Category Archives: Kyrgyzstan

Grigorii V. Golosov – The Impact of Authoritarian Institutions on Party Systems in Post-Soviet Central Asian States

This is a guest post by Grigorii V. Golosov. It is based on the article “The Five Shades of Grey: Party Systems and Authoritarian Institutions in Post-Soviet Central Asian States”, in Central Asian Survey, doi:10.1080/02634937.2018.150044.

As of 2017, there was no single instance of a state that could be qualified as an electoral democracy in post-Soviet Central Asia. Meanwhile, all these states do conduct elections on a fairly regular basis, and they have developed party systems that display a remarkable cross-national variation. While the consequences of authoritarian institutions have been already subjected to a rather close scrutiny in scholarly literature, relatively little is known about the reasons why such institutions take their specific shape. This problem is particularly salient with respect to the most fundamental property of party systems, fragmentation, conventionally defined as the number of important parties in the system. While it is certainly true that the general tendency of authoritarian regimes is to create dominant party systems in which a pro-government party takes a lion’s share of votes and legislative seats, there are well-known instances of long-standing yet very fragmented authoritarian party systems, such as in Morocco. The reasons for this situation have not been clarified in the literature. The purpose of this study is to solve this puzzle by means of a systematic comparison of five authoritarian party systems that, while being quite similar in their origins, belonging to the same region of Post-Soviet Central Asia and thus sharing many similarities of context, do display a significant variation on the main parameter of interest, fragmentation.

In this study, I use a conventional measure of fragmentation, the effective number of parties, in the mathematical formulation developed by Golosov: where pi and p1 stand for the fractional shares of seats received by the i-th and the largest parties, respectively. Table 1 provides a brief summary of parliamentary elections, presented as the observed levels of party system fragmentation, in Central Asian states throughout the whole post-Soviet period. Since the electoral cycles of individual countries do not concur, each of the cells of the table reports the year of elections (or the year of the first round of elections, if different from that of the second round), and the effective number of parliamentary parties in parentheses.

Table 1. Years of parliamentary elections and effective numbers of parties (in parentheses) in Central Asian states

Abbreviations: NPS – no party structure in the assembly; SPS – single-party system. Sources: Inter-Parliamentary Union 2017; Nohlen, Grotz and Hartmann 2001.

I hypothesize that the levels of party system fragmentation in autocracies are contingent upon the scope of presidential powers. This is not to say that formal constitutional provisions, shallow as they are in authoritarian political contexts, are matters of primary concern for the autocrats. Of course, they are primarily concerned with preserving and expanding their hold over the polity. Yet if they choose to follow the rules of the game as established in the constitution, then it is rational for them to facilitate the development of secondary political structures, such as party systems, in a way that is optimal for the consolidation of authoritarianism within the existing constitutional order. In other words, the autocrats are well motivated to seek congruency between the scope of their constitutional powers and party system properties. In fact, there is no reason to assume that in this respect, the autocrats are fundamentally different from democratic presidents. What differentiates the two is not motivation but rather capacity: the autocrats are much better equipped to shape party systems at their will.

For an institutionally strong president, the party composition of the assembly is not very consequential. Given that the president makes crucial political and administrative decisions without any parliamentary involvement and often possesses significant legislative powers, political fragmentation in the assembly can be affordable for the presidency. In democracies, the limits of such affordability are set by the president’s ultimate inability to pursue her legislative agenda in a complete defiance of the parliament, which explains why the coexistence of a strong presidency with a fragmented assembly is often problematic. In autocracies, a strong president is less constrained by such considerations. At the same time, parliamentary fragmentation offers several tangible rewards to an institutionally strong president. First, the presence of many parties in the assembly greatly increases the symbolic value of the parliament by providing a visible proof to the autocrat’s claim that the regime is democratic in its nature. Indeed, one of the primary goals of authoritarian institution building is to project an image of democracy without threatening the political survival of the autocrat. Second, the survival of autocrats in power largely depends on their ability to neutralize the actual or potential opponents by co-opting them into the institutional structure of the regime. This explains why cooptation is often viewed as the principal rationale for the very existence of authoritarian institutions. Yet for co-optation to occur, a wide range of elite groups – including those that do not belong to the autocrat’s ‘inner circle’ – should gain access to representation, however shallow, and to the spoils associated with it. Third, by allowing such groups to participate in elections under their own party labels, the regime makes use of their political machines, which is important in authoritarian electoral contexts that are often dominated by clientelism.

Taking this into account, consider a situation when the formal powers of the presidency are intermediate, neither very strong nor very weak. In this situation, the autocratic president still can afford a multi-party composition of the assembly. However, the payoff of this strategy is smaller than in the conditions outlined above. For example, if the president is involved in the formation of the government yet the parliament also has significant appointment / government censure powers, which is often the case when the constitutional powers of the presidency are within an intermediate range, then manufacturing a multiparty majority poses a problem for the president without significantly reducing the political capacity of the legislature. In this situation, it is in the best interest of the president to seek and obtain a single-party legislative majority. A fragmented legislature is not necessarily dangerous for an autocratic president with moderate formal powers, but it is certainly more difficult to handle. This creates a strong incentive for seeking a pro-presidential party majority in the legislature. In the presence of strong motivation towards single-party control over the assembly, those factors that have been listed above as facilitating the coexistence between institutionally strong presidents and fragmented assemblies become less consequential. Thus the main hypothesis of this study can be formulated as follows. There is a curvilinear pattern of association between the constitutional powers of the presidency and the effective number of parties in electoral authoritarian regimes. While institutionally weak and institutionally strong presidencies are associated with fragmented party systems, the autocratic presidents with moderate yet sizeable formal powers seek and obtain single-party majorities in their assemblies, which leads to low levels of party system fragmentation.

In order to test this hypothesis, I used the Prespow scores as reported at this site with some minor amendments. Table 2 presents the scores as used in this study. The structure of presentation is the same as in Table 1.

Table 2. Years of parliamentary elections and Prespow2 scores (in parentheses) in Central Asian states

Sources: Inter-Parliamentary Union 2017; Presidential Power 2017.

With the data on the powers of the presidency and the effective number of parties at hand, I proceeded with my statistical analysis. The overall number of observations in the analysis is 16, which corresponds to the number of party-structured elections held in Central Asian states throughout the period under observation, as defined above and reported in Tables 1 and 2. This is explained in detail in the previous section of this paper. Given that the relationship between the two variables of interest is expected to be curvilinear, I used a polynomial regression model. The scatter plot is provided in Figure 1 (note that two data points for Kazakhstan, 2012 and 2016, nearly coincide in space). As is evident from the figure, the trend line takes the form of a U-shaped parabola, which supports my expectations regarding the relationship between the constitutional powers of the presidency and the effective number of parties.

The observed relationship is very strong, with R-squared = 0.67, and statistically significant at 0.001. The regression equation is thus: where ENP stands for the effective number of parties.

The strength of the observed association between the scope of presidential powers and the effective number of parties in Central Asian states suggests that the presidents can direct political processes – in this case, the process of party system development – at their will. Here lies the main difference between the dynamics of party system development in democracies, where it is largely determined by societal cleavages and other factors beyond the control of the acting rulers, and in autocracies, where it is largely manipulated by the authorities. Of course, a wider cross-national inquiry is needed to fully substantiate this vision of institutional dynamics under electoral authoritarianism, and it might well be that the dynamics observed in Central Asia deviates from the general tendency.

Sources: see sources to Tables 1 and 2.

Latinization in the Turkic post-Soviet Republics

On 14 November 2018, at Kazakhstan’s universities, a nation-wide exam to test students’ proficiency in the Latin alphabet took place. Simultaneously, two major radio stations and websites invited people to take the test at home. This was the kick-off for the implementation of a reform, started by President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s October 2017 decree ordering a switchover from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet for Kazakh, the country’s state language. If carried out as planned, the reform will proceed in three stages. After a preparatory period (2018-2020), teachers will be trained, and identity cards based on Latin script will be issued (2021-2023). Finally, during 2024-2025 state agencies and state-owned media must gradually transition to the Latin alphabet.

The writing issue is an eminently political one across Central Asia. During the early 1920s, Soviet authorities created five republics out of Turkestan, the vast internal colony of the Russian Empire. Here as well as in Azerbaijan, they first introduced a modified version of the Arabic alphabet, replacing it between 1927 and 1930 with Latin, and finally, between 1938 and 1940, with the Cyrillic script. This policy claimed to be a necessary measure to combat illiteracy and to raise the cultural level of national minorities to that of Russians, and also aimed to thwart the influence of Turkey in the Soviet Republics with their predominantly Muslim population.

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Latinization, the transition of the state language of the new republics to the Latin alphabet, entered the political agenda again. Initiated by Turkey, in the early 1990s, the idea of a common alphabet for the Turcophone world was popular. Numerous conferences and meetings brought together political representatives and scholars from Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, but also from Russia’s Turkic regions and elsewhere. The project of a common script turned out to be utopian and lost its appeal by 1996.

By this time, three of the five post-Soviet states had managed to introduce their versions of Latin scripts. They argued that the Latin alphabet is better suited for representing the sounds of Turkic languages than Cyrillic, that its adoption strengthens the cultural, intellectual and social identity of their nations and that it secures the computer compatibility of their state languages. However, this move was mainly considered to signal a break with the Soviet era and a geopolitical reorientation.

Already in December 1991, Azerbaijan introduced a modified version of the Latin Azeri script that had been used during the 1920s and 1930s. The Cyrillic alphabet, so the law stated, had been a “historical injustice” introduced “despite the people’s will” and as a “continuation of the mass repressions of the 1930s.” However, in practice, the transition unfolded slowly, until a 2001 presidential decree made the use of the Latin alphabet mandatory.

Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan adopted Latin scripts in 1993, using alphabets that represented mere transliterations of the Cyrillic system. To date, the transition has not been fully completed here. This is most visibly in Uzbekistan, where both graphic systems continue to be used concurrently. The Latin alphabet prevails in many street names, on billboards, in public transportation, television and film productions, and the Cyrillic script in all other spheres.

The two remaining Turkic republics with their large segments of Russian-speaking populations approached the issue much later. In Kyrgyzstan, Latinization of the state language was included in a state program on language development during the period from 2000 to 2010. However, the project was not carried out. In July 2017, then-President Almazbek Atambaev declared that first, the shift to the Latin script might “divide Turkic languages and nations” across the post-Soviet region rather than unite them, because Turkic peoples in the Russian Federation continue using Cyrillic. Second, he argued, the change of the alphabet may also “break the link between generations, as many prominent Kyrgyz writers used Cyrillic when creating their works.”

