This EDP Wire was originally published in German with the PRIF Blog under the title “Die Parlamentswahlen in Kirgistan: Ein weiteres wichtiges Puzzlestück im erneuten Autokratisierungsprozess?”
On November 28th 2021, the Kyrgyz population is going to elect a new parliament. Since the political turmoil after the 2020 parliamentary elections, the Republic is faced with a social and political upheaval. A new constitution and a new electoral system have been adopted, more than 400 laws have been revised and both the civil society and the opposition find themselves under increasing pressure.
After the latest parliamentary elections, the “Jogorku Kenesh” in October 2020, protests were held due to a massive electoral fraud. This led to the resignation of president Jeenbekov and the takeover of Japarov respectively. The parliamentary elections were reversed by the electoral commission. But instead of proclaiming new elections as soon as possible, as provided for in the Kyrgyz constitution, the outgoing parliament’s tenure was prolonged and an extensive reform process was initiated, including the drafting of a new constitution. The entire system of government was converted at record pace.
Multiple analyses of experts, including the November 2020 recommendations of the European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission), suggested that “[…] after the legal term of the legislature has expired, the Parliament is only allowed to carry out some ordinary functions, whereas it is not allowed to approve extraordinary measures, including constitutional reforms.”. Nonetheless, this is exactly what happened during the prorogatio – the tenure of the interim parliament. A new consitution was adopted and a thorough revisison of 400 laws has been inititated.
Kyrgyzstan: A country with a volatile political history
Political turmoil and a negotiation process about the drafting of a new constitution are no novelties to the young republic. The past three decades of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan have infact been shaped by numerous political upheavals and revolts.
The “Tulip Revolution”, caused by the highly disputed results of the 2005 parliamentary elections, ended with the dismissal of president Askar Akajev (1991-2005). After violent protests in 2010, which led to the dismissal of president Kurmanbek Bakijev, the provisional governement headed by Rosa Otunbajeva introduced a massive constitutional reform. The new constitution, which was adopted in June 2010, strengthened the power of the parliament and limited the president’s tenure to just one period in office. In the time since, Kyrgyzstan was equipped with a semi-parliamentary system including a competitive party system. Almazbek Atambajev (2011-2017) and Soornonbay Jeenbekov (2017-2020), both members of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), have since been elected as presidents. Following the parliamentary elections of October 4th 2020, protests were held again, during the course of which Sadyr Japarov, who had been serving time in prison due to the abduction of a political rival, was freed and vaulted into office as Prime Minister and Interim President at record pace.
Since October 2020: A new constitution and a new electoral system
The Republic of Kyrgyzstan is currently undergoing a process which is discussed as a “Shrinking Civic Space or a “third wave of authocratization” on a global scale. This process describes the gradual constraint of civil liberties through legal, administrative and extralegal measures of state coercion.
That very process can currently be observed in Kyrgyzstan: It started with a stepwise development in 2010 which has been growing rapidly and openly since 2020. Similarly to a script and as described in scientific literature, tools and instruments are being used and civic spaces are being closed.
The Republic of Kyrgyzstan is witnessing a throwback to a presidential system. The new constitution, which has implemented a new form of government as well as a new electoral system, grants wide-ranging powers to the president, whereas the size and responsibilities of the parliament are heavily restricted. Furthermore, a new executive authority is being established, the Kurultai (Congress of the People), which is not directly elected by the voters and the principal objective of which is to control the executive and legislative bodies. It is not yet known, how exactly the Kurultai is going to operate. Additionally, the new constitution contains regulations to excessively restrict civil and political rights, as highlighted by the Joint Opinion of the Venice Commission and the OSCE/ODIHR. According to the new constitution, individual parliamentarians can from now on be relieved from office by the President or the Kurultai.
Simultaneously, President Japarov has initiated a “process of inventory control” in order to revise the Kyrgyz legislation and to examine whether the laws are in accordance with the new constitution. Under the direction of the Justice Department, interdisciplinary task forces have been appointed to assess and classify the laws.
Although the Venice Commission and several national experts called into question the sixth parliament’s actions’ legitimacy and legality, the parliament has been transformed into a legislative machinery. The whole legislative process was non-transparent and can rather be looked upon as a pseudo-involvement of the civil society. Representatives of the civil society have voiced concerns about the fact that neither the legal text nor the hearing dates were announced publicly. The electoral system, a closed list system, was replaced with a mixed electoral system which provides the election of 54 seats via open, nationwide party-lists and 36 seats via direct mandates.
