Kyrgyzstan's future on hold as votes are recounted

By bne IntelliNews October 22, 2010

Clare Nuttall in Almaty -

Kyrgyzstan seemed to have triumphed over its recent history of revolution and ethnic clashes by holding Central Asia's most democratic elections to date on October 10. But weeks after the vote, a prime minister still had not been selected and the Central Election Committee had bowed to popular pressure for a recount. With the country still anxiously awaiting a result, there are growing fears the continued political void result cause in a renewal of violence.

Of the 29 parties that fielded candidates in the October elections, only five managed to pass the 5% threshold needed to take a seat in the parliament. Supporters of Butun Kyrgyzstan, which missed out on a parliament seat by just 0.16%, held a series of demonstrations in the days following the elections. Despite assurances from international monitors that the election was carried out properly, the Central Election Commission has started to recount ballot papers and verify voter lists.

The official election result will only be announced after all complaints have been dealt with, the CEC said on October 18. President Roza Otunbayeva has also called for patience while the result is verified. Selection of Kyrgyzstan's new PM, who under the new constitution will govern the country, is therefore on hold until the recount is carried out.


The current political stalemate and rising tensions are a disappointment, since the election itself went much more smoothly than expected. Overall, international election monitors commended the process. "I have observed many elections in Central Asia over the years, but this is the first election where I could not predict the outcome," said Morten Hoglund, special coordinator of the short-term Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observer mission in Kyrgyzstan, at a post-election press conference.

Although turnout was just under 56%, the run-up to the elections saw an intense period of campaigning, with party politics being openly discussed all over the country. Throughout September and early October, visual evidence of the elections was 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 was 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 guesthouse in the remote mountain town of Naryn, in September. "They want to go to Bishkek and be a politician."

The parliament gained new importance with the adoption of a new constitution in June, which saw Kyrgyzstan switch from a presidential republic to a parliamentary republic. The single chamber parliament will select the PM by a majority vote. The system is intended to put a stop to the corruption and abuses of power that took place under the regime of former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted in the April revolution, since power will no longer be concentrated in a single person. Instead, the presidency would become a largely symbolic role. Otunbayeva will surrender her office in October 2011, and is barred from standing again.

This is the theory. In practice, among the five parties with parliament seats there has been little progress towards agreeing on a coalition government. The largest share of the vote - 8.88% - went to the nationalist Ata Zhurt party. Speaking after the election, its leader Kamchybek Tashiyev denied links to Bakiyev, but the party counts many former Bakiyev supporters among its leaders.

Ata-Zhurt's success was something of a surprise; prior to the elections, the expected outcome had been for a coalition between Otunbayeva's Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Ata-Meken, headed by Omurbek Tekebayev, the architect of Kyrgyzstan's new constitution, which was backed by 90% of voters in the June 2010 referendum. In the event, Ata-Meken came in fifth with 5.6% of the vote and the SDP got 8.04%.

The other two parties currently expecting parliament seats Ar-Namys, the party of former Prime Minister Felix Kulov, which took 7.74% of the vote, and Respublika, which has not sided with either the interim government or the opposition, with a 7.24% share.

Given the relatively small share of the vote taken by each party, a cross-party coalition is one proposed solution to the stalemate. However, given the parties' divergent views, formation of a stable and long-lasting coalition is unlikely. Another possibility could be for Ata-Meken and the SDP to team up with either the moderate Respublika or - if it passes the threshold with the recount - Butun Kyrgyzstan.

However, this would leave Ata-Zhurt, which gained the largest share of the vote, out in the cold. The party's main power base is in the south, where distrust of the Bishkek government is running high. Kyrgyzstan's north and south are divided as much by politics as by the Ala-Too mountain range, and Otunbayeva's government is already unpopular, especially in Bakiyev's hometown of Jalal-Abad. Tensions in the region exploded in June, when a fight between Kyrgyz and Uzbek youths in Osh escalated into four days of deadly ethnic violence and spread to Jalal-Abad and other nearby towns.

In the run-up to the election, few people in the south believed the ballot would be free or fair. If Ata Zhurt is sidelined after winning the largest share of the vote, this could lead to further violence at a time when the damage done in June is only just starting to be repaired.

Calm before a storm?

The rebuilding effort has started, with families camped out in their ruined compounds while they build temporary shelters for the winter, although many of the Uzbek areas are still deserted. "We had a war," local residents say, pointing to the damage. Whole sections of the city's main market, the Jayma bazaar, have also been destroyed, while elsewhere the damage is more isolated - a single restaurant burned down or a beauty salon with its windows smashed and door boarded up in a street of otherwise untouched businesses.

By September, the situation was starting to return to normal. The schools had re-opened, albeit with armed guards stationed outside. Traders were also back at the bazaar, where some had set up flower stalls under charred awnings, or heaped watermelons and pumpkins beside piles of rubble.

The ongoing investigation into the June events, as the ethnic violence is euphemistically referred to, is a source of further tensions. Several defendants and their relatives have been attacked by angry mobs, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. "The wounds from the June violence are still deep and raw," says Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Fair trials can help heal those wounds, but mob justice and fundamentally flawed investigations will only make things worse."

The hope expressed across Kyrgyzstan was that the elections to the newly powerful parliament would produce a government that would be able to ensure security, and allow the economy to get back onto a stable growth path.

Kyrgyzstan's economy grew steadily during the Bakiyev years - though most of the population saw little benefit. However, it is set to shrink this year, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasting a contraction of 3.5% of GDP. 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. International financial organisations led by the Asian Development Bank, the IMF and the World Bank pledged $1.1bn at a donor conference in July.

However, both international and local businesses have decided to hold off on new financial commitments until the future becomes clearer. "Businesses definitely suffered after the April and June events. There was a negative effect on all sections of the economy, and the situation concerning property rights is a serious problem," said Kuban Ashyrkulov, executive director of the International Business Council in Kyrgyzstan. "We hope to have a new parliament and a new government that finally will be able to start thinking about the economy."

Only with the election of a new government is the situation expected to return to normality, and investors to feel confident in investing in their businesses and once again looking forward to the future. But will not happen until the current political vacuum has been filled.

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