Kyrgyzstan votes in landmark elections

Pro-Russian parties look set to retain their dominance, with ethnic tensions and the economy among the election issues.

Voting for a new parliament is under way in Kyrgyzstan, with pro-Russian parties looking set to retain their dominance.

Polling stations opened at 02:00 GMT on Sunday, with ethnic tensions, the economy, corruption and security concerns among the election issues in the former Soviet republic.

More than 2,000 candidates representing 14 parties are running for the 120 seats in parliament.

Voting will conclude at 14:00 GMT with the composition of the new assembly expected to be known shortly thereafter.

The likely winners are the Social Democrats, who led the outgoing coalition and are still close to President Almazbek Atambayev, even though he formally stepped down as their leader after being elected in 2011.

For the first time, Kyrgyzstan is using biometric data to prevent voter fraud, but fears about how the data could be used means some residents have not registered, preventing them from taking part in the poll.

Speaking at a recent public event, Atambayev promised a clean election.

“The goal of the president and the government when they hold fair elections is a fair vote count, so that all votes given to this or that party were fairly counted, so that there would be no ballot stuffing.

“It should not be like under [former Kyrgyzstan presidents, Askar] Akayev and [Kurmanbek] Bakiyev when the number of votes and mandates received by candidates were simply made up.

[This time] votes will be fairly counted,” said Atambayev, naming his toppled predecessors.

‘Less corrupt’

However, some residents in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek said they were unhappy with the current government and wanted new people in the running.

“I expect arrival of new faces after the elections, which I hope will make our country prosperous and more democratic, less corrupt, where the law and rights prevail,” said Aleksandra Kiriferenko.

“We are ordinary citizens. During 24 years of independence and sovereignty, we did not see any radical [changes].

“We have unemployment, we have external debt and so on. Every party promises a lot. But the thing is there are certain moments … we live in hope, you know,” said another local resident Takhir Abdyrakhmanov.

Erik Dunganov said while political parties made many promises to the public, he wanted to see those plans come to fruition.

“Everyone [every party] has wonderful plans, but the main thing is to fulfil them if they come to power.

“We hope that worthy [candidates] will win and they will fulfil at least 70 to 80 percent of their promises,” said Dunganov.

Russian influence

The mostly Muslim country of six million people has swung closer to Moscow and further away from the West in recent years.

Under a deadline set by its parliament, the US last year shut down an airbase in Kyrgyzstan that had served US operations in Afghanistan since 2001.

Reliance on Russia is heavy. Moscow has written off the bulk of Kyrgyz debts, Russian energy giant Gazprom owns Kyrgyz gas pipelines, and up to a million Kyrgyz migrants work in Russia.

Copying Russia, the outgoing parliament approved the first reading of a bill banning “gay propaganda” and another requiring foreign-funded charities to be registered as “foreign agents” if they encroach into politics.

The two draft laws were put on hold after criticism from the West and human rights bodies.

Kyrgyzstan has also joined the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and belongs to the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation of six former Soviet states, seen by some analysts as a regional counterbalance to NATO.

Ties with the US worsened in July after Washington conferred a human rights prize on an ethnic Uzbek dissident who is serving a life sentence on charges of inciting ethnic hatred during the Osh riots.

Ethnic tensions

Russia retains a military airbase in the Central Asian state, saying it fears an advance of groups favouring the introduction of Islamic law in the region.

Also closely watching is China, whose restive predominantly-Muslim Xinjiang region borders Kyrgyzstan and which is present in several Kyrgyz industries, including energy and mining.

According to the government, hundreds of Kyrgyz citizens are fighting for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Syria and Iraq (ISIL).

Security forces killed six gunmen in two firefights in the capital Bishkek in July, saying they were ISIL members planning bomb attacks.

The country is also still healing the wounds of clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad which killed more than 400 people in 2010.

“The Kyrgyz nationalist narrative that emerged after the Osh pogroms is now firmly entrenched and facilitated by a variety of groups across the country,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank said in a report published last month

Nationalism is aggravated by the existence of powerful regional clans.

“Pockets of religious radicalisation and intolerance, sometimes presented as traditional Kyrgyz values, are also a challenge,” the ICG wrote.

“Instead of confronting these trends, political parties are incorporating them.”

Faced with these challenges, Atambayev, two of whose predecessors as president were overthrown in revolts in 2005 and 2010, have moved closer to Russia.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies


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