Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan’s Messy Parliamentary Election Sparks Protests in Bishkek

Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary election was accompanied by allegations of mass vote buying, use of administrative resources, and the beating of journalists.

By Aigerim Turgunbaeva for
Kyrgyzstan’s Messy Parliamentary Election Sparks Protests in Bishkek

People protest during a rally against the results of a parliamentary vote in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Monday, Oct. 5, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Vladimir Voronin

Elections to the Parliament of the Kyrgyz Republic were held on October 4. Sixteen parties competed for 120 seats in the unicameral legislature: the Kyrgyzstan PartyButun Kyrgyzstan, OrdoYiman NuruBir BolMekenim KyrgyzstanRespublikaChon Kazat, Birimdik, Mekenchil, Reforma, Ata-Meken, Zamandash, Meken Yntymagy, Social Democrats, and a party of veterans of the Afghan war and other local conflicts.

Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Commission announced preliminary results, having counted 1,942,609 votes (98 percent those who voted). The final turnout was 1,980,240 — 56.2 percent of registered voters. The preliminary results show four parties making it into the next parliament: Birimdik (Unity) with 24.5 percent, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (My Homeland is Kyrgyzstan) with 23.88 percent, the Kyrgyzstan Party with 8.76 percent, and Butun Kyrgyzstan (United Kyrgyzstan) with 7.13 percent. 

The first three — Birimdik, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, and Kyrgyzstan — are considered government favorites and experts predicted they would do well. But it was a shock for the citizenry that none of the truly opposition parties won enough votes to get into parliament.

Immediately after the announcement of the preliminary results, a number of parties stated that they would not officially recognize the results of the election, while others expressed doubts.

Among those expressing concern about the polls are Respublika, Ata-Meken, Bir Bol , Yiman Nuru , Zamandash, Meken Yntymagy, Reforma, and the Social Democrats. 

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The Social Democrats, which consists of supporters of former President Almazbek Atambauev, was the first to not recognize the results. They announced the start of an indefinite protest.

“Official election results have not yet been published. But we question the preliminary data that has already been published. We doubt it, because the elections were accompanied by massive violations,” Mirlan Zheenchoroev, the leader of Respublika, said at an official briefing. At a joint briefing with Ata-Meken, Respublika called for a rally at the Opera and Ballet theater in Bishkek.

Across Kyrgyz Facebook and Twitter accounts, a wave of protest and rejection of the preliminary election results occurred.

The struggle for seats in the Jogorku Kenesh, the Kyrgyz Parliament, was rife with so-called “wars of compromising materials” in the media, the use of administrative resources, and “dirty” electoral gambits. This is typical of almost all parliamentary elections held in Kyrgyzstan to date.

Crowdfunding and a Party of Civil Activists

To participate in the elections, it was necessary to pay a deposit of 5 million Kyrgyz soms (slightly more than $63,000) to the CEC — this amount is often unaffordable for parties that do not have oligarchs on their party lists. For the first time, a party crowdfunded its deposit. The new Reforma party, which grew out of the protest movement of civil activists, did so.

Eurasianism was another topic of pre-election discussion — namely further integration with Russia inside the framework of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), of which Kyrgyzstan has been a member since 2015. Five of the 16 parties participating in the elections, including Birimdik, identified this issue as a key priority in their programs. 

A video appeared on Facebook showing Birimdik party leader Marat Amankulov talking about Eurasianism at a meeting in Moscow: “30 years of our independence have shown that it’s time to come to your senses and it’s time to return… On the territory of Eurasia, only a united state can be sovereign. And in order for us — the Kyrgyz — not to lose our subjectivity, we must now be together and integrate.”

The publication of the video sparked protests in Bishkek, as many regarded Amankulov’s remarks as a threat to national security. The politician himself called the video a provocation, and said his words were taken out of context.

The same thoughts were also expressed in September by Raimkul Attokurov, a former Kyrgyz ambassador to Moscow. Attokurov, now chairman of the Coordination Council of the Kyrgyz Diaspora in Moscow and a Russian citizen, said that some Kyrgyz people want their country to join Russia. “Of course, this cannot be done immediately and quickly. But, in my opinion, it is necessary to go to this, because life itself pushes us to unity,” he said in an interview with Pravda.ru.