Elections as a key instrument for the expansion of power and state restructuring
An important element of Shrinking Civic Spaces is the holding of elections as a central tool for the expansion of power and state restructuring, as exemplified by Kyrgyzstan. The upcoming parliamentary elections will likely be another important jigsaw piece in this process. It is rather peculiar that Japarov demonizes the Western world and its values on one hand, but makes use of western and democratic processes in order to cement his own power on the other. Even prior to the elections, the electoral environment was heavily constrained through legislative changes. For instance, the current reform process has gradually confined spaces in the realm of civil society: In summer 2021, a NGO-law was passed which demands a thourough financial reporting from non-governmental organizations while simultaneously paving the way for arbitrary measures against critical NGOs.
The autonomy of the electoral commission and the judiciary was restricted and a new criminal law was adopted, the contect of which is not known to the public. Furthermore, the law “On Protection from Inaccurate (False) Information” was passed, the purpose of which is to further limit freedom of speech, the function of trade unions was restricted, not further defined “traditional” values were proclaimed and critical voices were intimidated. The OSCE / ODIHR election observation mission, which is currently on site and therefore able to provide a realistic assessment of the election process, recognizes a clear process of centralisation as described in their Interim Report.
However, there remains a glimmer of hope: The new parliament, although with limited power, might form an important panel for the public, controversial and critical debate and, in doing so, might be the last remaining institutional channel for oppositionists to make their critical voices heard. The election results will therefore be all the more important. The elections are met with a lively political interest in any case.
A number of parties and personalities enter the race for a seat in Parliament
21 parties and 1.036 candidates are standing for election. Japarov, who has not declared any party affiliation, emphasized his neutrality and the importance of a free and fair electoral process. The parties Ata-Jurt and Ishenim can be described as close to the government.
In addition, there are numerous opposition parties that have organised and formed alliances. The main opposition parties, Ata-Meken and Reforma, have formed an alliance for a joint list. Well-known and popular opposition politicians are among the list candidates: In first place Omer Tekebayev (also known as the “father of the constitution”), followed by Natalia Nikitenko (suffragette and anti-corruption fighter) and in third place Klara Soorunkulova (presidential candidate for Reforma in 2021 and former constitutional judge). Ata-Meken and Butun Kirgistan on the other hand have formed a promising alliance which was joined by other parties. Another opposition party, Respublika, enters the race with Omurbek Babanov (former prime minister and businessman) at its head. The Social Democratic Party, to which former President Atambayev was close to, will run for election as well, although with limited prospects for success.
Dastan Bekeshev enters the race for a direct mandate as a promising independent candidate. However, he and his assistant have come under increasing pressure due to his popularity and prospects of success. Both have been summoned for questioning by the Security Council of Kyrgyzstan after an accusation during the electoral campaign – normally, this would have been dealt with by the electoral commission.
This procedure was classified as an attempt to prevent Bekeshev from being the most promising candidate. The past elections were marked by vote-buying and massive exploitation of administrative ressources to the benefit of the ruling party. The accusations Bekeshev is faced with indicate a state intervention in the electoral process, too. Again, there are reports on vote-buying and the many ressources that government-affiliated parties have recieved for their campaign in contrast to other parties.
On November 28th 2021, the effects of the new electoral system on the competitiveness of political parties and candidates will become apparent. It is considered virtually certain, that the government-affiliated parties will make it into parliament and likely form a coalition. The competition for the leader of the opposition remains an open question. Even if the election day takes place in an orderly manner, we will not see the fair election process that Japarov promised.
The days leading up to the election, but most importanly the election results, will determine Kyrgyzstan’s near future. Will the president be able to continue his consolidation process or will we witness another upheaval? In the recent Kyrgyzs history, protests after elections have led to corrective measures more than once. If these measures do not materialize, no course correction can be expected from the governing authorities. To the contrary, since national control mechanisms have been undermined prior to the elction. Correspondent to the recent Freedom House ranking in which Kyrgyzstan was no langer classified as “partly free” but as “not free”, it can rather be expected that the current development will intensify after the election. Through the election, Japarov’s reform process will recieve a stamp of legitimacy and he will likely carry forward his restrictive policy.