In Kazakhstan, a six-step plan to switch the country to the Latin alphabet was launched by the Ministry of Education in 2007, but the program lost momentum soon. A new attempt followed in 2012 when Nazarbayev in his annual State of the Nation Address declared the transition to Latin part of the “Strategy Kazakhstan-2050,” a long-term program to push the country into the top 30 global economies by 2050. The recent measures aim to tackle this difficult task as smoothly and as well-organized as possible. Strikingly, and compared to the justifications for alphabet switchovers in the early 1990s, any geopolitical statements are avoided. Nazarbayev’s “Strategy Kazakhstan-2050” envisages the transition to Latin letters as one of several measures for modernizing the Kazakh language, the nation’s “spiritual center.” The move is incorporated into the seventh priority of the Strategy, which is titled “New Kazakhstani patriotism is the basis for the success of our multiethnic and multi-confessional society.” There, the use of the Latin alphabet is substantiated as a “decision for the sake of the future of our children,” easing access to English as a third essential language—along with Kazakh and Russian—and to the internet. When Russian media criticized this step as a geopolitical statement, the Kazakhstani foreign minister hastened to soothe his Russian colleague by underscoring that there was “no subtext and no geopolitical signal in Kazakhstan’s intention.” In the same vein, Nazarbayev declared in 2017 that “the transition of the Kazakh language to the Latin-based script does not in any way affect the rights of the Russian-speaking citizens” in the country, which still makes up more than 20 percent of the population.

Kyrgyzstan – Raging against the Dying of the Light: Kyrgyzstan’s Ex-President Struggles to Retain his Political Influence

In weak democracies, leaders relinquish power reluctantly. Confirmation of this aphorism has come recently from Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. In these two post-communist countries, presidents approaching the end of their terms in office engineered revisions to the constitution that pushed the center of power from the presidency toward the prime minister’s office as a means of prolonging their political relevance. Yet in both cases, carefully-laid post-presidential plans came unraveled, in one case because of opposition from the streets, and in the other because of resistance within the halls of power.

In Armenia, the departing president, Serzh Sargsian, stepped immediately into the role of prime minister, prompting massive demonstrations and ultimately the resignation of Sargsian and the installation of an opposition leader, Nikol Pashinian, as prime minister. Developments in Kyrgyzstan have followed a less dramatic, but equally unexpected, path. Instead of directly assuming the newly-strengthened office of prime minister, the outgoing president of Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atambaev, sought to wield the reins of power behind the scenes in his role as chair of the country’s largest party, the Social Democrats. To assure his position at the pinnacle of Kyrgyzstani politics after leaving the presidency, Atambaev had appointed an unseasoned technocrat from his own party to the post of prime minister in August 2017, in the waning months of his single, seven-year term. He had also overseen a bruising and ultimately successful campaign to elect his long-time political ally, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, as the country’s new president.

Even in the first days of the Jeenbekov presidency there was evidence that the new head of state was willing to depart from the policies of his predecessor and patron, most notably on matters of foreign policy. For example, President Jeenbekov quickly healed the rift between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan occasioned by inflammatory comments that Atambaev had directed at Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbaev during the presidential election campaign. The first frontal assault on the Atambaev legacy came only a few weeks later, at the end of February 2018, when the new president accused the security services and law enforcement organs of laxity in their fight against corruption, including in their own ranks. In essence, the new president was now attacking the personnel and policies of the old.

President Jeenbekov followed up this unanticipated assertion of political independence with a series of moves designed to use the diminished but still formidable prerogatives of the presidency to elevate further his personal power and authority—and to distance himself from his patron.1 Because the constitutional revisions introduced under Atambaev did not remove the Kyrgyzstani president’s direct oversight and appointment powers over officials responsible for the criminal justice system, Jeenbekov had available to him potent levers of influence over political and economic elites if he could replace Atambaev loyalists with his own men and women. In March, after removing the chief of staff that he had inherited from Atambaev, Farid Niiazov, President Jeenbekov began pushing out numerous hold-overs from the Atambaev era who occupied key positions in the “power bloc,” including the Procurator-General, the head of the National Security Agency, and several deputy ministers in law enforcement institutions. Predictably for a patronalist system where the maintenance of client networks across the government-business divide depends on the protection of the chief patron, the personnel shakeups in the power ministries—and subsequent criminal investigations involving members of the elite—have put much of the country’s political and economic establishment on edge.

By the end of March 2018, it was clear that former President Atambaev was facing not only a rebellion against his influence by the new president but also by forces within his own party, which he had created and led for a quarter century. Although the Social Democrats elected Atambaev as their chairman at a party conference held in the last days of March, that gathering exposed growing divisions with the party’s ranks, in spite of Atambaev’s best efforts to present an image of a unified party by holding the meetings in secret and banning from the conference several prominent Social Democrats, including a leading parliamentary deputy and former speaker, Asylbek Jeenbekov, who is the brother of President Jeenbekov.

In a combative press conference at the end of the party gathering, former President Atambaev signaled his displeasure with President Jeenbekov and his continued support for the prime minister that he had appointed six months earlier, Sapar Isakov. In Atambaev’s words:

I think that a good prime minister is working today. Energetic and young. He may be mistaken, but this is a person who is doing something.

Less than three weeks later, on April 18, 101 members of the country’s 120-member parliament, including most of the 28 Social Democratic deputies, supported the first no-confidence vote in the country’s history, which ousted Prime Minister Isakov.2 His replacement was a fellow northerner and Social Democrat, Mukhammetkali Abulgaziev.

Whatever the precise involvement of Atambaev and Jeenbekov in the behind-the-scenes maneuvers that led to the no-confidence vote, it is clear that the country is now in the throes of a potentially destabilizing intra-elite struggle. In recent weeks, Jeenbekov has been subject to withering criticism in segments of the press for allegedly showing favoritism along geographic (North-South) or family-clan lines.3 Almost certainly representing interests tied to former President Atambaev or those who have benefitted from his patronage, the current president’s critics have stooped to using the old divisive tropes that had begun to be discarded in recent years, tropes for which Jeenbekov’s behavior in office provides little evidence. Defending himself against his critics, Jeenbekov offered the following comments at his first major press conference.

This is the first time I voice these names today. [Former Presidents] Akayev, Bakiyev — we all remember how they left office. I will not go that way. I want to honestly look into the eyes of my people and not be ashamed.4

If one is searching for another encouraging sign amid the rising tension in the Kyrgyzstani political elite, it is that neither side has yet turned to the traditional weapons of mass mobilization employed in intra-elite struggles: demonstrations, road blockages, or the erection of yurt cities.

Although Kyrgyzstan can claim to have the most open and competitive political system by far in Central Asia, it has still not mastered a central task of mature democracies: the retreat of a former president into a dignified retirement. The first two Kyrgyzstani presidents, Askar Akaev and Kurmanbek Bakiev, were ousted from office in popular rebellions and now live in exile, in Russia and Belarus’, respectively. For his part, as the discussion above illustrates, President Atambaev has reneged on his earlier promise of devoting his retirement to playing the piano, and, at the age of 61, has sought to carve out a role as Kyrgyzstan’s Deng Xiaoping.

If Kyrgyzstan is to join the ranks of stable democracies, future presidents will need to follow the example of Roza Otunbaeva, who has devoted herself to philanthropic and good governance initiatives since leaving the presidency in 2010. There are, to be sure, special circumstances in her case. Appointed as president by the Interim Government that took power following the April Revolution of 2010, Otunbaeva came to the presidency in June of that year through a referendum rather than a competitive election, and she agreed to serve only a single, 18-month transitional term. Nevertheless, in her six years since leaving the presidency, Otunbaeva has found ways to remain publicly engaged while eschewing direct involvement in the political struggle. Of course, if the country should move closer to a traditional parliamentary model of government under its new constitutional arrangements, it may be less appropriate to expect future prime ministers to go gently into that good night.

Notes

1 For accounts of the growing tensions between current and former presidents, see “Krakh operazii ‘preemnik’ v Kirgizii,” Delo No., May 4, 2018. http://www.centrasia.ru/newsA.php?st=1523740320; Ulugbek Babakulov, “Atambaev vs Zheenbekov. Zachem byvshii president Kyrgyzstana vozvrashchaetsia v politiku,” Informatsionnoe agentstvo Ferghana, April 2, 2018. http://www.fergananews.com/articles/9879; and Bruce Pannier, “Won’t Fade Away: Former, Current Kyrgyz Presidents On Collision Course,” Qishloq Ovozi, RFE/RL, April 4, 2018. https://www.rferl.org/a/qishloq-ovozi-kyrgyzstan-atambaev-jeenbekov-collision-course/29144713.html

2 The use of a proportional representation voting system in a country divided along regional lines has led to a highly-fragmented parliament, with the Social Democrats representing the largest single voting bloc, with 28 members.

3 Typical of this genre is an article accusing President Jeenbekov’s son-in-law of using his relationship to the president to interfere in personnel decisions and business matters. Arstan Algyrbekov, “Aliiarbek Abzhalieva nuzhno stavit’ na mesto segodnia, inache zavtra prevratitsia v Zhanysha ili Ikrama!,” Aziia News, no. 18, May 10, 2018, p. 3 [reprinted in Gezitter.org, May 10, 2018]. http://www.gezitter.org/society/69847_aliyarbeka_abjalieva_nujno_stavit_na_mesto_segodnya_inache_zavtra_prevratitsya_v_janyisha_ili_ikrama/

4 “President of Kyrgyzstan about family, brothers, their interference in his work,” Informatsionnoe agentstvo 24kg, March 6, 2018. https://24.kg/english/77877_President_of_Kyrgyzstan_about_family_brothers_their_interference_in_his_work/ During an official visit to the northern region of Issyk-Kul’ in early May, President Jeenbekov, a son of the South, admitted that some were trying to raise the North-South question as a way of undermining the unity of the Kyrgyzstani people. “We all see who is spreading these provocative things,” he said, “and we will take measures against those who are imposing on society the North-South question.” Prezident Sooronbai Zheenbekov: Budut priniaty mery k tem, kto naviazyvaet obshchestvu vopros ‘Sever-Iug’,” Kabar, May 3, 2018. http://kabar.kg/news/zheenbekov-budut-priniaty-mery-k-tem-kto-naviazyvaet-obshchestvu-vopros-sever-iug/

Kyrgyzstan – A Double Transition: Administration and Model of Government

The October 2017 presidential election in Kyrgyzstan ushered in simultaneous transitions of administration and model of government.  Under the 2010 Constitution, Kyrgyzstan, like Mexico, restricts its president to a single six-year term, which ended last month with Almazbek Atambaev handing the reins of power to his hand-picked successor, and fellow Social Democrat, Sooronbai Zheenbekov.  Not only is there a new occupant in the Kyrgyzstani White House in Bishkek, but the office of the presidency itself is being reshaped by constitutional amendments adopted by referendum in December 2016, amendments that took effect in December 2017.  It is, therefore, a period of considerable uncertainty, as observers search for clues that could offer insights into the effects of the double transition on Kyrgyzstani politics.

