Weise: Kyrgyzstan’s electoral challenges

June 5, 2010, 5:01 p.m.

Kyrgyzstan faces two critical electoral events in the aftermath of the 7-8 April unrest that resulted in the ousting of President Bakiyev and the seizing of control by the Interim Government (IG). On 27 June a national referendum will be held to adopt a new constitution, the draft of which is currently published and the topic of much debate within the Kyrgyz and international expert communities. Parliamentary elections have been proposed for 10 October. Much work needs to be done immediately by the IG, Central Election Commission (CEC) and local authorities in order to organize these national-level events. There will be direct correlations between the successful administration of these elections and the stabilization of the country, the legitimacy of the power usurpation by the IG and ultimately the newly elected leadership in October. It will be critical, therefore, that both the referendum and October elections are competently administered and relatively free, fair and transparent. However, the interim and local governments and electoral commissions face considerable challenges in the months ahead, and the system of electoral administration in the country will be severely tested. Upcoming Contests While it is unclear how much of a contest the referendum will be, certainly the October elections will be heavily contested by a variety of political forces. Experts generally believe the five IG leaders need to stay to together for the referendum. However, there is already some distancing from the draft constitution by some within this group, with more than one member claiming privately they have not even read the text, while others support a stronger presidential system. Politically, it is generally accepted that the situation is anything but stable and that factions outside or inside the IG are possible leading up to the October elections. Amongst the IG leadership there are known political and personal adversaries. Outside of the IG there are also many familiar political leaders, who could rival them for political control in the coming months. The same is true for political parties such as Zamandash, Turan and Zhani Kyrgyzstan. There is also growing concern over the emergence of influential youth groups in Kyrgyzstan. These groups feel they should be credited with the ousting of Bakiyev, yet have been kept out of the interim leadership of the country. While lacking the political harness to enter the ruling circles at present, they nevertheless remain a dangerous and potentially destabilizing force. Akayev and Bakiyev supporters present additional fronts which can attempt to destabilize the situation in coming weeks or months. Given the internal and external uncertainties, one would expect contentious and competitive power struggles to ensue in the upcoming months, particularly before the October elections. Conspicuously absent from debate is a Plan 'B,' should the referendum fail. Contentious elections and a referendum that 'has to pass' could lead to excessive reliance on administrative resources, Election Day fraud, more challenges from political parties and observers and results contested in the court system. A Question of Competence As there have been numerous electoral events in Kyrgyzstan in recent years, observers mistakenly construe that election commissioners at the various levels understand their responsibilities and the practical aspects of their jobs. However, election commissions of Kyrgyzstan as of yet cannot administer elections at an internationally accepted level of competence. There are a number of reasons for this. First, election results in recent years have been 'altered' consistently at the levels of the oblast and central election commissions. There has been little incentive for local commissions to tally results properly and nothing in the way of sanctions applied to lower level commissions for failure to follow election procedures. In fact, the opposite was true, as precinct commissioners who failed to come up with the requested turnout and vote allocation were under considerable pressure to do so. Second, the interim CEC is largely composed of members (11 of 15) who have little or no elections experience. There are also a number of reports that the secretariat, the implementation arm of the commission, may be changed before the referendum and/or elections. Third, there has been little international training assistance since 2005. While some organizations have worked with the CEC on training materials and methodology since then, there has been no real training program conducted for the polling station and other lower commissions in advance of an election or referendum. Fourth, in addition to natural attrition, there is, according to the IG leadership and interim CEC, a real desire to replace previous election commissioners. While the wisdom of a complete re-staffing would be questionable and may prove impossible, it appears that a number of personnel changes will take place. Fifth, Kyrgyzstan's Electoral Code is complicated by numerous and overly elaborate procedures. The results protocol, for example, contains excessive, nebulous and seemingly redundant steps that confound even experienced, international election experts. It is critical, therefore, that all levels of commissions receive quality, comprehensive training before the upcoming referendum and October elections. Recently, the interim CEC requested financial support for training close to 30,000 election commissioners for the referendum. However, without technical assistance in addition to financing, these trainings will be devoid of modern adult learning methods and recognized best practices. Failure to provide sufficient training of international standards will result in many procedural mistakes and quite possibly the inability to accurately capture the intention of voters. Such a scenario can only serve