Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 25 August 2019

After democratic elections, Kyrgyzstan’s fractured parliament faces enormous challenges

Drama-free elections mark a democratic milesone for Kyrgyzstan, but the country now faces stern challenges in governance and a geopolitical shift back towards Russia.
A young supporter of the Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party at a rally in Belovodsk, Kyrgyzstan. Igor Kovalenko / EP
A young supporter of the Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party at a rally in Belovodsk, Kyrgyzstan. Igor Kovalenko / EP

Kyrgyzstan passed a crucial democracy test in its closely scrutinised parliamentary election, but the impoverished and politically volatile country – which has toppled two presidents in the past decade – now faces a fractured parliament that must build a durable governing coalition.

The ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) – which is closely allied to the president, Almazbek Atambayev – won the most votes in the October 4 poll but fell far short of the majority it needs to form a government in Bishkek, the capital that lies in the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains some 500 kilometres from the border with China. With 27 per cent of the vote, the party secured 38 of the 120 seats up for grabs in Kyrgyzstan’s Jogorku Kenesh (parliament), leaving it scrambling to form a coalition in a divided parliament containing five other parties with disparate agendas and interests.

Coalition-building was tough enough after the last election, five years ago, but it “will be a lot more complicated this time around”, commented Erica Marat, an expert on Kyrgyz politics from the College of International Security Affairs at the Washington-based National Defence University.

The opposition Respublika-Ata Jurt (Republic-Fatherland) came in second, with 20 per cent of the vote, and four smaller parties – Kyrgyzstan, Onuguu-Progress, Bir Bol (Be United) and Ata-Meken (Fatherland) – will share out the rest of the seats. The fractured nature of the new parliament already has observers fretting that a divided legislature lacking a clear mandate will spend more time fighting than tackling the massive challenges facing a country beset by economic problems and riven by profound ethnic and regional divides.

Nevertheless, there was jubilation in Kyrgyzstan as the small, Muslim-majority nation of just under 6 million people – which is politically and economically allied to its former colonial master Russia – managed to break the Central Asian political mould by holding an election that was both pluralistic and relatively free and fair. The country “has full grounds to take pride” in a vote in which “the will of the people of Kyrgyzstan was expressed in an atmosphere free of fear and pressure”, remarked Bishkek-based political commentator Edil Baisalov in a commentary published by the Kyrgyz news agency AKIpress.

Despite some evidence of electoral fraud, Marat concluded that “the election process this time around is a progression towards greater transparency and accountability among political parties”. International observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the region’s main election-monitoring body, were upbeat: despite noting procedural flaws, the group deemed the election competitive, which is noteworthy in a region where polls are generally stage-managed affairs won by ruling autocrats with nearly 100 per cent of the vote.

“These lively and competitive elections were unique in this region”, said Ignacio Sánchez Amor, an OSCE observer, because until preliminary results came in, “nobody knew what the composition of the parliament would be”. The president professed himself elated, despite the SDPK – the party that is his political voice in parliament – winning a much smaller-than-expected share of the vote. Staging honest elections was a “dream come true”, said Atambayev. “It is the happiest day today: no rallies and no unrest, which seemed impossible in our country.”

Atambayev was referring to apprehensions of violence that lingered over the vote, in a country that has witnessed two revolutions in the past decade. Atambayev came to power after political turmoil in 2010 toppled his predecessor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who became president after Askar Akayev was ignominiously chased out of office in 2005. That uprising, dubbed the Tulip Revolution, was largely bloodless, but five years later 87 people died in political violence that engulfed Bishkek and led to Bakiyev’s ouster. Another 470 people were killed in ethnic clashes between the majority Kyrgyz and minority Uzbek communities that convulsed the south of the country a few months later.

Voters in Osh, the leafy, low-rise city on Kyrgyzstan’s border with Uzbekistan that was the epicentre of that intercommunal violence, had one thing on their minds as they cast their votes on election day: preserving the precarious calm that now reigns five years after the ethnic violence traumatised their town.

“I voted for the SDPK,” said Bahodir Latykhanov, a 56-year-old water-management consultant, after casting his ballot. “They’ve maintained stability in our country over these years [since the violence].” Roziya Khamratulova, selling traditional round loaves of flatbread in the bustling bazaar, summed up the mood: “We just want peace.”

Since the 2010 revolution Kyrgyzstan has embarked on an ambitious – and often faltering – political experiment, abandoning the autocratic presidential rule favoured by the strongmen of Central Asia and resolving to build a parliamentary democracy accountable to the people. While many voters are proud of their country’s record of trying to build democracy, they are also conscious that political stability remains elusive.

Parliament has become a vehicle for flamboyant politicians to pursue their own interests, and the new parliament is unlikely to be much different. There is “growing disillusionment” with a governing system that is “only semi-functional”, the International Crisis Group said in a report published in the run-up to the vote. “The risks are exacerbated by leadership failure to address major economic and political problems, including corruption and excessive Kyrgyz nationalism,” it added. “Poverty is high, social services are in decline and the economy depends on remittances from labour migrants.” Unlike some of its energy-rich neighbours, Kyrgyzstan has few natural resources (other than gold). Gross National Income stands at just US$1,250 (Dh4,950) per capita and 37 per cent of people live below the poverty line, according to World Bank data. Unemployment is rife, and up to a million people are working abroad, mostly in Russia – but with recession biting there (caused by low oil prices and western sanctions on the Russian economy), Kyrgyzstan’s migrant workers and the families they feed at home are feeling the pinch.

Bishkek has just joined a new Kremlin-led economic alliance, the Eurasian Economic Union, that doomsayers believe is part of a grand plan by Russian President Vladimir Putin to recreate the Soviet Union by another name.

Kyrgyzstan has also enjoyed flirtations with the West, hosting a US airbase that Washington used as a launch pad for the war in nearby Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks.

The US military footprint in Kyrgyzstan lasted 13 years, but last year Atambayev finally kicked the Americans out – to the delight of the Russians, who maintain their own military base in the country. Atambayev is the only Central Asian leader to offer Russia diplomatic support for its military forays into Syria, describing Moscow’s air strikes as “in the interests of Kyrgyzstan”, which – like other Central Asian states – is afraid of the influence of extremist propaganda on its own people, several hundred of whom have already gone to join militant groups in the Middle East.

On Kyrgyzstan’s political scene, alliance with Russia is a foregone conclusion: all the parties elected to the new parliament voiced support for close partnership with the Kremlin, and none had anything to say in favour of the West. Kyrgyzstan may be taking its political inspiration from western liberal traditions as it tries to hold fair elections and build parliamentary democracy, but when it comes to foreign policy Bishkek looks in one direction only: to its former colonial master in the Kremlin.

Joanna Lillis, reporting from Osh,is a freelance journalist based in Almaty.

Updated: October 8, 2015 04:00 AM