years, and became one of the ideas many people united around. It proved particularly attractive for young people, many of whom went to polls with the same general goal and now claim new people need to be part of the government.
The public hostility towards many officials combined with the need to work within the limits of legality could lead to a duality of power. The main factions in parliament would hold formal powers until elections, using this as a tool to negotiate with the opposition and regain some positions. Since these are individual strategies, opponents of the opposition are even more fragmented, ensuring chances for their agreeability—although with the announcement of new elections their regrouping is quite likely.
A Dual Duality?
It would appear that a duality of power in which one group holds formal power, but another enjoys greater public legitimacy will constitute the context for events unfolding in the coming weeks. This could be exacerbated by a fragmentation of the opposition into groups—one which leans towards finding compromise at any cost, and another which attempts to stand on the principle of not working with the old, discredited politicians. This balance would not be satisfactory, but institutionally it would quickly emerge due to the interests of too many actors in this arrangement.
There is also another duality in this situation—a geographic one, where one group controls part of the country and another group control the rest. The north/south divide unfortunately appears likely, and some groups could, perhaps, even utilize this aspect of Kyrgyzstani identity to mobilize their supporters. The territorial scope may change, shifting the area of control to either side. Once new elections are announced, there would be more motives to cling to this control due to the need to build up voting constituencies.
The shaky balance between formal and informal centres of power and fluctuating control over the country will generate its own dynamics and perhaps some turbulence, which can be diminished once elections are announced and the rules are agreed upon by the majority of political actors.