Democracy, Jim, but not as we know it

Robin Forestier-Walker reflects on Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election.

The results of the Kyrgyz presidential election – the first since the violent ousting of Kurmanbek Bakiyev last year – suggest that Kyrgyzstan, while not quite an island of democracy, is at least an exception in a sea of autocracy. 

The country is surrounded by republics ruled by dictators – mostly former communist party leaders, one of them a dentist – but in Kyrgyzstan something different is going on. 

Last year, a new constitution was written and approved in a referendum. Parliamentary elections were held which were generally free and fair. There was cheating – but everybody was allowed to cheat.

You ended up with a parliament of  power factions with personalities and pals from different regions. While they are not political parties with distinctive ideas and policies, they are political parties nonetheless.

They fought (literally) and bickered their way into agreeing to a coalition government. And they passed questionably undemocratic legislation such as bans on casinos and censoring foreign media from broadcasting during October’s presidential election campaign.

They even voted to declare a Finnish politician persona non grata for having written a report about how almost 500 people (mostly of Uzbek ethnicity) were murdered in inter-ethnic violence in June 2010.

To accommodate all those bickering deputies, presidential powers were watered down in the new constitution. But that did not stop the more than 80 candidates who decided to run for president – a sign that as far as people with political ambitions are concerned, the president is still top dog.

It was a refreshing cacophony of plurality in Central Asian politics. It was probably a relief for organisers that most candidates dropped out and that, in the end, only 16 made the ballot. Otherwise there would have been an awful lot more paper to print.

For the first time in Central Asia the previous incumbent has stood down – and a female president no less. The trouble is, only her heir apparent, Almazbek Atambayev, was ever likely to win. As prime minister until he stepped down to run, he would have had a lot of resources at his disposal. Those resources would have included local officials who just can’t help but help – even if their help isn’t needed. They’re too used to it being this way. 

State institutions know which side their bread is buttered state employees know where their cheques are coming from, and so it is imperative to make sure that the guy who is in charge gets in. 

It’s the done thing, and it’s been done since staged Soviet-era electoral productions. 

That’s why we met poor students in state-funded accommodation who had been re-registered to vote at their university polling station rather than their family addresses. If they hadn’t all showed up to vote when they were told to, they might have found themselves without a roof. 

Kyrgyz-watchers spent some time debating whether there was likely to be a dangerous second round face-off between northerner Atambayev and his southern rival, the silver-tongued demagogue Adakhan Madumarov (if Atambayev failed to meet the 50 per cent threshold needed to win first round). 

But as one long-time foreign observer said with absolute conviction, on the eve of the election there would only be one outcome: Atambayev would win the first round. A second round would simply not be allowed to happen.

He was right. And Atambayev’s rivals, who have so far blown a lot of hot air about unfair results and mobilising the masses, have not put managed to put more than a few dozen people on the streets in some southern towns.

They could if they wanted to. But it’s more likely they are bargaining for power in other ways. Backroom deals which perhaps were in the pipeline before the vote last Sunday was even held. 

In the end, Almazbek Atambayev picked up 63 per cent of the popular vote – despite polls suggesting he was unlikely to make 50 per cent.

There were reports of ballot stuffing and many who turned up to vote could not find their names on the voter lists. But it does not matter for now. 

Most people in Kyrgyzstan are relieved that things went peacefully, and Atambayev was for many the least scary option. He has now promised to keep Kyrgyzstan on a programme of reform. It is probably fair to give the voters, and the new president, the benefit of the doubt.

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