A voter studies information about candidates running in Kyrgyzstan's presidential election. Anthony C. Bowyer
The Kyrgyz Republic held a historic presidential election on October 30 to replace outgoing interim leader Roza Otunbayeva, who assumed the presidency after the ouster of former leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010. In a many ways, the poll not only tested the country’s ability to transfer presidential power peacefully, it also tested its parliamentary system of government — the first in Central Asia.
Otunbayeva set the stage for the first peaceful, election-based presidential transition in any of the five Central Asian republics since independence 20 years ago by deciding not to run in the presidential election.
Yet, this decision did not guarantee the election would go forth without problems. Friction among the five parties in parliament as well as the threat of renewed ethnic violence in the South, presented the possibility that the election could spark further conflict.
Last year’s constitutional referendum and subsequent parliamentary elections, supported by IFES through training for election management bodies funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and via a robust voter education initiative, led to the installation of the first parliamentary republic in Central Asia.
Though plagued by ideological differences and in-fighting among party factions, the parliament elected in October 2010 ultimately succeeded in forming a governing coalition, and it appeared to consolidate its efforts after repeated threat of dissolution.
This parliamentary system was, in effect, on trial during the presidential election as former Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev, a northerner, was challenged by 15 other candidates. His strongest challengers were Kamchybek Tashiev and Adakhan Madumarov, both southerners.
A second round of voting, which appeared prior to Election Day to be a genuine possibility, would have likely pitted the favored Atambayev against one of his southern foes, possibly uniting several parties behind that challenger.
In the end, Atambayev prevailed on the first ballot with approximately 63 percent of the vote, with nearly 61 percent of voters participating, thereby avoiding a run off and forestalling conflict.
This election proved that Kyrgyzstan’s democracy has evolved. The lack of a clear-cut favorite in the election and the types of problems encountered (more systemic and technical than deliberate attempts at electoral malfeasance) are signs of a maturing democracy. Yet further improvement is necessary, both to consolidate the positive gains in this election as well as to apply lessons learned to further improve the election law and procedures.
For this just-completed election cycle, one of IFES’s priorities was to work with young persons via voter and civic education initiatives, funded through both USAID and the U.K. Department for International Development. Focus of the work has been on individual empowerment, and building an inclusive, tolerant society in which the rights of all persons, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or physical disability are respected.
Another priority was to instruct poll workers, which resulted in the training of nearly 80 percent of all members of the 2,318 Precinct Election Commissions in the country (nearly half of whom were first-time PEC officials). This stands as a major success as despite some glitches, the elections were administered on a high level as noted by the OSCE and others.
Additionally, many more persons were enfranchised to vote this year than ever before, supported by IFES’s door-to-door voter registration campaign, which corrected address information and validated the decision to allow one-time “electoral addresses” to be used by voters across the country, many of whom were internal migrants. The electoral address feature was an IFES recommendation that was approved as part of the new election law passed last summer. The experience from this election nevertheless showed that voter registration in Kyrgyzstan remains a work in progress and continued improvement is essential.
Going forward, a major need will be continuing education of citizens on parliamentary democracy and the constant vigilance needed by all segments of society. This is particularly the case with youth, who have faced an increasingly deteriorating basic education system, few economic prospects, and a growing sense of apathy and frustration with the political system. Such civic education has been provided on a regular basis by IFES through its Democracy Camps for high-school age students, which in 2011 included more than 360 participants.
Further, tensions remain between the Russified north and the more traditional, rural south; a challenge Atambayev needs to prioritize going forward.
The stakes are high, with unemployment rampant, a customs union treaty on the table with Russia, and the presence of the U.S. Transit Center at Manas airport.
Kyrgyzstan has entered a new era, one which its citizens desperately hope will bring economic recovery and long-sought peace and stability. Time will tell if the political dialogue matures into constructive engagement among and between the five parties in parliament and President-elect Atambayev.