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Kyrgyzstan succeeds where others have failed

Observers laud central Asian country's election as transparent and fair.

Kyrgyzstan Election Osh Ethnic Uzbeks
Ethnik Uzbeks vote near their destroyed houses in Osh on Oct. 10, 2010. (Victor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images)

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — One day after Kyrgyzstan held critical parliamentary elections, government officials, diplomats, analysts and most of all regular Kyrgyz citizens are breathing much easier.

Fears were widespread that voting day would be saturated with widespread ballot stuffing, or, worse, violence. But the actual election process was peaceful, free of major violations, and so far no one has challenged the results.

It was a highly welcome piece of positive news, after months of tumult and bloodshed in the ex-communist state of 5.4 million, which is host to military installations of both the United States and Russia. Indeed the elections, as well as the parliamentary democracy that they established, are an exception for much of the former Soviet region, where fixed elections and authoritarian regimes are more often the rule.

“We have not known such elections for the last two decades,” said interim President Roza Otunbayeva. “We can be proud of the fact that these elections were completely different to those we have seen before.”

International monitors said the contest, though marred by some irregularities, was a landmark for its transparency and fairness.

“I was impressed by the political pluralism, the civic responsibility and the spirit of this country,” said Morten Hoglund, the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s observation mission, the main group monitoring the vote.

“I have observed many elections in central Asia over the years but this is the first election where I could not predict the outcome,” he added.

Indeed the final result is still unclear. From a field of 29 parties, only five cleared a five-percent barrier to qualify for spots in the 120-seat parliament. But no party won an outright majority, and all were separated by only a few seats, setting up a possibly protracted period of negotiations.

“I just closed my eyes, stuck my pen out and picked one of the parties — there were so many,” said Ibrahim, a pensioner in Bishkek, one day after the vote.

The surprise winner was the Ata Jurt party, a grouping of ethnic Kyrgyz nationalists that includes a number of supporters of deposed president Kurmanbek Bakiyev. They polled 8.7 percent of the vote and secured at last count 28 seats.

But Ata Jurt are viewed as extremist outsiders, whose main power base is in the country’s south. They may find themselves locked out of coalition talks with the other parties, which are more mainstream.

The next in line are: Social Democratic party, with 8.1 percent and 26 seats; Ar-Namys party with 7.6 percent and 24 seats; Respublika party with 7.1 percent and 23 seats; and the Ata Meken party with 5.8 percent and 19 seats.

But Kyrgyzstan is still far from being out of the woods. The country is dangerously divided between north and south, and among its ethnic groups. The elections also demonstrated the wide spectrum of political opinion. The danger of disagreement or violence is still very real.

The new parliamentary system, with five parties at almost political par, could usher in a period of democratic horse-trading — or continued chaos. Ata Jurt is still the largest party. What’s more, both they and the Ar-Namys party, led by former KGB general and prime minister Feliks Kulov, have spoken out for a return to the centralized authority of a presidential republic.

Another point of potential future tension is the fact that the parties that entered parliament represent only around one third of the votes cast.

But for the moment, these are all worries for the future. The violence of the April revolution that brought the present interim government to power, and then the horrific bloodletting of the anti-Uzbek riots in the country’s south in June, are for the moment a thing of the past.

The overall majority of Uzbek refugees returned to Osh — or were forced to return by the Uzbek government. No polling agencies have broken down the election results yet by ethnic affiliation. But anecdotal evidence indicates that a higher number of Uzbeks voted for Ata Jurt that was anticipated.

Observers were overwhelming in their praise for an election that seemed to reflect accurately the political preferences in this mountainous Central Asia republic.

“The challenge now ahead is how the coalitions will be formed,” said Fabio Piana, head of the United States-funded human rights organization Freedom House. “The Kyrgyz people have done their part — now it’s up to the politicians.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/central-asia/101011/kyrgyzstan-election