Central Asia’s Island of Democracy is Sinking

Next week’s elections lay bare the failure of Kyrgyzstan’s revolutionary dream.

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It’s election season in Kyrgyzstan, and there are fourteen parties running for parliament. Every street has a banner, every stadium has a campaign rally, and every pundit has a pet theory — but no one can say for sure which party will get the most votes. The unpredictability is a welcome contrast to the country’s Central Asian neighbors, all one-party states headed by dictators-for-life, where each election is a foregone conclusion. They call this the “island of democracy” for a reason.

But the island is barely staying afloat. Kyrgyzstan’s last parliamentary elections were in 2010, just months after the second revolution in five years toppled President Kurmanbek Bakiyev for treating the country like a family business. Five years later, the country’s political parties are the same rent-seeking patronage machines they were before, and fundamental problems with the administration of elections have only gotten worse. The post-2010 constitution was supposed to create a parliamentary republic, but there are worrying signs that current President Almazbek Atambaev is the one calling the shots. Kyrgyzstan may not be headed to a dictatorship, but neither is it becoming more democratic. What happened?

The problems start with an entrenched political elite that has been through two revolutions yet somehow remained mostly unchanged. The party lists look as if someone wrote down the names of the country’s top politicians, put them in a hat, and shook them up. The most traditionally pro-Russian party has somehow added the country’s two most pro-American legislators. Respublika, led by a baby-faced former prime minister from the north who lost his premiership over allegedly accepting a horse as a bribe, has created a joint list with a party tied to the former Bakiyev regime. That party’s leader is an ex-boxer from the south who was thrown in jail in 2012 after he tried to lead a mob to storm the parliament building. This week the Central Election Commission disqualified him from running after another candidate claimed he punched him.

Ata Meken’s list features an anti-graft general prosecutor who resigned in January when her husband was charged with corruption, along with the exiled mayor of the southern city of Osh, widely said to be involved with organized crime and convicted this year of abuse of office. The ex-mayor doesn’t live in Kyrgyzstan since he preferred not to go to jail (he is probably in Moscow, or Minsk), so the election board said he couldn’t be on the list. But he should still be good for some votes in Osh, the country’s second-biggest city.

As should be clear, Kyrgyzstan’s parties almost completely lack ideological or policy definition. In fact, they are ad hoc collections of individual leaders who use their business and family ties to deliver votes in specific cities and towns, which in exchange expect those leaders to deliver the goods. That means handing out jobs in schools and civil service, allocating state contracts as favors, and appropriating public property for private gain. The struggle for seats is a struggle for the sources of revenue – taxes, foreign assistance, and mineral wealth – that the state controls. What little policy talk exists consists basically of posturing, as none of the parties have implementable plans for matching income to expenditures.

Since the parties are essentially machines for patronage, they have no specific platforms or identities. With the slight exceptions of President Atambaev’s Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) and the nominally socialist Ata Meken, none have meaningful party structures. And aside from ever-changing disagreements about nationalizing the Kumtor gold mine (which generates more than 10 percent of the country’s GDP), neither do they have any meaningful economic positions.

President Atambaev has taken the country’s foreign and economic policy in a sharply pro-Russian direction, relations with the United States are at a historic low, and the economy is stalling as Russia, where over 700,000 migrants work to keep Kyrgyzstan’s economy afloat with remittances, wades through a multi-year recession. Yet no party is running on the obvious question of whether the president was right to bind the country so tightly to its former colonizer. There are even fewer ways to tell the parties apart today than there were in 2010, when the country was still raw from ethnic pogroms that targeted the vulnerable Uzbek minority in southern Kyrgyzstan, and hardline Kyrgyz nationalists ran on explicitly discriminatory rhetoric. Now that this ethnic conflict is fading into memory, and Uzbeks have been relegated to de facto second-class status, the nationalists can only weakly differentiate themselves even from the relatively moderate SDPK, which itself has gravitated towards a more nationalist position to occupy the center.