With regard to the transition in administration, Sooronbai Zheenbekov is no Vladimir Putin, who came into the Kremlin in May 2000 with a packet of far-reaching administrative reforms.  As expected, President Zheenbekov, whose close personal and political relations with Atambaev go back to 1995, has not signaled any significant departures from the policies of his predecessor.  However, last month the new president was able to quickly patch up deteriorating relations with neighboring Kazakhstan, which had brought trade with Kyrgyzstan to a virtual halt after President Atambaev harshly criticized Kazakh President Nazarbaev for supporting Zheenbekov’s major opponent, Omurbek Babanov, in the presidential election campaign.

One way of measuring the extent of continuity in presidential transitions is to examine personnel turnover in the presidential apparatus.  Here the record is mixed.  Just as in the Yeltsin-Putin transition, Jeenbekov has retained the services of his predecessor’s chief of staff, in this case Farid Niazov.[i]  As numerous Kyrgyzstani commentators have remarked, Niazov is now in a position to act as the eyes of Atambaev in the new administration, and given that in post-communist regimes with strong presidencies the chief-of-staff is often the second most influential person in the country, Niazov’s appointment seems to be clear evidence of continuity.  However, retaining Niazov may also represent a transition within the transition, and as Zheenbekov acquires greater confidence in his new role, he may bring on his own person in this critical position.

The first weeks of the Zheenbekov presidency have already witnessed substantial turnover in second-tier positions in the presidential apparatus, with many of the new appointees having served under Zheenbekov in his previous roles as prime minister and governor of the Osh region in the South.  With a tradition that reaches back more than a half-century of alternating northern and southern leaders of the Soviet Kirgiz Republic and now the independent country of Kyrgyzstan, the election of the southerner, Zheenbekov, has brought a predictable influx of appointees to the presidential bureaucracy who hail from the South.  However, given his ties to the Social Democratic Party, which has been sensitive to regional balance in personnel matters, it seems unlikely that Zheenbekov will repeat the mistakes of two earlier presidents, Askar Akaev (1991-2005) and Kurmanbek Bakiev (2005-2010), who were ousted in popular uprisings, in part because of the perception of regional favoritism.

The other form of favoritism that plagued the Akaev and Bakiev presidencies was the appointment of family members to key political and economic roles.  Unlike President Atambaev, whose family members were not prominent public figures, Zheenbekov has several brothers who have had leading positions in government institutions, including a younger brother who is now in parliament and had served earlier as parliamentary speaker. In one of last appointments, President Atambaev selected Zheenbekov’s older brother, an ambassador in the Middle East since the Bakiev days, to serve as ambassador to Ukraine, a post that had been vacant for over two years, apparently in deference to Russia’s break with that country.  Even if recent political history has not inoculated Kyrgyzstan against a repetition of family rule or one-region hegemony, it would be unlikely for a cautious politician like Zheenbekov to succumb to the favoritistic politics that helped to bring down earlier Kyrgyzstani presidents.

Less than two months into the Zheenbekov presidency, evidence remains sparse on the realignment of power between prime minister and president, though Zheenbekov’s negotiations with Nazarbaev indicate that the foreign policy portfolio remains firmly in presidential hands.  Under the new rules, the prime minister has full authority to appoint and dismiss members of the Council of Ministers as well as regional and local chief executives.  The young and relatively inexperienced prime minister, Sapar Isakov, has already replaced a number of cabinet-level officials in the areas of social and economic policy, but what is as yet unclear is the level of informal influence exercised over such appointment decisions by the president and his staff, and whether President Zheenbekov will encourage the selective prosecution of political appointees, which roiled the political establishment in the last year and a half of the Atambaev era.

Between the election and the inauguration, the campaign against the political opposition launched by Atambaev culminated in the threatened prosecution of Omurbek Babanov, who, as noted above, was the loser in the presidential race.  With his personal freedom, business interests, and political party under threat, Babanov sought refuge overseas after the presidential contest.  Then in a dramatic announcement communicated on his Facebook page on 30 December, Babanov issued in effect a political surrender and plea for mercy. In a statement reminiscent of the Melis Eshimkanov’s magnanimous concession to President Akaev after the 2000 presidential election, Babanov thanked Atambaev for his “worthy contribution to the preservation and strengthening of the country.”  He then announced his resignation from his parliamentary seat and his departure from politics.  By so doing, he appeared to salvage his own party’s future and to remove the shadow that the popular politician’s criminal conviction would have cast over the Zheenbekov presidency.[ii]

Looming over the double transition of administration and model of government is the figure of ex-President Atambaev.  Seized in the waning months of his term by the vision of apres moi, le deluge, Atambaev had sought to “idiot-proof the constitution” by further diminishing the power of the presidency, which would, in his words, allow him to learn to play the piano in his retirement.[iii]  However, speculation abounds that a new chapter will unfold in Atambaev’s political career at the late January congress of the Social Democratic Party, when observers expect him to be selected as party chairman.  With Social Democrats holding the posts of president and prime minister, some contend that the party apparatus under Atambaev could begin to usurp constitutional authority accorded to the heads of state and government.  In such a scenario, one observer noted, Kyrgyzstan would have its own Ayatollah.

Notes

[i] Niazov had stepped down temporarily from the chief-of-staff position last year to head Zheenbekov’s election campaign.

[ii] Whatever Zheenbekov’s attitude is to Atambaev’s targeting of his political enemies for prosecution, he apparently did not seek to intervene in the criminal trial against parliamentary deputy Kanat Isaev, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison on 4 January 2018.

[iii]  Eugene Huskey, Plebiscitarianism and Constitution-Making: The December 11, 2016 Referendum in Kyrgyzstan, Presidential Power blog.  http://presidential-power.com/?p=5770

Kyrgyzstan – A Setback for Democracy: The 2017 Presidential Election

Sunday’s presidential election in Kyrgyzstan serves as a reminder that constitutional engineering can only go so far in furthering democracy. To inoculate Kyrgyzstan against the kinds of hyper-presidential regimes found in neighboring countries in Central Asia—and in Kyrgyzstan itself under President Kurmanbek Bakiev (2005-2010)—the Constitution of 2010 transferred broad powers to the parliament and limited the president to a single six-year term. The first president directly elected under these new arrangements, Almazbek Atambaev, has in recent weeks congratulated himself on adhering to the provisions of the Constitution, boasting that he had the political support to change the rules on term limits if he had wanted. However, the legacy of President Atambaev will be tarnished by his insistence on forcing on the country a successor whose election in the first round could not have occurred without the massive mobilization of the state apparatus and without Atambaev’s own campaign of innuendo and half-truths about the leading candidate of the opposition.

Preliminary results from 99 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s precincts show that Atambaev’s hand-picked successor, Sooronbai Zheenbekov, received almost 55 percent of the vote, while the main opposition candidate, Omurbek Babanov, captured just under 34 percent of the vote. Of the remaining 9 contenders in the race, some of whom were heavyweights in Kyrgyzstani politics, no one received over 6.5 percent of the vote. Almost three-quarters of one percent of the electorate chose the “vote against all” option on the ballot.

When Sooronbai Zheenbekov emerged in the late spring as Atambaev’s pick to represent the President’s party—the Social Democrats—in the presidential election in October, he seemed in many respects an unlikely figure to contest the presidency. Although he served as Kyrgyzstan’s prime minister from the spring of 2016 to the summer of 2017, he had not previously been in the leading rank of Kyrgyzstani politicians. A 58-year old official from the southern city of Osh whose wooden manner betrayed an early stint in the Communist Party apparatus, Zheenbekov’s energy level and demeanor contrasted sharply with the higher-octane favorite in the field, Omurbek Babanov, the charismatic 47-year old former prime minister and leader of the Republican Party. Where Zheenbekov had the support of the President and the machinery of state, Babanov was able to tap into his vast personal wealth to run an efficient, modern campaign that smothered the country’s physical and virtual space with the candidate’s image and, in the final days before balloting, sent individually addressed letters to voters.

In a country where regional and kinship ties can turn elections, Zheenbekov enjoyed a structural advantage over Babanov. He hailed from the largest region in the country, the southern province of Osh, whereas Babanov’s home was in the northern territory of Talas, Kyrgyzstan’s smallest region, one-fifth the size of Osh. Not surprisingly, it was in these two regions where voter turnout was highest. Whereas the national turnout approached 56 percent—the lowest on record for a presidential election, and well below the 61 percent participation rate in the previous presidential contest—over 68 and 61 percent of the voters turned out in the Osh and Talas regions, respectively. In a development that will surely raise doubts in the Babanov camp about the fairness of the count, the turnout rate in Talas declined by more than 20 percent compared to the 2011 presidential contest, while the participation rate in the Osh region increased by more than 15 percent. Given the very large numbers of migrant workers from the traditionally poorer southern regions who work in Russia and neighboring Kazakhstan, a turnout rate approaching 70 percent in the Osh region is unusually high.

Whatever the role of regionalism in voter behavior, that factor alone is unable to explain the success of Zheenbekov in Sunday’s election. For one, although individuals may come from a particular district or region, they surround themselves with political allies who are broadly dispersed across the country. In the case of Babanov, not only has his party traditionally enjoyed deep support in both the North and the South, but he concluded a pact less than three weeks before the election with a prominent candidate from the Jalal-Abad region in the South, Bakyt Torobaev, the leader of a parliamentary faction. The two men entered into a “tandem” that called for Babanov to appoint Torobaev prime minister if he won the presidency.
The Babanov-Torobaev “tandem” was but one of a number of pacts concluded in recent months that led to the withdrawal from the presidential race of prominent contenders for the presidency. This winnowing of the field through behind-the-scenes deal-making has become a standard feature of presidential races in Kyrgyzstan, and in this case it may well have helped Zheenbekov to win the contest in the first round. A larger field of veteran politicians, each with his or her own geographic and kinship networks, would have made it far more difficult for President Atambaev’s hand-picked successor to have achieved a first-round majority. As in previous contests, disqualifications based on the selective prosecution of prospective candidates and alleged violations of registration technicalities also narrowed the field of candidates considerably.