to seriously undermine the credibility and acceptability of results. Turning the Voters Out There is a prevailing belief that there is little reason to be concerned about a lack of participation in these elections. This is in light of the legacy of regular elections instilled in the Soviet era and Kyrgyzstan's amazingly high turnout in recent elections. Yet, while it is true previous elections have achieved official turnouts from 70 to 100 percent, the actual turnout has been far, far lower. Turnout was simply inflated. Authorities routinely pressured precinct and higher level commissions to increase the final turnout as the true turnout was feared to be embarrassingly low. Moreover, the actual inflation of the voter turnout was even greater than it appeared. The official turnout is determined from poor quality voter lists, which contain thousands of deceased, 'ghost' and migrated voters. So, even if 100 percent of physically present and legally eligible voters showed up, the turnout never could have approached 100 percent. As a consequence of this legacy of high numbers, there will need to be a significant voter turnout in order to legitimize the change in power and create acceptability of the constitution and the newly elected leadership. The artificially high turnout of previous regimes puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the IG to facilitate a turnout that at least appears respectable in the eyes of the citizens. This pressure is seen behind the decision to lower the turnout threshold to 30 percent for the referendum. Setting the bar lower may be interpreted as a positive sign: the IG recognizes the difficulty of reaching a high turnout given Kyrgyzstan's voter registration issues, but is reluctant to resort to tactics to artificially inflate numbers. Regardless of the rationale behind lowering the threshold, the only way to achieve a respectable turnout will be for the interim CEC and government to undertake extraordinary voter education and motivation initiatives. While citizens need to be educated on the contents of the constitution in order to make an informed choice, equally important is the need to simply connect Kyrgyz citizens to this basic document and overcome the apathy to electoral and political processes in general. Over the last 10 years there has been the equivalent an election or referendum every year, with results that have been highly questionable if not comical. A case in point: the exclusion of Ata-Meken from the most recent parliament election through some creative legal drafting coupled with a dubious CEC decision resulted in close to 30 percent of all citizens' votes being simply 'wasted', and a parliament that did not reflect voter's intent. If the current regime is unable to successful address the general voter malaise, there will be no real way to realize turnout thresholds, save resorting to administrative resource use or inflationary measures. Failure to reach thresholds, legal and psychological, will undermine the legitimacy of the elections, the IG and, to a certain extent, the events of 7 April. Getting to Free and Fair Elections Some practitioners contend that what is ultimately important is that elections be relatively free and fair; competence in administering them does not matter. As long as there is a level playing field, the process of voting and count tabulation is secondary. While it is conceivable to have a properly administered election in an environment that is neither free nor fair, (for example, where there are excessive uses of administrative resources, dubious legal decisions, biased media etc.), competency in electoral administration is actually a prerequisite for a free and fair election. The independence of election officials from external pressures also requires some basic competency in job performance. Should an official be forced or asked to subvert procedures on Election Day, it is impossible to think that the official can object to such directives if correct procedures simply are not known. In some countries procedures are simplified to such an extent that major errors in conducting the poll and tallying of votes are largely avoided. However, the complex natures of Kyrgyzstan's electoral code and Election Day procedures create opportunity for frequent and significant error. As a number of political parties will be heavily contesting the October elections, doubts could emerge on the accuracy of the results for the parliamentary contests if problems in electoral administration are widespread. As a consequence, the integrity and legitimacy of any resulting government would be undermined. Conclusion The next six months will prove a critical test for the new regime and Kyrgyzstan itself. The ability of current leadership to both run the country and stay largely united is bound to be strained. With the ultimate leadership of the country up for grabs in the fall, this new elite will surely, and naturally, disorganize after the 27 June referendum (if they have not already done so). Electoral management bodies, themselves likely reconstituted and somewhat lacking in experience, will have to work with arcane and sometimes contradictory procedures, while carrying the enormous responsibility of transferring accurately the will of a people whose appetite for electoral democracy is as of now uncertain. These challenges for the interim government and electoral institutions are far from exhaustive, but they are certainly sufficient to jeopardize the future of elections and governance in Kyrgyzstan. What can be done by the interim authorities, aided by the international community, to address these issues in the days remaining before the referendum and months before elections may ultimately determine the trajectory of the country going forward. It will not be easy. Gavin Weise is IFES' Deputy Director for all programs in Europe, the former Soviet Union and Pakistan.

comments powered by Disqus