The parties are also jumbled because the system incentivizes it. In order to enter parliament, a party must win at least 7 percent of the votes nationwide plus nearly one percent in each region and the two largest cities. This means that truly local parties — in a country where many of the most important issues are local or regional – can’t get into parliament. As a result, every party is trying to cover both the north and the south, resulting in the bewildering combinations we saw above.

So the parties don’t talk policy and the politicians are crooks (really — the Ministry of Interior has said that 234 people on the party lists, more than 10 percent of the total, were under criminal investigation). Even more worrying is how the electoral system has not only failed to improve from five years ago, but has actually gotten worse. In 2010, the largest concern observers had about the elections were voter lists — making sure people voted only once, and only real people voted. There were widespread reports of “carousel voting” — busing groups of voters from polling station to polling station to cast multiple votes for the same party.

The solution the government decided on, with the strong backing of President Atambaev, was to require all voters to give biometric information, namely fingerprints, in order to be placed on the voter list. This has created more problems than it has solved. First, there are the obvious privacy concerns. Civic activists argued it is unconstitutional for the government to require individuals to submit such important private information to exercise a fundamental right that underpins all of the other rights. And if the United States can’t even protect a database of its federal workers’ fingerprints, why should citizens in an impoverished country with low levels of technical capacity trust the government to secure theirs? These questions were largely ignored at the Constitutional Court, which upheld the law in September.

Second, even though it officially started two years ago, the process of collecting biometrics has been messy and unclear to voters, especially in remote areas. The state barely tried to register the hundreds of thousands Kyrgyzstani migrants working abroad — and just as in 2010, practically an entire class of Kyrgyzstani citizens will not be able to vote. The total number of registered voters as of September 26 was 2.76 million, about 10 percent fewer than the final number in 2010.

Third, there are serious concerns about whether the system will work on election day, when special machines will be required to confirm voters’ fingerprints. In a demonstration for the press on September 3, the fingerprint scanner failed to work and required 20 minutes of intervention from IT specialists while the cameras rolled.

The biometrics process also opens up additional opportunities for the abuse of “administrative resources,” the catch-all euphemism for the ability of a ruling party to exploit its command of the state to manipulate the vote. With the complicated new voter registration process, the president’s party has another way to make sure its voters get registered — and others don’t. Such abuses are notoriously hard to track, even in a relatively open system like Kyrgyzstan’s. Even so, there are already widespread reports of abuse, just as there were in years past. The uncertainty around the biometrics issue will reduce trust in the outcome of the elections.

There are also disturbing indications that President Atambaev is growing comfortable with the habits of power. Over the last year, state television has begun broadcasting the same sort of hit pieces on opposition figures that commonly feature in Kyrgyzstan’s authoritarian neighbors. The State Committee on National Security (GKNB) has been intensifying its harassment of journalists, imams, and NGOs (including, last year, the local office of Freedom House). The country’s leading Russian-language newspaper changed hands this year after a murky lawsuit that the previous owner accused the president of masterminding.

Since the 2010 fiscal year, the U.S. government has spent over $82 million supporting “government and civil society” in Kyrgyzstan — almost 40 percent of the total in Central Asia. That might be trivial next to the fiasco in Afghanistan, where the U.S. burned through $726 million in this category just in 2013 and has even less to show for it, but it is still a lot of money for a country with fewer people than greater Houston.

Kyrgyzstan is supposed to be Central Asia’s shining city on a hill, but corruption is widespread, repression of dissent is growing, and its democracy looks ever shakier. We should not allow the dismal state of the neighborhood — or the money the United States has already invested — to obscure the country’s troubling lack of progress in consolidating democracy, or the early warning signs of backsliding.

In the photo, Kyrgyz men carry national flags during celebrations marking the 24th anniversary of Kyrgyzstan’s independence from the Soviet Union on August 31, 2015.

Photo credit: VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images

Nate Schenkkan is project director of the Nations in Transit publication at Freedom House.