Assuming that the vote totals are accurate—and one official protocol from a southern precinct showing all 1369 votes for Zheenbekov raises serious doubts about that premise—the most compelling explanations for Zheenbekov’s first-round victory appear to lie in the campaign itself. State officials sympathetic to President Atambaev pursued a range of initiatives designed to tilt the scales in favor of Zheenbekov, from threats against government workers if they didn’t vote for Zheenbekov to en masse voting by teachers and university students, organized by the heads of state-related schools and higher education institutions. In a trip to the Batken region in the country’s South, a deputy prime minister in charge of overseeing the election was caught on tape telling local government personnel to vote for Zheenbekov or else. You mustn’t spit in the well you drink from, he warned them. For their part, leaders of the police and security services sought to convince the public that Babanov or those in his entourage were plotting to engage in violence to steal the election, accusations contained in leaked information from what should have been confidential interrogations. On election eve and election day, in several locations around the country the police brought in for questioning members of Babanov’s campaign team, which in some cases kept them from their duties as precinct observers.

In what may have been the most damaging blow to Babanov’s prospects, the Central Election Commission (CEC) heard a complaint in the final days of the campaign about a speech Babanov had given in the South to a group of Kyrgyzstani citizens of Uzbek ethnicity. The CEC concluded that Babanov’s comments violated campaign rules by “stirring up inter-ethnic enmity.” His offense: he told the ethnic Uzbeks that under his presidency, “if a policeman messes with (tronet) Uzbeks, he will be fired.” Although this complaint resulted in CEC’s third warning to Babanov, which could have disqualified him, it was the broad dissemination of portions of the speech, not just by the CEC but the Procuracy, which may well have undermined Babanov’s electoral prospects. In this case, President Atambaev’s team was engaging in what are called “dog whistles” in the United States, that is coded messages directed at nationalist voters among the ethnic Kyrgyz who have no interest in the state assuring equal treatment for ethnic Uzbeks.

President Atambaev and his political allies also exploited a meeting of Babanov with President Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan to raise further questions about the candidate’s loyalty to the Kyrgyz nation. In a stunning reaction to the unexpected meeting of Nazarbaev and Babanov in Kazakhstan, Atambaev launched the harshest attack ever directed against a neighboring president by a Kyrgyzstani leader. The tirade enjoyed considerable popularity on social media in Kazakhstan, a country that is not used to seeing its long-serving leader subjected to criticism.

*********************

We started this post by observing that a country’s institutional design is not a sufficient condition for democracy. Without leaders who are willing to lose and state officials who are willing to apply the laws dispassionately, elections will not ensure the accountability of a government to its people. But if there is a modicum of hope to be taken from Sunday’s presidential election in Kyrgyzstan, it is that the stakes of this election for the nation were not as high as in some earlier contests. The paring of the powers of the presidency—accomplished through the 2010 Constitution and amendments pushed through by Atambaev last year—mean that the prime minister’s office may at last emerge as the core executive institution in Kyrgyzstan’s peculiar and ever-changing form of semi-presidentialism. Other elements of the country’s institutional design encourage a multi-party system and coalition governments, which tend to create the kind of messy and inefficient governance that works against the consolidation of power in the hands of a single individual.

To what extent the departing president will remain in the political game as a force behind Zheenbekov and the prime minister will become clear when Atambaev leaves the presidency in December. When Zheenbekov resigned the post of premier to run for the presidency two months ago, Atambaev installed his 40-year old former chief-of-staff, Sapar Isakov, as the new prime minister, and Isakov then surrounded himself with youthful technocrats rather than politicians. This combination of a less than forceful President-Elect and an inexperienced prime minister would seem to prepare the ground for the continued involvement of ex-President Almazbek Atambaev at the apex of Kyrgyzstani politics.

Kyrgyzstan’s One-Term President Positions Himself for the Transition of Power

Outside of Latin America, where one-term limitations on presidencies are relatively common, only the Philippines, South Korea, Vanuatu, and Kyrgyzstan restrict their presidents to a single term.[i]  Kyrgyzstan introduced this restriction in its 2010 Constitution in order to prevent the repetition of “family rule,” which had characterized Kyrgyzstani politics under Presidents Akaev (1991-2005) and Bakiev (2005-2010). As the example of Vladimir Putin illustrates, however, constitutional restrictions do not prevent term-limited presidents from remaining active in politics.[ii]  Kyrgyzstan’s current President, Almazbek Atambaev, has in recent months signaled his intention to continue on the political stage after the end of his single, six-year term in November of this year.

The opening gambit in his transition strategy came last year, when Atambaev engineered changes to Kyrgyzstan’s constitution designed to shift considerable power from the office of the president to that of the prime minister.[iii]  These changes gave rise to speculation that President Atambaev was planning to assume the role of prime minister after he completes his presidential term. However, he has insisted in recent weeks that he will eschew a government post and concentrate instead on strengthening his political party, the Social Democrats (SDPK), which currently has a plurality of seats in the one-chamber parliament.  Atambaev has recently launched a purge of the SDPK’s parliamentary party in order to remove members whose personal reputation or loyalty is suspect.[iv]

In order to ensure that his successor as president is to his liking, President Atambaev has embraced the idea of an internal party primary within the SDPK to select the party’s nominee for the presidency.  In his public pronouncements, Atambaev has insisted that a primary battle within the part will weed out candidates on whom the opposition has kompromat [compromising materials] that could render them vulnerable in the general election.  However, the more likely reason for the president’s support of the party primary is that it would allow him to serve as the king-maker.  Atambaev’s influence over the mass media and his control of the state’s “administrative resources” should allow him to pick his preferred candidate from the SDPK, who could well emerge as the next president.

Not satisfied with influencing political outcomes through the low-cost and relatively benign strategies outlined above, President Atambaev has pursued in recent weeks a more disruptive and dangerous agenda: the destruction of the political careers of prominent opposition politicians who could pose a challenge to his plans for the political transition.   Among a series of arrests of heavyweights from Kyrgyzstan’s ruling class, the most troubling was that of Omurbek Tekebaev, a parliamentary deputy and perennial presidential candidate who, as a member of the country’s Interim Government in 2010, fathered the current constitution.  Agents from the secret police (GKNB) detained Tekebaev at the Bishkek airport in the early morning of February 26 on his return from a trip to Austria and Cyprus, and several days later a court authorized his detention by the GKNB for an additional two months.  Whatever the validity of the fraud charges being brought against him, the timing was suspect.  The alleged fraud had occurred six years earlier and the Russian businessman who accused Tekebaev of wrongdoing only recently came forward with testimony implicating Tekebaev.

Other opposition politicians caught up in what appear to be politically-motivated prosecutions include parliamentary deputies from Tekebaev’s party, Ata-Meken, among whom were Aida Salianova and Almambek Shykmamatov, both former Justice Ministers.  In addition, on March 25, the authorities arrested a former deputy from the Ata-Jurt Party, Sadyr Japarov, who had just returned to Bishkek after three years of self-imposed exile.  The arrest of Japarov, who had recently announced his intention to run for the presidency, prompted 500 of his supporters to gather at the gates of the GKNB. In clashes with police that followed, 68 demonstrators were arrested.[v]

Although all of the politicians arrested have been critics of President Atambaev, Omurbek Tekebaev appears to pose the greatest threat to the sitting president.  The threat does not lie primarily in Tekebaev’s announced candidacy for the November presidential election–he was hardly a favorite for the post–but in the compromising material he had been collecting on President Atambaev.  Media reports allege that Tekebaev was returning to Kyrgyzstan with evidence linking President Atambaev to inappropriate business activities in Cyprus.  Moreover, as chair of a parliamentary commission investigating the crash of a cargo aircraft near Bishkek airport in January of this year, Tekebaev was pursuing the possibility that President Atambaev or those in his entourage were involved in a smuggling operation exposed by the plane crash.  Although the aircraft, which stopped in Bishkek on its way from Hong Kong to Istanbul, was not licensed to deliver goods to Kyrgyzstan, investigators found in the  wreckage “charred remnants of iPhones, luxury cigarette lighters, and other electronic gadgets…” with Chinese-produced manuals in the Kyrgyz language.[vi]

Besides disqualifying prominent political opponents and bending the institutional rules to their advantage, it has been traditional in the run up to elections for Kyrgyzstani leaders to attempt to stifle media outlets that are critical of the president, and President Atambaev has remained true to form on all counts.   As part of his early preparations for the November presidential elections and his own repositioning in the Kyrgyzstani political system, President Atambaev instructed the Procurator-General earlier this month to launch civil cases against a local news outlet, Zanoza, as well as the Kyrgyz arm of Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, Azattyk, for attacking the “honor and dignity” of the President.  The Procurator-General is seeking damages on the President’s behalf of over $86,000 from Zanoza and almost $3 million from Azattyk.  Even though the case has not yet been tried, a judge has frozen the domestic bank accounts of both news organizations.

As Atambaev’s attacks against opposition-oriented politicians and journalists have escalated in recent months, his conduct has become more unpredictable and his rhetoric has grown increasingly intemperate.  At one point he labeled the Ata-Meken Party “putrid” [voniuchii].  Atambaev no longer hesitates to refer to himself in the third person, and he has at times cast diplomatic niceties aside by issuing pointed comments on domestic politics in the presence of foreign dignitaries.[vii]  On March 15th, he chose a formal ceremony accrediting new ambassadors in Bishkek to criticize the purveyors of slander and “fake news” in the country, including Russian journalists working in the country.[viii]  During the visit of Vladimir Putin a few weeks earlier, President Atambaev had used a joint press conference to play down the likelihood of a third revolution in Kyrgyzstan, reminding the assembled journalists and his Russian guest that he, Atambaev, was the real revolutionary, having been instrumental in toppling Presidents Akaev and Bakiev.[ix]

Kyrgyzstan may not be on the eve of its third revolution in the last twelve years, but it is facing its most serious political crisis since the parliamentary election campaign of 2010.  Atambaev’s control of the formal levers of power, most notably state legal institutions, give him an advantage in this latest standoff between government and opposition.  However, his critics have at their disposal new media as well as significant numbers of supporters in the capital–and in the home districts of repressed politicians–that are willing to take to the streets to defend their patrons.  Moreover, in choosing to engage in select prosecution of his enemies and a frontal assault on the independent media, President Atambaev risks overplaying his hand and undermining his own reputation and that of the party on which he plans to build his political future.   The ultimate winners in this conflict may be non-SDPK presidential candidates, such as former prime ministers Temir Sariev and Omurbek Babanov, who have managed thus far to keep their distance from the warring sides.

