On November 28, almost 14 months after a post-parliamentary election uprising, Kyrgyzstanis will once more head to the polls to vote for parliament.
A new electoral code, which was approved on July 27, altered the structure of parliament. Ilgiz Kambarov wrote about the details of the changes for The Diplomat in August. While it is worth thinking about the implications of institutional design for governance and accountability, the new electoral system could also cause unexpected difficulties for voters.
Nurjan Shayldabekova, who leads the Central Election Commission, has expressed concern that the combination of single-mandate voting and preferential voting may cause confusion for voters. Although voters had to deal with multiple ballots in January and April 2021, the parliamentary ballot stands to be far more complicated. Voters will receive two ballots – one with the names of the 21 parties running nationwide as well as 54 numbered squares (one for each person on the party list) where voters should choose a specific candidate. If the voter only selects a party, but does not mark a specific candidate, this ballot will be counted separately, which could make for confusion in calculating who will represent each party in parliament.
In addition, voters will receive a second ballot specific to their district with the names of candidates running to represent that constituency.
As of November 18, there are just over 300 people running for the single-mandate districts, with an average of eight people competing across Kyrgyzstan’s 36 districts. Kadamjai, made up of several towns and villages in Kyrgyzstan’s southernmost Batken region, is the most competitive district, with 18 candidates. Uzgen, a city halfway between Jalalabad and Osh, is the least competitive race, with only two people running to represent the district.
Although there are almost 1,500 politicians running for parliament, local analysts have observed that this campaign cycle has been “sluggish.” After all, this is the fourth major election of 2021 – following votes for president, a referendum on a new constitution, and local council representatives – and election fatigue is very real for politicians and voters alike.
This election fatigue is clearly reflected in campaign spending. As of November 11, the 21 parties running have spent more than 124 million soms (about $1.7 million), far less than the 670 million soms that parties spent on the October 2020 parliamentary elections. As with the October 2020 elections, just a few parties dominate campaign spending. This year’s big spenders are Ata Jurt Kyrgyzstan, Ishenim, El Umutu, and Alyans.
Although campaign spending is down, politicians are pursuing dirty tricks to gather votes. As of November 15, the Central Election Commission has recorded 78 violations. The most common offense, accounting for 28 of those violations, was attempted vote buying, including coupons for free gas in exchange for proof of voting for the Azattyk party and more traditional plans to hand out cash from Ata Jurt Kyrgyzstan. Another 25 violations stemmed from accusations of improper campaigning; for example the Ishenim party had minors doing campaign work and one of its candidates made threatening phone calls to the akim of a municipality in Jalalabad region. Fourteen violations were for the use of “administrative resources,” as when Osh State University leadership coerced students into campaigning for the Azattyk party.
The International Republican Institute (IRI), which regularly conducts surveys in Kyrgyzstan, spoke to Kyrgyzstanis in mid-September about their political views and upcoming parliamentary elections. Interpreting the results from the survey is more like reading coffee grounds than anything approaching perfect predictions.
One important takeaway is that voters are largely unfamiliar with the parties that are actually running for parliament.
When respondents were asked which party they would vote for, 36 percent either refused to answer or said they did not know enough about the parties to decide. Ten percent said they would vote “against all,” beating out the most popular party – Mekenchil, run by President Sadyr Japarov’s close ally Kamchybek Tashiev – by 2 percentage points.
Respondents were also asked to name all the political parties they are familiar with in their region. Of the 16 parties that respondents mentioned, only four are actually participating in the November 28 race (well, five if we consider former President Almazbek Atambayev’s Social Democrat Party of Kyrgyzstan, known by the acronym SDPK, and one of its splinter factions, the Social Democrats, as the same party). Ata Meken was the most familiar party nationwide, with 39 percent of respondents mentioning it.
Although there is little overlap in the list of parties participating in the 2020 and 2021 parliamentary elections, many of the candidates gunning for seats – both on party lists and as independents running in single-mandate districts – are seasoned veterans of Kyrgyzstan’s political sphere. Mekenchil may not be running in the parliamentary elections, but pro-Japarov candidates are sprinkled across the party landscape. Candidates who were high up on Mekenchil’s party list for last year’s parliamentary elections are now running with Butun Kyrgyzstan, Ishenim, Yntymak, Azattyk, and Ata Jurt Kyrgyzstan.
In an excellent primer for Eurasianet, Bermet Talant argued, “With administrative resources, and loyalists sprinkled across the ballot, it is a near certainty that Japarov and Tashiev can ensure the smaller, weaker parliament is also pliant.”
It certainly seems that Japarov is furthering the process of weakening parliamentary power that was started by Atambayev and continued under President Sooronbay Jeenbekov (who was ousted shortly after the botched October 2020 parliamentary election). But there are a few important caveats to predictions that the new parliament will be filled with regime loyalists.
First, while vocal supporters of Japarov are sprinkled across the ballot, they are running with many parties that are unfamiliar to voters – which could mean scattered support that does not cross the threshold needed to secure seats.
Second, there is some hope for institutionalized opposition. In the IRI survey, Ata Meken was the most frequently mentioned party in Bishkek, Chui, and Batken, and the second-most familiar in Naryn, Talas, Jalalabad, and Issyk-Kul. In a context where voters will be navigating a confusing ballot, it is important not to understate the value of name recognition. Importantly, recognition for Ata Meken could mean electoral success for members of the anti-corruption Reforma party, which is running under Ata Meken’s party list after failing previously to win seats in parliament and in Bishkek’s city council.
Opposition members from other parties that enjoyed high recognition in the IRI poll, such as Bir Bol and former presidential candidate Omurbek Babanov’s Respublika party, have formed a coalition in a new party, Alyans. Alyans was founded by Respublika leader Mirlan Zheenchoroev and former SDPK member Zhanar Akaev, who ran with Ata Meken last October. Chyngyz Aidarbekov, who served as the minister of foreign affairs under Jeenbekov, is also high up on the Alyans party list. While voters may not be familiar with Alyans, the party has tried to buy brand recognition by spending some 15 million soms on its campaign, making it the third-biggest spender of this cycle.
As always, it is impossible to offer concrete predictions on how Kyrgyzstani legislative elections will turn out. But as I have argued before, the structure of Kyrgyzstan’s party landscape means that the battle for seats in parliament is less about ideology and policy goals and more about the distribution of power and spoils. Japarov has not built a power vertical, and the proliferation of new parties who stacked their lists with regime loyalists suggests a wide opening for intra-elite competition. Other government institutions are also leveraging the checks and balances at their disposal; for example, it is telling that Kyrgyzstan’s courts overturned the decision of the Central Election Commission to block Japarov-ally Talant Mamytov’s candidacy.
What all of this suggests is that, despite Japarov’s efforts to empower the presidency and close space for dissent, there is still ample wiggle room for unexpected results at the polls on November 28.