Kyrgyzstan hopeful elections will bring some stability after months of violence

By Peter Leonard, AP
Thursday, October 7, 2010

Kyrgyz hopeful for fair elections

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Kyrgyzstan is set to hold parliamentary elections after months of political instability and violence in what many observers hope could be the first ever fair vote in Central Asia.

Of the 29 parties in the running in Sunday’s elections, at least half a dozen are expected to make it into a newly strengthened parliament, as an intensely fought and often ugly campaign draws to an end.

The prospect of an influential and lively legislature would mark a historic departure for a region in which power is usually held in the hands of authoritarian leaders. The excitement of a possible democratic breakthrough is dampened for many, however, by the dread of persisting chaos and uncertainty.

This former Soviet republic, which hosts a strategically vital U.S. air base near Afghanistan, has struggled to achieve normalcy since former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was overthrown in deadly street protests in April.

In an ominous warning of further possible unrest, New York-based Human Rights Watch warned on Thursday of the residual tension felt in the south, where clashes in June between ethnic Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks left hundreds, mainly ethnic Uzbeks, dead and turned the once-bustling market town of Osh into a shadow of its former self.

Until a few months ago, only parties led by backers of the April revolt had any significant public profile and seemed destined to sweep any electoral contest.

Although according to new election rules, no single party can win more than 65 of the 120 seats available, independent polls show that parties opposing the new constitutional arrangement could cobble together a workable majority.

The left-leaning Ata-Meken and the vaguely free market-oriented Social Democratic Party — both of whom played a key role in unseating Bakiyev — still look likely to claim sizable chunks of the vote. According to a countrywide poll of 1,500 voters, funded by the United Nations and carried out earlier this week, the two parties can expect to garner around 13.5 percent and 11.5 percent of the vote respectively.

But those parties now face stiff resistance from a broad array of groups bent on overturning the result of a constitutional referendum in June that boosted the role of parliament and watered down the president’s powers.

Under the new arrangement, deputies will have to form a coalition in order to be able to choose a prime minister and government in parliament.

Meanwhile, interim President Roza Otunbayeva, who has battled to keep her country from the edge of disintegration, will take on a more formal role as head of state.

The strongest contender for the anti-interim government vote is Ata-Zhurt, an openly nationalist party with a huge following in the south. It has complained bitterly in recent days that it has been subjected to a slander campaign, which party leaders say has been stoked by government officials.

The most politically damaging accusation leveled against Ata-Zhurt is the suggestion that it has received funding from the Bakiyev camp and that it includes several of his former loyalists in its ranks. Bakiyev has been living in exile in Belarus since April.

Turning back the clock on the constitutional reform would horrify backers of the parliamentary system, but the proposition is appealing to some Kyrgyz citizens who see a firm and powerful ruler as a guarantee of stability.

“Chaos and anarchy have again engulfed the country,” said retiree Kamchibek Otunchiyev, 62. “Under Bakiyev, there was some kind of order. He was able to run the country and keep it stable.”

The new form of governance has also drawn criticism from Kyrgyzstan’s closest international partners, most notably Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who has warned that the system was unlikely to work.

This disapproval drew scorn from local observers.

“The parliamentary form is disliked by many post-Soviet countries, because they’re run by presidential systems, or to be more exact, authoritarian regimes,” said Bishkek-based political analyst Mars Sariyev.

Cities across the country have been plastered with billboards advertising political parties, testifying to the vibrancy of the democratic contest. Although democracy rights activists say there is little confirmed indication that the vote will be rigged, some are concerned the vote will nonetheless be followed by street protests if parties feel they did not fare well.

While international observers are heartened by the apparent transparency of the election process, remarks from parties across the board are likely to be a worrying sign for the United States, which relies on its Manas base to ferry troops and fuel supplies to Afghanistan.

Ata-Zhurt leader Kamchibek Tashiyev and some pro-Russian politicians have stated their desire to see the base shut down. Even supporters of the interim government have warned that they would like to see a sharp hike in lease payments for Manas.

Speaking to The Associated Press, business-friendly Ak-Shumkar party leader and former Finance Minister Temir Sariyev said Thursday that a new ruling coalition may seek $100 million in annual rent, up from the current $60 million.

Regardless of the outcome of the election, most Kyrgyz people agree on the need for stability, after recent upheavals have shattered the country’s economy, and left many people dead.

“People are tired of conflict, they are only just coming to their senses after all the tragedy,” Social Democratic Party leader Almazbek Atambayev said. “What we all want is peace, tranquility and order.”


Associated Press reporters Yuras Karmanau and Leila Saralayeva in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, contributed to this report.

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