Notes

[i] The reference here is to presidents in presidential or semi-presidential systems.

[ii] In 2008, having completed the two four-year terms allowed him under the constitution of that era, Vladimir Putin installed one of his clients, Dmitrii Medvedev, as president.  Medvedev served a single term and then made way for Putin’s return in 2012, this time to assume a presidency whose term had been extended to six years.  In the Kyrgyzstani case, the constitution does not allow a president to return to office.

[iii] On the adoption of revisions to the constitution, see Eugene Huskey, Plebiscitarianism and Constitution-Making: The December 11, 2016 Referendum in Kyrgyzstan, Presidential Power blog, December 15, 2016.  http://presidential-power.com/?cat=193

[iv] One source notes that Atambaev intends to replace two-thirds of current SDPK deputies with more loyal members.  Grigorii Mikhailov, “Boeing s gruzom dlia prezidenta ‘vzorval’ parlament Kirgizii,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, March 7, 2017.  At one point Atambaev came out in favor of the early dissolution of parliament, something supported by at least one critic of the president in the assembly, which presumably would simplify efforts to renew the SDPK’s parliamentary party.  Parliamentary elections are not scheduled to be held until 2020.  See “Zamira Sydykova prezidentu Almazbeku Atambaevu: ty luchshe pokaisia!” Zanoza, March 15, 2017.  http://zanoza.kg/doc/354140_zamira_sydykova_prezidenty_almazbeky_atambaevy:_ty_lychshe_pokaysia.html

[v] “Kyrgyz Police Detain 68 at Protests over Jailing of Ex-Law Maker,” RFE/RL, March 25, 2017.  http://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstan-opposition-japarov-supporters-protesters-arrested/28390782.html

[vi] Catherine Putz, “Plane Crash in Kyrgyzstan May Have Uncovered a Smuggling Scheme,” The Diplomat, February 3, 2017.  http://thediplomat.com/2017/02/plane-crash-in-kyrgyzstan-may-have-uncovered-a-smuggling-scheme/

[vii] Atambaev’s behavior has rekindled rumors about his psychological state, and lawyers from the Ata-Meken Party recently filed a motion with the Procurator-General’s office asking for a psychiatric examination of the president. “Zapakh pravdy: arest Tekebaeva vyzval voinu iskov,” Zanoza, March 9, 2017.  http://zanoza.kg/doc/353828_zapah_pravdy:_arest_tekebaeva_vyzval_voyny_iskov.html One Western outlet covering Central Asia observed that Atambaev seemed to be mimicking Donald Trump, and of late had been in “full berserker mode in his comments about the fourth estate.” “Kyrgyzstan: Kremlin-Friendly Reporter Expelled,” Eurasianet.org, March 13, 2017.  http://www.eurasianet.org/node/82801

[viii] A few days earlier the Kyrgyzstani authorities had expelled a Russian journalist, Grigorii Mikhailov, whose articles had often been critical of Atambaev.  “Emu li byt’ v pechati: pochemu prezident Kirgizii tak boitsia kritiki v rossiiskoi presse,” Lenta.ru, March 17, 2017.  At a press conference on March 11, Atambaev attacked “so-called independent journalists, media outlets, and politicians, who de facto demand the right to defame with impunity and spout filth about people they don’t like, in the first rank the popularly-elected president of independent Kyrgyzstan.”  “Zaiavlenie Prezidenta KR A. Atambaeva,” Kabar, March 11, 2017.  For a perceptive account of Atambaev’s assaults on journalists and politicians, see Ulugbek Babakulov, “Vo imia mira i stabil’nosti: Prezident Kyrygzstana initsiiroval raspravu nad SMI i zhurnalistami,” Ferghana, March 13, 2017.  http://www.fergananews.com/articles/9319

[ix] Moscow-based newspapers have speculated that one purpose of Putin’s visit was to look over potential presidential candidates to determine whom the Kremlin should back.  See, for example, Elena Egorova, “Tsentral’naia dlia Rossii Aziia,” Moskovskii komsomolets, February 27, 2017.

Eugene Huskey – Plebiscitarianism and Constitution-Making: The December 11, 2016 Referendum in Kyrgyzstan

In a referendum that generated fierce opposition from critics of Kyrgyzstani President Almazbek Atambaev, voters approved 26 revisions to Kyrgyzstan’s constitution on December 11, 2016.[i]  It was the seventh constitutional plebiscite since the adoption of the country’s original post-communist constitution in May 1993, making Kyrgyzstan the regional leader in employing the referendum to change its basic law.[ii]  Sunday’s constitutional referendum was paired with voting for local assembly elections in Kyrgyzstan’s 21 cities, elections that gave a plurality of seats to candidates from President Atambaev’s party, the Social Democrats.

With only a year remaining in his single, six-year term, President Atambaev had presented the amendments to the nation as a means of “idiot-proofing” the Constitution, that is, introducing further safeguards to ensure that the office of the presidency would not be abused by his successors.[iii]  Many elements in the country’s political class and civil society, however, found his explanations unconvincing.  In an unprecedented move, Atambaev’s former colleagues in the Interim Government of 2010–among them former President Roza Otunbaeva and Omurbek Tekebaev, the de facto father of the 2010 Constitution–signed a collective letter condemning any attempt to revise the constitution before 2020, the date set by the Interim Government for the earliest constitutional revisions. President Atambaev responded almost immediately to the letter with an intemperate speech, the harshest of his presidency, which accused his former colleagues of spreading “malicious lies.” He then reminded them that they could be held to account legally for their misdeeds in office six years earlier.  He concluded by assuring the nation that he had no intention of seeking any formal political post after his departure from the presidency in 2017.[iv]

Besides regarding the plebiscite as premature, many critics of the President objected to specific amendments proposed to the Constitution.  Some revisions strengthen the powers of the prime minister vis-a-vis president and parliament by granting the head of government the sole authority to remove ministers as well as local and regional heads of administration.  The prime minister and his deputy will also be able to retain their seats in parliament.  Previously the prime minister and deputy prime minister had had to relinquish their parliamentary seats on assuming executive office.  The referendum included only one seemingly innocuous revision to the presidency itself—changing the name of the presidential defense council to the security council.  Given the existing authority of Kyrgyzstan’s president, which is based largely on his direct popular mandate and his appointment and oversight of the power ministers, the enhancement of the prime minister’s office should produce more complex challenges of cohabitation than had existed heretofore.

Another basket of constitutional amendments sought to increase the stability of the Government in a country that had seen six prime ministers in the first six years of what had been touted as a “parliamentary republic.”  In order to leave a ruling coalition, the revised constitution will now require two-thirds of a party’s deputies to approve the rupture in a written ballot.  Although this amendment and some others were reasonable responses to the inefficiencies that plagued the current system, many critics viewed the enhancing of the prime minister’s role as a means of preparing a landing place for President Atambaev or a Social Democratic politician who would be under his influence.

In order to win support for the referendum from moral traditionalists and ethnic Kyrgyz nationalists, whose ranks often overlap, President Atambaev and his supporters included several amendments that responded to the rising populist tide in the post-communist world and beyond.  This effort included a reworking of Article 1 of the 2010 Constitution, which contained a simple, one-sentence statement of the country’s basic principles, notably the state’s secular, law-based, and democratic character.  The proposed alternative had nine separate points, several of which echoed nativist and socially conservative trends in Russia.  Among the country’s “highest values” in the newly-revised Constitution are “love of country,” “the development of the national [Kyrgyz] language and culture,” and, perhaps most worrying for the opposition, “a respectful attitude toward the country’s history,” a phrase that the Russian authorities have used to condemn domestic and foreign critics and that the Kyrgyzstani government could potentially employ to silence unpopular interpretations of events such as the inter-ethnic violence in Osh in 2010. The constitutional revisions also included an explicit ban on gay marriage.

As part of an ongoing backlash against international criticism of the Kyrgyzstani government’s handling of the violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh, President Atambaev included among the constitutional amendments a revision to Article 41.  That article had allowed citizens of Kyrgyzstan to appeal to international human rights bodies if they believed their rights had been violated.  If the international tribunal upheld their complaints, the Kyrgyzstani government was obligated to restore their rights or compensate them for damages.  In the runup to the referendum, President Atambaev had been openly critical of the decision of the UN’s Committee on Human Rights, which called on the government of Kyrgyzstan to free an ethnic Uzbek condemned to life imprisonment.[v]

Constitutional Referendums in Kyrgyzstan[vi]

Although the proposed constitutional amendments were approved by an almost 80 percent Yes vote (see table above), this result was a record low for Kyrgyzstan.  Moreover, only 42 percent of the population turned out to the polls on a day when both the referendum and local elections were on the ballot.  Thus, only slightly more than a third of eligible voters in Kyrgyzstan voted for the constitutional revisions.  Turnout was especially low (28%) in the southern city of Osh, where almost half of the population is ethnic Uzbek.  Taken together with the historically low turnout, a tally of invalid ballots that reached five percent suggests a considerable measure of popular discontent with President Atambaev’s decision to revise the 2010 Constitution,[vii] especially given the herculean—and in some cases inappropriate—efforts of the President’s team to get voters to the polls to support the referendum.[viii]  As Omurbek Tekebaev observed, Atambaev’s political protegees had every reason to go to the mat for him in getting out the Yes vote, recognizing that if the referendum failed, he may have followed the example of de Gaulle and resigned from office, in which case their own futures would have been uncertain.[ix]

The passing of the referendum and the results of local elections will be discouraging reminders to opposition-minded forces in Kyrgyzstan that President Atambaev and his Social Democratic Party appear to be consolidating their hold on the government and the state.[x]  In recent years, a frustrated opposition has organized two popular rebellions that unseated presidents—in 2005 and 2010—but in those cases the ruling elite was divided along North-South lines, and so the opposition was able to tap into regional resentment.  No such easily identified source of political support exists today for the political opposition, and therefore taking to the streets for anything more than symbolic protests would not seem to be an option.  Those who stayed home on election day, or spoiled their ballots, are unlikely to form an easily mobilized force to counter the rise of the Social Democrats as the country’s dominant—if not yet hegemonic—party.  The question now is whether the constitutional revisions to governing institutions will provide the promised efficiencies without undermining the political pluralism that has distinguished Kyrgyzstan from its authoritarian neighbors.

