On October 4, Kyrgyzstan will elect a new national parliament, and survey data shows that more than three quarters of the 3.5 million eligible voters are planning to exercise their democratic rights this weekend. But who will they vote for?
As ever, analysts are hesitant to forecast electoral outcomes, though this is not so much a function of fairness relative to neighboring countries’ elections. While the results of elections in Tajikistan or Kazakhstan may be clear well before anyone makes it to the voting booth, several features of Kyrgyzstan’s political institutions and civic culture make the unpredictability around Sunday’s elections more worrisome than inspirational.
First, as Eurasianet’s Chris Rickleton put it, parties in Kyrgyzstan tend to be “no more than very temporary vehicles to service political interests.” Party platforms tend to signal little to voters about policy priorities, leaving supporters to follow charismatic – and at times bombastic – political personalities. Politicians themselves are hardly tied to their parties, a point Edil Baiyzbekov’s data visualization project for Azattyk makes clear. Of the 120 deputies currently in parliament, only 49 have served more than once, and of those, a meager five have stuck with the same party across elections.
This year’s spike in politicians “changing shoes” (local idiom for jumping parties) can largely be chalked up to the fracture of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), the party of president Sooronbay Jeenbekov and currently the largest in parliament. SDPK is not competing for spots in the next parliament, but the 38 politicians currently serving are not about to give up their career ambitions. Many big names in the party are running on the Birimdik party list – including the president’s brother Asylbek Jeenbekov – but SDPK deputies have popped up on candidate lists for parties across the political spectrum.
Despite elites’ maneuvers to find a promising spot on an up-and-coming party’s list, everyday people are #OverIt. “Against all” is currently leading in polls, an option that offers voters a chance to abstain through formal channels, a more direct way of dissenting than spoiling a ballot with doodles or refusing to vote altogether. Back in August, 15 percent of respondents in a survey conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) said they would vote “against all” if the election was held right then; this number is consistent with an independent poll organized by the website Shailoo.org (not to be confused with Shailoo.gov.kg, the official website for Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Commission), in which 18 percent of votes representing more than 25,000 people are against any party.
Of course, the stakes for participating in a survey or poll like this are much lower than actually voting “against all” on October 4. According to Article 37.3 of the Constitutional Law on Elections of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic and Deputies of the Jogorku Kenesh of the Kyrgyz Republic, an election is invalid – and a new election must be held – if the number of votes received by the most popular party is lower than those “against all.”
The prospect of the “against all” option winning the 2020 parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan is an unlikely, though not entirely impossible, scenario. Dissatisfaction with the system is widespread and has proven persistent in recent years. Moreover, the fact that none of the other parties appear to have done particularly well in the polls – or even garnered much name recognition nationwide, as per the August IRI survey – gives this outcome a further hint of possibility.
Even with the government lowering the threshold for taking seats in parliament from 9 percent back to 7 percent (where it was in 2015), few of the parties are polling well enough to make it past that threshold. Ata-Jurt was the only party with at least 7 percent of respondents’ support in the IRI survey, while the Shailoo.org poll shows only Ata-Meken and Respublika hitting the 7 percent mark.
Of course, these results should be taken with a grain of salt: there are potential self-selection effects among those who have opted in to Shailoo.org’s poll, and the “spontaneous answers” given to IRI that include declarations to vote for parties like Onuguu-Progress and SDPK, neither of which are competing in the elections.
Analytical limitations of pre-election surveys are further compounded by the reality of money and patronage networks in Kyrgyzstani politics.
Back in early August, in a video for his YouTube channel Kontekst, analyst Azim Azimov predicted good turnout for Birimdik (which Azimov identified as “the party of power,” due to the large number of SDPK veterans running) and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (a party connected to the rich and powerful Matraimov family, which has been linked to massive corruption in Kyrgyzstan’s Customs Service). While these parties might not benefit from administrative resources, given the SDPK split, strong financial backing and patronage support nevertheless give candidates on these party lists a boost across the country.
When people say it’s difficult to forecast the election, what they really mean is that it’s hard to account for whether last-minute scandals, brawls and Instagram campaigns warning against trading votes for cash will undermine industrial-scale vote buying and manipulation of voter registration. If previous elections offer any insight, the answer is “not likely,” though that’s the incredible thing about Kyrgyzstani politics: anything is possible – even a parliamentary election where “no one” wins.