Protests following the October 4, 2020 parliamentary vote in Kyrgyzstan forced a cancellation of the results and led to the downfall of the government, but no new parliament. Since then, there has been much speculation about new parliamentary elections, but not much movement until recently. Kyrgyzstan instead went ahead with presidential elections and a constitutional referendum in early January 2021.
There now appears to be active movement with regard to the parliament for reasons of political expediency. President Sadyr Japarov hosted two informal meetings with members of parliament. They were collected by bus and taken to the state residence on the eve of a plenary session in the parliament on new amendments to the electoral code for the meetings. The electoral code, which was initiated by the president, was approved by the parliamentary committee on constitutional law on July 27, though it was already adopted earlier by he parliament, with some MPs wanting amendments to be made. Between July 5 and 22, the Kyrgyz parliament voted for 40 bills with little attention paid to the details of them as they rushed through.
According to the new amendments, which 90 deputies supported and 12 opposed, the total number of members of parliament will decrease from 120 to 90, out of which 36 are to be elected from single-mandate constituencies on a majority basis. They no longer have to be a registered resident of the constituency which they choose to contest, meaning, for example, that a Bishkek-based politician can run in their hometown race without changing their residency registration. Each of the 36 constituencies will be composed of 100,000-150,000 voters. Fifty-four seats will be filled by preferential voting from national party lists.
There are several other changes introduced by the new amendments. For example, parties registered less than six months before election day will now be eligible to run candidates, which paves the way for a possible mushrooming of new parties before the next elections. Additionally, a limit to the number of hired campaigners was introduced; for political parties no more than 10,000 and for single-mandate deputies no more than 500 people can be mobilized during the campaigning period. Voters in prison will now be unable to vote. The new legislation also indirectly alters the gender quota. Critically, the threshold for political parties to secure seats will be decreased from 7 percent to 5 percent, and the regional threshold will be set at 0.5 percent. Parties will be able to nominate a list of candidates and candidates from single-mandate constituencies, reports KaktusMedia.
Not everything has been changed, however. The amount of the required electoral deposit will remain the same, at 1 million Kyrgyz som (around $11,800).
Some MPs asserted that the informal invitation of members of parliament by the president to the Ala-Archa state residence, where they were served two meals and discussed the future parliamentary elections, was corruption. Ryskeldi Momberkov, an opposition MP, questioned why the threshold to enter parliament was increased from the initially suggested 3 percent to 5 percent, hence depriving smaller parties of the ability to participate in the political process. The decrease from the previous 7 percent to a 3 percent threshold was one the key demands of protesting parties after the October 2020 election. At the time, Japarov supported that initiative.
The head of the Central Election Commission, Nurjan Shayldabekova, expressed concerns regarding technical challenges that may emerge during the reprogramming of the boxes into which voters insert their paper ballots for automatic counting. She suggested that the new legislation may lead to the further postponing of the parliamentary elections to late November 2021. She also argued that the combination of both single-mandate voting and preferential voting in the same ballot may cause confusion for voters on election day.
Others have pointed out that the changes to the parliament and electoral rules will likely diminish the number of women in parliament. The 30 percent quota for women, people with disabilities, and youth candidates on party lists remains in place, but only for the 54 seats filled via preferential voting or party list. Single-mandate contests traditionally favor male candidates and it will be tremendously difficult for women and other underrepresented groups to contest for those seats. With a diminished number of women, people with disabilities, and youth in parliament, arguably certain issues will continue to be overlooked. For example, it has often been female deputies who have drawn attention to issues such as domestic violence, bride kidnapping, and other socially sensitive issues. Leaving such issues unaddressed fails to adhere to democratic principles.
Kyrgyzstan has experienced a mixed electoral system before, and it has both its supporters and its opponents. Vote buying was a major complaint of protesters in October 2020, with richer candidates getting an advantage. As for party lists, vying for spots at the top of the lists by party members involved literally buying positions. The head of the CEC has argued that negative experiences of both single-mandate and party list voting should be taken into consideration. A mixed system paves the way for unaffiliated candidates to get a chance at election in single-mandate seats, and the lowering of the threshold for parties to enter parliament gives smaller parties a fighting chance (though not as much as the desired 3 percent threshold would). Such conditions arguably help create more competitive elections. However, opponents point out that single-mandate constituency candidates gaining a seat by collecting local votes will be motivated to represent locally raised issues, possibly disregarding national issues, which the parliament is ostensibly designed to tackle.
Political parties are crucial for improving any democratic nation as they connect the state with civil society, allowing the latter to participate in a nation’s political life and influence decision-making. However, many past laws and norms on elections and the multi-party system did not fulfill people’s expectations, generating mistrust caused by parliament’s inefficiency and rampant violations during elections.
Promoting voters’ confidence in the electoral process by combating vote buying, controlled voting, and abuse of administrative resources; providing a safer environment for journalists along with wider access to election-related information; and making campaign funding more transparent were recommended, among other things, to election stakeholders in Kyrgyzstan. It is yet to be seen if these recommendations will be taken up for the upcoming election.
The traditional dominance of the executive branch in the Kyrgyz political landscape undermines the growth of effective political parties, and weak parties are easy to manipulate. Kyrgyz parties are also weakly institutionalized and frequently changing, meaning voters do not see much difference in policy platforms or ideologies.
A range of issues are unaddressed by the new legislation. For example, transparency and accountability — despite Kyrgyzstan committing to charters such as the U.N. Convention Against Corruption — remain unobtainable. There is no independent body tasked with enhancing the transparency of campaign funding and financial reporting for parties, which could address some of the above concerns about vote buying and manipulation of parties by monied interests. The creation of such a body would lead to progress, but this isn’t something being considered at present. There is no shortage of helpful suggestions from international observers of Kyrgyz elections, but many pertinent issues still have not been addressed.
As Kyrgyzstan heads toward new parliamentary elections with new rules and regulations, it’s yet to be seen if the changes made are suitable or enough to build a strong democratic system.