Notes

[i] The amendments were presented to voters as a single package, and so only a Yes or No vote on the entire array of proposed revisions was possible.

[ii] For a comparison of constitution-making in post-communist countries, see Anna Fruhstorfer and Michael Hein, Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe: From Post-Socialist Transition to the Reform of Political Systems (Wiesbaden: Springer, 2016).

[iii] Eugene Huskey, Kyrgyzstan – President Atambaev Seeks to “Idiot-Proof” the Constitution by Reducing the Power of the Presidency, Presidential Power Blog, 21 January 2016. http://presidential-power.com/?p=4352  This post discusses some of the changes to the legal system included in the constitutional revisions, which are allegedly designed to root out corruption in the judiciary but will certainly lead to greater executive control of the courts.  For other changes see Bruce Pannier, “What’s in Kyrgyzstan’s Constitutional Referendum?” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 8 December 2016.  http://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstan-constitutional-referendum-whats-at-stake/28164053.html

[iv] Anna Kapushchenko, “Atambaev raskritikoval Otunbaevu i eks-ministrov za nedovol’stvo popravkami k Konstitutsiiu,” Kloop Media, August 31, 2016. http://kloop.kg/blog/2016/08/31/atambaev-raskritikoval-otunbaevu-i-eks-ministrov-iz-za-popravok-v-konstitutsiyu-glavnoe/  In the middle of President Atambaev’s speech, which was given on Independence Day on Bishkek’s main square, former President Otunbaeva demonstratively walked off the stage to protest Atambaev’s attacks on her and other members of the Interim Government.

[v] See United Nations Human Rights Committee, Views Adopted by the Committee under Article 5 (4) of the Optional Protocol concerning communication No. 2231/2012,  CCPR/C/116/D/2231/2012, 11 May 2016.

[vi] Tat’iana Kudriavtseva, “Kak v Kyrgyzstane khodili na referendumy po konstitutsii,” 24.kg, 12 December 2016.  http://24kg.org/obschestvo/41447_kak_v_kyirgyizstane_hodili_na_referendumyi_po_konstitutsii/  The table of referendum results provided in this article, based on information from the Central Election Commission, mistakenly includes a 75 percent Yes vote for the 2007 referendum, but that is the percentage of eligible voters, not those actually voting, which is the method used for other years in the table.

[vii] The head of the Central Election Commission admitted to being surprised by the high percentage of invalid ballots and suggested that the sensitivity of the new electronic counting machines could have been at fault.  “Glava Tsentral’noi izbiratel’noi komissii rasskazala, chto ee udivilo na referendume,” Sputnik Kyrgyzstana, 12 December 2016.  http://ru.sputnik.kg/politics/20161212/1030753631/mnogo-nedejstvitelnyh-byulletenej-dlya-nas-neozhidannost.html The recent introduction of biometric identification for voters, which required citizens to get finger-printed, was one reason for the lower turnout rate.  A significant share of Kyrgyzstani voters had not gone in for biometric registration before the referendum, and even some who did register did not find their biometric registration on record at the voting precinct.  “Institut ombudsmena vyiavil nekotorye narusheniia izbiratel’nogo prava na vyborakh nakanune,” Akipress.org, 12 December 2016.  http://kg.akipress.org/news:1350601?from=kgnews&place=newstopic

[viii] There were reports, for example, of teachers employed by the state serving as “get out the vote” teams for the Yes camp.

[ix] “Omurbek Tekebaev: ‘Atambaev sposoben na postupki.  Esli referendum ne proidet, on uidet, kak de Goll’’,” Novye litsa, 29 October 2016.  http://www.nlkg.kg/ru/interview/omurbek-tekebaev-atambaev-sposoben-na-postupki-esli-referendum-ne-projdet_-on-ujdet_-kak-de-goll-

[x] In the weeks before the referendum,the Ata Meken Party’s criticism of the proposed constitutional changes led to the collapse of the ruling coalition and the effective expulsion of Ata-Meken from its ranks.  “Koalitsiia: Ushli, chtoby vernut’sia…no bez ‘Ata Mekena’,” KirTag, 25 October 2016.  http://kyrtag.kg/standpoint/koalitsiya-ushli-chtoby-vernutsya-no-bez-atamekena-/

Weaker Presidents, Better Semi-presidentialism?

9781137387806

Sophia Moestrup and I have just published another edited volume on semi-presidentialism. This time the focus is on Semi-presidentialism in the Caucasus and Central Asia. There are contributions from Alex Baturo on vertical power in the post-Soviet space, Alexander Markarov on Armenia, Jody LaPorte on Azerbaijan, Malkhaz Nakashidze on Georgia, Dmitry Nurumov and Vasil Vashchanka on Kazakhstan, and Matto Fumagalli on Kyrgyzstan. Sophia and I contribute two chapters. The first addresses some misconceptions about the notion of semi-presidentlaism, such as the idea that semi-presidential regimes must have quite powerful presidents but never very powerful or very weak presidents, and also that autocracies cannot be semi-presidential – they can, not least because semi-presidential regimes do not have to comprise only countries with quite powerful presidents. Our second chapter sums up the contributions to to the volume and argues that weaker presidents make for better semi-presidentialism. This is a brief summary of this second chapter.

The main attraction of institutional analysis is that it has the potential to generate better political outcomes. Given the assumption that institutions matter, we may be able to craft them so as to mitigate or even eradicate some of the negative outcomes that would otherwise be caused by the behaviour of political actors. We wish to draw one institutional policy recommendation from this book. All else equal, countries with weaker presidents are likely to experience better outcomes than countries with stronger presidents.

There is evidence from Armenia, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan that weaker presidents have been associated with better outcomes. In Kyrgyzstan the decline in the president’s constitutional powers has been dramatic. That said, the shift to a weak president is relatively new, dating back to 2010. Kyrgyzstan also has a history of democratic reversals. So, we should avoid any definitive judgement at this early stage. More than that, the shift occurred in the context of the collapse of the previous regime and the desire on the part of the constitution builders to trammel the power of the presidency, which was seen as one of the main obstacles to democratic consolidation under the previous regime. This suggests that any positive effects of the weak presidency may be endogenous to the choice of the new institutional framework. All the same, we note that the early period of the new constitutional framework has been marked by less presidential posturing, less executive/legislative conflict, and, for now at least, less democratic backsliding. These are positive signs.

In Armenia, the decline in presidential power has been less dramatic. The president’s constitutional powers were never as great as the other countries in the region. Moreover, even after the passage of the 2005 reforms, the president still enjoyed some not inconsiderable constitutional powers. What is more, as in Kyrgyzstan, the context in which the president’s powers were reduced in 2005 means that we have to take account of the problem of endogenous institutional choice. Further still, Armenia remains a hybrid democratic regime in which there is plenty of political competition, but where democratic procedures have been manipulated to the advantage of incumbent power holders, although perhaps less so in the most recent elections than previously. In this context, we have to be careful about any lessons that we might we wish to draw from the Armenian case. Even so, we might benefit from thinking counterfactually. What would be the situation if there were now a super-president in Armenia? Would the situation be worse? We cannot know. Yet, we do know that in practice there was a form of super-presidentialism after the passage of the 1995 constitution. We can also confidently claim that this period marked the low point of democratic performance in Armenia to date. Armenia has not experienced a weak presidency, but it has experienced very strong presidents. It is not unreasonable to conclude by comparing the experience of the 1995-2005 super-presidency and the post-2005 period that the latter was less problematic.

By far the strongest evidence, though, comes from Georgia. Here, there were two periods when the problem of endogenous institutional choice was at least partly offset because of a dramatic change in the political context. In the first period there was a very strong president. In the second period, there was a very weak president. In this latter case, it is tempting to think in terms of quasi-experimental conditions. In the same historical, cultural, economic, and social context, there was an institutional treatment, namely the move to a weak presidency. The result has been much better political performance. The period of cohabitation under the previous president-parliamentary form of semi-presidentialism was marked by intense president/prime ministerial conflict as well as conflict between the president and the government and legislature generally. By contrast, the recent period under the weak presidency and a premier-presidential form of government has, to date, been characterized by much calmer relations. Indeed, this latter period is doubly interesting because the president distanced himself from his former political allies immediately after his election. The resulting situation should not be classed as a period of cohabitation, but it is certainly not a period where the president’s loyalty to the ruling party has quashed, perhaps artificially, any political competition within the executive branch. While there have been major disagreements between the president and the government, they have not become regime threatening. Indeed, arguably, post-2013 president/government relations in Georgia resemble those in countries like the Czech Republic or Slovakia where weak but directly elected presidents act as a counterweight to the government, but where there are no serious attempts to assume real presidential power.

If we are right to conclude that weaker presidents are better presidents, then we also wish to assert that the party system is an important intervening variable, as indicated above. It is perhaps no coincidence that in Georgia there has been a solid parliamentary majority since 2013. In other words, the president has not had the opportunity to try to offset his weak constitutional powers by building an alternative and potentially destabilizing pro-presidential coalition within the legislature. We might add that there has also been a relatively stable legislative majority in Kyrgyzstan since the 2010 reforms. Again, the president has not had the incentive to craft a majority that is personally loyal to him and that often requires the distribution of state resources in a geographically skewed and perhaps even corrupt way. In Armenia, by contrast, presidents have not always enjoyed a parliamentary majority and have been forced to forge coalitions in the legislature. This perhaps helps to account for the continued presence of a patronage president in a way that harms the rational functioning of the regime and democratic performance. Indeed, the recent constitutional reform that will introduce a parliamentary system after the next electoral contests might confirm this suspicion. The introduction of a parliamentary system and a weak president should be a positive development on the basis of our logic, but it may merely be a way of maintaining patronage politics in the context of an uninstitutionalized party system.