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Form No. 2 and Vote Buying

The current elections have included a large number of reports of vote buying, which was facilitated by the ongoing economic crisis and citizens’ distrust of politics. Prices per vote were actively discussed in social media networks — voters were allegedly offered amounts from 1,500 to 5,000 Kyrgyz soms ($19-$63) for the desired mark in the ballot. The Prosecutor General’s office is considering complaints regarding vote buying.

“Already 500,000 out of 2.8 million voters took absentee ballots on the ‘form number 2’ and registered to vote at other polling stations. In itself, this form is legal, but when half a million people use it, even a naive person can understand that this is due to fraud. This assessment has already been given by lawyers, but the CEC did not take this into account. Therefore, today we can say that these elections will not be legitimate,” Taalatbek Masadykov (former director of the U.N. political mission in Afghanistan) said in an interview for DW.

Form No. 2 is the document that Kyrgyz fill out in order to be able to vote in a district which is not their home district. It is intended for internal and external migrants, given that many Kyrgyz migrate to the cities or Russia for work and may not be able to return home to vote. But reports that parties were bringing voters from regions or villages to register them at polling stations in Bishkek and Osh began to appear in early August.

Kaktus, a Kyrgyz news website, published a message from a reader that on August 22, a crowd of people was observed near school No. 77 in the AK-Orgo residential area, where a polling station is located.

24.kg on August 27 reported that two polling stations in Bishkek, no. 1131 and no. 1132, were registering voters from Kant. On the street, those who arrived at the polling station were met by two women and directed to the appropriate floor, where they were officially registered as voters who wished to vote at that particular polling station on election day.

One of the voters, brought from Kant, told the 24.kg that he was promised 4,000 Kyrgyz soms for a vote in support of Mekenim Kyrgyzstan. According to him, he was told to submit a Form No. 2 application. He was handed a completed form and brought by minibus to the school to submit it.

On election day, social networks were full of complaints from voters about bribery by pro-government parties Birimdik and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, as well as violations at the polling stations.

It should be noted that Birimdik is associated with President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, since its list includes his brother. Formally, the president did not support any party and per Kyrgyz law, does not belong to any party while serving his term. Mekenim Kyrgyzstan is linked to the former deputy head of the Kyrgyz Customs Service, Raimbek Matraimov, who was implicated in an international investigation into the smuggling of almost $700 million out of Kyrgyzstan. Together, these parties have the largest capital and administrative resources in the regions where about 70 percent of the country’s population lives.

Journalism continues to be a dangerous profession in the country. In two major cities, representatives of Kloop.kg and RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, were attacked while working at polling stations.

“Even the winners admit that this was the dirtiest election in the country’s history. And this is the merit of the president – according to him, he did everything possible for this. He should live with this and remain in history,” human rights activist Cholpon Dzhakupova posted on Facebook on the evening of October 5.

The 2020 parliamentary elections coincided with the 10th anniversary of the present Kyrgyz Constitution, which marked the beginning of a semi-parliamentary system after the country overthrew two successive presidents under the previous presidential system in 2005 and 2010. Many assume that based on the preliminary results of the parliamentary elections, it is possible to predict not only the balance of political forces in the country, but also the next presidential election, scheduled for 2023.

It remains to be seen whether the parties that did not make it into parliament will unite in opposition or whether the political game will play on as usual.

Protests Into the Night

People’s discontent with the election results turned into mass gatherings in Kyrgyzstan’s major cities. In Bishkek, during the day on Monday thousands of people gathered peacefully in the city’s main square, Ala-Too. Supporters of 11 parties gathered to express their frustration with the elections. 

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The leaders of 11 parties signed a statement asking the CEC to cancel the election results and call for new elections. Organizers of the rally distributed masks and gloves during the event, given that the coronavirus pandemic persists in Kyrgyzstan. 

Later in the day a group of people attempted to climb over the fence of the White House, the Kyrgyz presidential building. This precipitated clashes between protesters and law enforcement which spilled out into the square.

For hours later into the night, the center of Bishkek became a battlefield. There was shooting and cries of wounded people. About 70 wounded people were admitted to various hospitals in the capital, including three candidates from the Ata-Meken party. 

Gunfire continues to be heard in the city.

Aigerim Turgunbaeva is a Bishkek-based civic activist, media expert, and journalist. She has written for several domestic and international news outlets such as Sputnik Kyrgyzstan, the IWPR’s Central Asia section, and Global Voices. She also lectures on international media at the Diplomatic Academy of Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.