Election fever grips Kyrgyzstan

By bne IntelliNews September 28, 2010

Clare Nuttall in Bishkek -

Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary elections scheduled for October 10 are virtually certain to result in a cross-party coalition. The real question is whether the new government will be acceptable to the population, especially those in the south, as only this will enable some stability to return to a country wracked by civil strife.

It rarely takes more than five minutes for a conversation to turn to politics in Kyrgyzstan, with the merits of President Roza Otunbayeva and rival politicians hotly debated. Visual evidence of the elections is everywhere, from the five-metre high hoardings in Bishkek, to the party slogans painted into the mountainside on the busy road to Lake Issyk-Kul, to the banners flying from yurts on the high summer pastures. Every evening the television news is devoted to coverage of election rallies interspersed with party political broadcasts. "Children don't say they want to be a doctor or an engineer any more," says Gurulash Zhananbaeva, owner of a guest house in the remote mountain town of Naryn. "They want to go to Bishkek and be a politician."

Among the 28 parties fielding candidates, those likely to gain seats in parliament include Otunbayeva's Social Democratic Party, Omurbek Tekebaev's Ata Meken, Akshumkar which is led by Temur Sariev, who is responsible for finance and economics within the current administration, and Ata Zhurt. Several of the parties standing against each other in the elections have already worked side-by-side in the cross-party opposition coalition that formed the interim government after the April revolution that toppled former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Since the revolution, people say they are feeling "very empowered," but it's less clear whether this is a good thing. Kyrgyzstan can feel superior to its Central Asian neighbours since this level of political debate is unthinkable across the border in Uzbekistan or even Kazakhstan. However, there is also the strong fear that "the events," as the April revolution and deadly ethnic clashes in June are euphemistically known, have shown people that bullets can prove stronger than ballot papers. If a significant minority is unhappy with the result, they now know that violent action can bring about change. "Some actors, such as the mayor of Osh, Melis Myrzakmatov, continue to question the provisional government's legitimacy. Political tensions remain high and there have been attempts by politicians to destabilize the situation, at times using inflammatory language and exploiting regional and ethnic differences," says a report from the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission, issued September 13.

Economic woes

On Ala-Too Square in central Bishkek it's hard to believe that just six months ago 81 people died in the fighting that ousted Bakiyev from office. Families and students sit among the flowerbeds on the square, seemingly oblivious of the blackened shell of the central prosecutor's office in the background.

But the city's economy has been badly affected by this year's events, along with the rest of the country, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) currently forecasting a contraction of 3.5% in 2010. Three key sectors - agriculture, tourism and trade - were seriously damaged both by security worries and the closure of borders by Kyrgyzstan's neighbours.

The economy has been shored up by remittances from migrant workers abroad and the Kumtor gold mine, which has increased production due to high gold prices. However, most international investors have decided to hold off on new financial commitments until the future becomes clearer. "Everything is waiting until after the elections," says Kuban Ashyrkulov, executive director of the International Business Council, which represents major local and international investors in Kyrgyzstan.

Conditions are also tough out in the regions. In mid-September, Naryn, over 2,000 metres above sea level, has been buried under an unseasonably early snowfall that has flattened this year's wheat crop, with disastrous consequences for the uninsured. Half the trees that line the pot-holed roads in the town centre have been brought down, and whole families are out with their axes claiming the precious firewood while hungry cows chomp on the leaves.

It was in Naryn and Talas, Kyrgyzstan's other high mountain city to the west, where the riots that brought down the Bakiyev regime first started. The January increase in heating and electricity prices were a heavy blow for both towns, where temperatures are below freezing for some eight months of the year. For local residents the increased financial burden was harder to bear, since it was common knowledge that the Bakiyev clan was enriching itself at the state's expense. Two of the major electricity companies were privatised early in the year to companies affiliated to his son Maxim. The early April riots in Naryn and Talas were the trigger for the violent demonstrations across the country in the following days.

However, Sariya Zholdasbaeva, who is responsible for socio-economic development, health and education at the Naryn city administration, doesn't expect this to be repeated. "The government is keeping electricity and heating prices low this year. They won't make the same mistake again," Zholdasbaeva tells bne. "And people understand that we can't have a third revolution."

100 kilometres down the road in Kochkor, another regional centre, the akim, or mayor, is also positive about the future. A member of the president's Social Democratic Party, Rosbay Sarabaev spent 10 years in opposition before his appointment three months ago. "The population is very political at the moment," he says. "We want clean people in politics, not politicians who say one thing and do another. I am hopeful that the new parliament will be full of clean politicians."

Clean break

Otunbayeva herself is widely described as "very clean, very intelligent" - at least in the north of the country; she won't "go bling," says one Bishkek student. This is in contrast to Bakiyev who, after sweeping to power on an anti-corruption mandate, soon ordered himself a desk encrusted with Swarovski crystals and started building palatial residences around the country, while his sons and brothers carved up the economy among themselves. However, since her tenure as president will last only one year after the October elections, so the population is looking to the new government to provide long-term stability.

In fact, Otunbayeva's biggest fans are among the international community. In late September, she managed to score a coveted meeting with US President Barack Obama during the UN summit. The international development organisations that, led by the World Bank, the IMF and the Asian Development Bank, committed $1.1bn to rebuild Kyrgyzstan at a donor summit in July are also comfortable working with her.

However, in much of southern Kyrgyzstan - especially Bakiyev's hometown of Jalal-Abad - she is highly unpopular. On a recent visit to the southern town of Nookat, she had to be whisked away by security after the crowd turned against her. Three months ago violent clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in both Osh and Jalal-Abad left up to 2,000 people dead. While order was soon restored, deep divisions remain. Few people trust the Bishkek-based government or have confidence that the elections will be fair. If the south is left feeling disenfranchised when the votes are counted, further violence could occur.

But despite the divisions within Kyrgyzstan, there is still hope that the October elections will produce a working government that can ensure stability in the country. The June 27 referendum, which replaced the presidential system with a parliamentary system passed without incident. Some 72% of the electorate turned out to vote, with 90% of votes cast in favour of the new system. Although Otunbayeva has already warned that the elections could be postponed if any party tries to destabilise the situation, the success of the referendum is a hopeful sign.

Election fever grips Kyrgyzstan

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