So, we acknowledge that many economic, social, and political factors affect political performance. We also believe that the party system is a particularly important variable for determining the practice of presidential politics. Even so, we claim that political performance is likely to be better when presidents have fewer powers. This suggests that constitution makers should consider the benefits of reforms that reduce the power of their presidency. We are aware that our conclusion assumes that institutions matter and, therefore, is susceptible to the problem of endogenous institutional choice, but we would like to address the endogeneity problem by arguing that even endogenously chosen weak presidents are better than endogenously chosen strong presidents. In other words, we believe that there are benefits to be gained from the endogenous selection of weak presidents. We should endeavour to create the conditions for decision makers to calculate that their system would benefit from a weak presidency. Fundamentally, if we are right that weak presidents bring benefits, we are unconcerned whether this outcome comes about endogenously or exogenously. That said, even if institutions are chosen endogenously, political actors still have to interpret the institutions with which they are faced. At some point, the economic, social, or political context is likely to change. At that point, if not before, institutions may have at least a partly exogenous impact. In those circumstances, it is better to have a weak presidency in place than a strong one. In other words, we would encourage upstream efforts to create the conditions for a constitutionally weak president. We believe that there are benefits to be gained from a system in which actors are willing to work without the presence of a super-president and that these benefits are likely to be both endogenous to institutional choice and at some point exogenous too.

We wish to make one final point. We promote the idea of a weak presidency, but we also wish to promote a weak presidency in the context of a wider constitutional and political system in which there is a genuine separation of powers and checks and balances. For example, we are not convinced that there are benefits to be gained from replacing a system in which there is a super-president and a weak prime minister by one where there is a weak president and a super-prime minister. This merely shifts the problem. It does not replace it. And it may characterise what is about to happen in Armenia. Let us express this point differently. We are not opposed to weak but directly elected presidents. As we argue in our introduction to the volume, semi-presidential constitutions are consistent with both very strong and very weak presidents. We prefer the latter. Let us make the same point in another way. We do not believe that parliamentarism with a weak but indirectly elected president is necessarily a guarantee of better political performance if there are no checks on the prime minister in the parliamentary system.

To sum up, we are happy to recommend a directly elected president as long as the president’s powers are weak and are exercised in the context of a system in which power is not concentrated in any political actor.

Kyrgyzstan – President Atambaev Seeks to “Idiot-Proof” the Constitution by Reducing the Power of the Presidency

Constitutional reform has been a national pastime during Kyrgyzstan’s first quarter-century as an independent state.  Since the adoption of the first post-communist constitution in 1993, Kyrgyzstan has introduced new constitutions–or significant constitutional changes–six times.  From 1993 to 2007, under Presidents Akaev and Bakiev, these institutional reforms were designed to concentrate greater power in the presidency and to keep the political opposition off balance.[i]  However, in the wake of the ouster of President Bakiev during a popular revolt in April 2010, former opposition politicians succeeded in pushing through, by referendum, a new constitution that promised to introduce a parliamentary republic in Kyrgyzstan.  The 2010 Constitution contained numerous provisions that reduced the power of the presidency, strengthened the role of the parliament and the prime minister, and protected the opposition.  However, as we noted in an earlier entry on this blog,[ii] the new constitutional order in Kyrgyzstan retained many features that are associated with semi-presidential rather than parliamentary models of government, including direct presidential elections and the subordination of the security services to the office of the president.

Relegated to a single six-year term by the current constitution, President Almazbek Atambaev is now leading an effort to reduce the powers of the presidency and align the country’s institutions with those of classic parliamentarism, following the script of President Sarkisian of Armenia, who recently engineered a transition from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system.[iii]  The initiative in Kyrgyzstan appears to have the support of the leaders of the country’s five parliamentary parties, which is an unexpected development given that some of these parties had previously favored the return to a stronger presidency.[iv]  Not surprisingly in a country with a vibrant civil society, the consensus of the governing establishment around constitutional reform has generated vigorous opposition from non-governmental organizations, which suspect Atambaev of maneuvering to maintain his political power after he steps down from the presidency.[v]  In the view of some, Atambaev lacks confidence in his ability to ensure that a sympathetic successor will win the next presidential election, and therefore he prefers to take his chances with a parliamentary system, in which his party, the Social Democrats, would play a prominent role.[vi]  For his part, Atambaev has insisted that he is looking forward to a quiet retirement when his term ends in late 2017.  “I am not planning to remain President for a second term or to become prime minister or speaker…..In less than two years, I’ll be going into retirement.  Of course, I’ll sleep and read books, and I haven’t given up my dream of playing the piano.”[vii]

As to why constitutional reform is needed at this juncture, Atambaev points to two dangers for the country under the existing institutional arrangements.  The first is the possibility of “cohabitation,” where two “young hotheads” who are politically and personally at odds occupy the posts of president and prime minister, “with one [the President] controlling the army and the secret police while the other [the Prime Minister] is in charge of the Minister of the Interior, whose forces outnumber those of the army.”[viii] Kyrgyzstan has thus far avoided the perils of cohabitation because Atambaev’s Social Democratic Party has always been in the ruling coalition, usually as the leading party.

The second fear advanced by Atambaev is that the presidential election, always a high-stakes, winner-take-all contest, will be closely contested in 2017. Unlike in his own election in 2011, where he captured 60 percent of the votes and the second-place finisher garnered only 14 percent, Atambaev notes that the next election could be much closer, and “someone could storm the gates [of the White House] if they lost by only .5 percent.”[ix] Atambaev claims that he knows “such dinosaurs,” who are willing to spill the blood of young supporters in this kind of effort.[x]  Therefore, in his view, the country must adopt a constitution that can serve as “defense against a fool” [idiot-proofing].[xi]

However, the proposed constitutional reforms do not merely envisage a reduction in presidential power and a transition from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary model of government.  They also promise to undermine judicial independence, local self-governance, and the freedom of maneuver for individual members of parliament.  In the name of judicial accountability, the reforms would allow the President and Prime Minister, rather than the members of the court, to select the chair and deputy chair of the Supreme Court, who have responsibilities for the allocation of cases and the assessment of judicial performance.  In Russia and some other post-communist countries, this ability to appoint the court’s leadership has seriously eroded judicial independence. [xii]  Furthermore, the constitutional reform would reduce the ability of the judicial branch to restrain executive power by removing the Constitutional Chamber from the judicial system and potentially transforming it into a body issuing merely advisory opinions.[xiii]

The proposed constitutional changes would also strengthen considerably the authority of the leaders of Government and parliament, from the Prime Minister to the heads of parties.  Besides exercising some existing powers now carried out by the President, the Prime Minister would assume several new powers, among them the right to dismiss ministers unilaterally and to appoint the heads of local governments, who are currently selected by local councils.  For their part, party leaders would be empowered to remove from parliament individual rank-and-file members of their fractions who vote against the party line.  Thus, while touted as a corrective to certain perils of the existing constitution, the proposed changes would also weaken the independence of the judiciary and local government and the accountability of the parliamentary leadership.

Standing in the way of the introduction of the new institutional arrangements is Article 4 of the Law on the Enactment of the 2010 Constitution, which states that no changes may be made to the constitution for ten years–that is before 2020–unless they are made by a popular referendum.  Although there is some discussion of trying to circumvent this rule by introducing the reforms through so-called “constitutional laws,” which require a supermajority vote of parliamentary deputies, President Atambaev has stated that he is willing to call a referendum if necessary to revise the constitution.  That Kyrgyzstan has gone almost six years without  a constitutional overhaul is unprecedented, and efforts to block the proposed changes may yet prolong the country’s streak of constitutional stability.

Notes

[i] Eugene Huskey and Gulnara Iskakova, “Narrowing the Sites and Moving the Targets: Institutional Instability and the Development of a Political Opposition in Kyrgyzstan,” Problems of Post-Communism, vol. 58, no. 3 (2011), pp. 3-10.

[ii] Eugene Huskey, “Another Year, Another Prime Minister,” Presidential Power blog, 18 May 2015 http://presidential-power.com/?p=3321.

[iii] On the Armenian reforms, see the entries on this blog by Chiara Lodi, “Armenia–From Semi-presidentialism to parliamentarism,” 16 September 2015, http://presidential-power.com/?p=3805, and “Armenia–The Constitutional Referendum and the Role of the President during the Campaign,” 9 December 2015.  http://presidential-power.com/?p=4231

[iv] Daniiar Karimov, “Atambaev ubedil,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, 2 July 2015. http://www.rg.ru/2015/07/02/konst.html

[v] Aidanbek Akmat uulu, “Konstitutsionnaia reforma: usloviia i sroki,” Radio Azattyk, 13 November 2015. http://rus.azattyk.org/content/article/27362706.html  Some politicians, like Kubatbek Baibolov, former presidential candidate and Minister of Interior, believe that “whatever the real motivations [podopleka] behind the initiative, a transition to a purely parliamentary form of government should be supported.” Ibid.

[vi] Some observers claim that Atambaev favors the indirect election of the president by parliament, but Atambaev has stated that he has no such intent.  As Emil’ Juraev notes, Atambaev’s concerns about his successor relate in part to how he would be treated once he left office.  Without a sympathetic successor, a departing president could be the subject of litigation endangering his property and person.   IWPR Central Asia, “V Kyrgyzstane vnov’ govoriat o politicheskoi reforme,” Global  Voices, 11 December 2015.  https://iwpr.net/ru/global-voices/в-кыргызстане-вновь-говорят-о-политической-реформе

[vii] Leila Saralaeva, “Spasibo nashim liudiam za ikh vyderzhku i spravedlivost’,” Novye litsa, 24 December 2015.  http://www.nlkg.kg/ru/politics/prezident-kyrgyzstana-almazbek-atambaev-spasibo-nashim-lyudyam-za-ix-vyderzhku-i-spravedlivost

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.  The reference is to the ousters of former presidents by crowds that climbed over the White House fence in 2005 and 2010, and the unsuccessful attempt by opposition figure Kamchibek Tashiev to do that with a group of supporters in 2013.

[x] Ibid.  Left unsaid by Atambaev is the possibility that candidates from the North and South of the country could be in a close contest, which could endanger the country’s stability and even its integrity.

[xi] This concept was first advanced by an industrial engineer from Toyota, Shigeo Shingo.

[xii] Peter H. Solomon, Jr., “Informal Practices in Russian Justice: Probing the Limits of Post-Soviet Reform,” in Ferdinand Feldbrugge (ed.), Russia, Europe, and the Rule of Law (Leiden: Nijhoff, 2007), pp. 79-92.  According to some of President Atambaev’s critics, the presidency already dictates many judicial decisions, especially in cases of political corruption.  See Makhimur Niiazova, “Femida–chto dyshlo,” Respublika [Bishkek], no. 24, 19 November 2015.  http://www.respub.kg/2015/11/20/%D1%84%D0%B5%D0%BC%D0%B8%D0%B4%D0%B0-%D1%87%D1%82%D0%BE-%D0%B4%D1%8B%D1%88%D0%BB%D0%BE/

[xiii] The Venice Commission and other international organizations have expressed their concerns about the proposed reforms.  Anna Ialovkina, “Kyrgyzstan: popravki v Konstitutsiiu ‘neizbezhny’,” Institute po osveshcheniiu voiny i mira [Institute for War and Peace Reporting], 3 July 2015. RCA Issue 764.  http://www.refworld.org.ru/docid/559fc6344.html

Kyrgyzstan – Central Asia’s Lone Democracy Elects a New Parliament

Citizens in Kyrgyzstan went to the polls on Sunday, October 4, to elect 120 deputies to the country’s unicameral legislature, the Zhogorku Kenesh [Supreme Council]. It was the second parliamentary election under a new constitution that was introduced in the wake of the April 2010 revolution and the interethnic violence of June of that year. Although observers in Kyrgyzstan label the country a “parliamentary republic,” the constitution in fact created a semi-presidential system in which the directly-elected president, currently Almazbek Atambaev, enjoys considerable powers, including the ability to appoint and supervise the “power ministries,” such as defense, interior, and secret police. President Atambaev also serves as the de facto leader of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, which received the largest share of the vote (27.41%) in Sunday’s election. As President, he has the right to select the formateur of the new coalition government, which will clearly be the Social Democrats, who finished seven points ahead of their nearest rival, the Respublica–Ata Jurt Party.

Given the violence and chaos that wracked the country only five years ago, the mere holding of a peaceful and highly-competitive election must be considered an accomplishment of the first order.[i] There were certainly irregularities in some polling places, accusations of vote buying, and a suspicious jump in the turnout rate, from almost 46 percent at 6pm to approximately 60 percent by the close of polling at 8pm. However, international observers monitoring the elections assessed them as highly-contested and noteworthy for the use of the latest technologies in electoral administration.[ii] For the first time, the Central Election Commission used biometric data (thumbprints) to identity voters at the polls. It also forbade the use of mobile phones or cameras in the voting booths in order to maintain the sanctity of the secret ballot and discourage vote-buying or intimidation. The biometric data requirement was not without its downside, however. Observers estimate that there were almost one million fewer voters on the rolls because of this registration requirement.[iii]

The high level of competitiveness of the electoral campaign benefitted from a reduction in the use of administrative resources by officials allied to the President as well as the presence of numerous well-funded parties that were able to get out their message to voters across this mountainous country, where a sizable portion of the population lives in remote areas. According to preliminary figures, campaign expenditures of the parties securing seats in the new parliament ranged from less than 3 million soms ($43,500) per seat by the Social Democrats to over 9 million soms ($130,400) per seat by the Ata Meken party.[iv] The 14 parties that contested the election were also able to reach voters through a series of televised debates whose spirited exchanges and high production value rivaled debates in mature democracies. In fact, the television anchors questioning the candidates–using a bilingual format in both Kyrgyz and Russian–were models of professionalism.

Although the recent increase in the national threshold from 5 to 7 percent in Kyrgyzstan’s closed list PR system was designed in part to reduce the number of parties in parliament, the new parliament will have one more party than the old (6 instead of 5).[v] The preliminary seat totals are as follows:

Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan 38
Respublica-Ata Zhurt 28
Kyrgyzstan 18
Onuguu-Progress 13
Bir Bol 12
Ata Meken 11

Falling out of the new parliament is the Ar-Narmys Party, whose leader, Felix Kulov, had been unable to impose discipline on his members in the previous parliament.[vi]  The incoming parliament will have three new parties–Kyrgyzstan, Onuguu-Progress, and Bir Bol–while one bloc, Respublica-Ata Zhurt, represents a fusion of two existing parties.[vii]

In at least two important respects, the results appear to consolidate democracy in Kyrgyzstan. First, although the Social Democrats were able to increase their seat total by almost 50 percent from the last election, from 26 to 38, they will need to share power with at least one other party, and many commentators believe a three-party coalition, with Kyrgyzstan and Onuguu-Progress, is most likely. Thus, the election did not produce a dominant “party of power” whose support for the president could diminish the political accountability of the executive, a common pattern in post-Soviet states. Second, and in many ways more importantly, the deep political divisions between the North and South of the country that were on full display in 2010 and 2011–during the revolution, ethnic violence, and parliamentary and presidential elections–have receded in this electoral cycle.[viii] Instead of parties with dominant bases of support in the North or South, Kyrgyzstan in this election has moved decidedly toward national parties that appeal to significant numbers of voters in all of the country’s seven electoral regions and its two main cities–Bishkek and Osh.[ix] This nationalization of parties will certainly not eliminate regional divisions, but it should allow the main locus of politics on this issue to shift from the public square to party caucuses.[x]

Although the regional divisions may be subsiding, tensions between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the South of the country show few signs of abating. The strong showing of the Social Democrats in Osh city and Osh regions almost certainly reflects the support of the ethnic Uzbek population for the party of the president. It is doubtful, however, given the virulence of ethnic Kyrgyz nationalism in recent years, that this Uzbek support will translate into significant concessions to the Uzbek population on cultural or political issues.

If the last electoral cycle is a guide, it may take some weeks before the Social Democrats can form a ruling coalition. Besides negotiating over the usual claims to ministerial portfolios and the speakership of the Zhogorku Kenesh, parties will be arguing over the division of the spoils for lower-level appointments in Bishkek and the provinces. What is unlikely to delay the negotiations are disagreements about policy. Kyrgyzstan remains a personality and identity-driven political system, and the October 2015 parliamentary election does not appear to have altered that orientation, which the country shares with most of the developing world.[xi]

Notes

[i] For an overview of conditions in the country at the time of the election, see International Crisis Group, “Kyrgyzstan: An Uncertain Trajectory,” Crisis Group Europe and Central Asia Briefing No. 76, 30 September 2015. http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/asia/central-asia/kyrgyzstan/b076-kyrgyzstan-an-uncertain-trajectory.aspx

[ii] See the press conference of the OSCE Monitoring Team at http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/kyrgyzstan/177111, and the assessment of the largest internal election-monitoring NGO (Dinara Oshurakhunova, “Vybory proshli chisto, dlia vsekh partii byli sozdany odinakovye usloviia,” Gezitter.org, 5 October 2015). http://www.gezitter.org/vybory/44059_d_oshurahunova_predsedatel_koalitsii_za_demokratiyu_i_grajdanskoe_obschestvo_vyiboryi_proshli_chisto_dlya_vseh_partiy_byili_sozdanyi_odinakovyie_usloviya/

[iii] Six weeks before the elections, as part of a bureaucratic turf war, the head of the Central Election Commission severely criticized the State Registration for putting together a voters’ list that he described as “the lowest quality in the history of the country.” “Takogo nekachestvennogo spiska izbiratelei v istorii Kyrgyzstan eshche ne bylo–Abdraimiov,” KirTAG, 29 August 2015. http://kyrtag.kg/society/takogo-nekachestvennogo-spiska-izbirateley-v-istorii-kyrgyzstana-eshche-ne-bylo-abdraimov

[iv] “14 partii potratili na vybory v ZhK 778 mln somov,” AkiPress, 5 October 2015. http://kg.akipress.org/news:624801

[v] Because the new threshold is based on the percentage of actual voters, whereas the earlier threshold was based on the percentage of registered voters, the current threshold of 7 percent is in practice less restrictive than the former 5-percent threshold.

[vi] An indication of the instability of parties in Kyrgyzstan is that during the previous parliamentary session, 56 percent of Ar-Namys deputies switched parties, a level that was on par with that for Respublica (60 percent) and Ata Zhurt (53 percent). The most stable parties were the Social Democrats and Ata-Meken, which witnessed 7 and 16 percent defections, respectively, from their ranks.

[vii] On recent party realignments see Arslan Sabyrbekov, “Party Restructuring in Kyrgyzstan Prior to 2015 Elections,” The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 27 May 2015. http://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/field-reports/item/13211-party-restructuring-in-kyrgyzstan-prior-to-2015-elections.html

[viii] Eugene Huskey and David Hill, “Regionalism, Personalism, Ethnicity, and Violence: Parties and Voter Preference in the 2010 Parliamentary Election in Kyrgyzstan,” Post-Soviet Affairs, vol. 29, no. 3 (June 2013), pp. 237-267; David Hill and Eugene Huskey, “Electoral Stakes, Labor Migration, and Voter Turnout: The 2011 Presidential Election in Kyrgyzstan,” Demokratizatsiya, no. 1 (January 2015), pp. 3-30.

[ix] Regional results are available at “Predvaritel’nye rezul’taty golosovaniia na parliamentskikh vyborakh,” Sputnik, 4 October 2015. http://ru.sputnik.kg/infographics/20151004/1018946828.html Despite the adoption of sophisticated new technologies in some areas of electoral administration in Kyrgyzstan, the website of the Central Election Commission, which publishes results at the precinct, district, and national level, has not been accessible since the election. http://www.shailoo.gov.kg/

[x] One potential source of tension surrounds the failure of a party with its primary electoral base in the South, Butun Kyrgyzstan-Emgek, to cross the 7 percent threshold, garnering just over 6 percent of the votes. This party, led by the charismatic and divisive politician, Adakhan Madumarov, also fell just short of securing seats in the parliament in the 2010 parliamentary election.

[xi] Despite some suggestions to the contrary in the Russian and Western press, foreign policy did not appear to be a major issue in the election campaign. Almost all major parties accept the basic pro-Russian orientation of Kyrgyzstan, and Russia appears to have made its peace with the more competitive and open environment in Kyrgyzstan. Unlike in 2010, when Russian leaders, including President Medvedev, warned that Kyrgyzstan could not survive the transition to a system with a strong parliament and multiple parties, the official line today from Moscow is more tolerant of Kyrgyzstani exceptionalism. See, for example, Vladislav Vorob’ev and Konstantin Volkov, “Liudi ustali ot revoliutsii,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, 2 October 2015, p. 6. Kyrgyzstan’s recent entry into the Moscow-dominated Eurasian Economic Union further solidified ties between the two countries.