Two collapsed coalitions, the odd bloody nose, and the delicate matter of a stolen bicycle: As Kyrgyzstan’s first truly multi-party parliament enters its third year, observers and participants agree that the legislature has a lot of growing up to do.
When Kyrgyzstan adopted a new constitution in June 2010, the president lost key powers over finances and personnel appointments. Drafted hastily with the experiences of two venal, self-aggrandizing dictators still fresh in the collective memory, the concept of a restrained executive was cheered by civil society groups and career politicians. That November, 120 parliamentarians from five parties took their seats in the new parliament.
Today, four of those five parties have experienced internal turmoil and have seen rebel factions emerge. Parties are still, many observers say, driven more by personalities than policy. Absenteeism is rife. And entering the second half of its five-year term, discussions about how to reform a seemingly lawless legislature are beginning in earnest.
Whereas once the focus of public discontent was executive excess, now it is a parliament that has forgotten its boundaries, says Elmira Nogoibaeva, director of Polis Asia, a think-tank.
“Parliament now interferes with the judiciary and security – [which is] the field of the president. It blocks and unblocks websites,” she explained. “Badly organized,” today’s parliament “is far worse in terms of quality than its predecessors.”
A 2012 study by Citizens Against Corruption, a prominent NGO, backed up Nogoibaeva’s concerns. Citing deputies’ poor knowledge of existing legislation, the study found the current legislature spends twice as much in government funds than the last parliament to adopt new laws.
If the legislature has specialized in one thing, it is what Nogoibaeva calls “wars of kompromat,” using the Russian term for compromising material.
She cites the special commission that investigated members of the Ata-Meken party for looting during the April 7, 2010, uprising that unseated President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. The accusations took up “whole days” of parliament’s time. Nogoibaeva points to a struggle between two faction leaders – Omurbek Tekebayev of Ata-Meken and Omurbek Babanov of Respublika – whose infighting brought down the parliament’s governing coalition in September 2012, less than a year after the first coalition collapsed. During a parliamentary session last September, a member of Babanov’s party delayed proceedings to allege that one of the Ata-Meken MPs facing looting charges had stolen his son’s bicycle. The commission took five months and ended inconclusively, with half the members refusing to sign off on the findings.
“Personal quarrels” continue to play a greater role in the legislature than “political positions,” admits MP Narynbek Moldobayev. Having entered parliament as an MP for Ata-Jurt, Moldobayev now represents a three-man splinter group, “For Reforms,” following disagreements with Ata-Jurt’s leaders.
“The Kyrgyz are a freedom-loving people,” Moldobayev told EurasiaNet.org. “If some faction leader comes knocking, telling us what to do, we’ll say: ‘What are you knocking for? You might break your hand!”
Moldobayev’s former boss, Kamchybek Tashiev, has stood out for how he has used his hands since Ata-Jurt entered parliament. Bloodied during a scrap inside the legislature in early April 2011, Tashiev briefly faced charges for sending a party subordinate to the hospital following another altercation that same week. Tashiev is currently serving a one-and-a-half year jail sentence for violently trying to seize the parliament building last October.
Combined, Ata-Jurt and Respublika have lost 13 of their collective 51 MPs to splinter groups with names such as “Harmony” and “Progress.” Two deputies from Ata-Meken went independent following fallouts with their party boss in March 2012. A fourth party, Ar-Namys, endured an embarrassing moment as an opposition force in 2011, when 10 of its MPs announced they were joining the governing coalition.
“Parliamentarianism is still in its kindergarten phase,” argues Sheradil Baktygulov, an authority on Kyrgyzstan’s constitution with the Institute for Public Policy in Bishkek. Baktygulov praises parliament for being “a forum for discussing and managing conflicts among various interest groups,” and suggests the legislature’s performance could be improved by replacing the party-list system with competitive local elections.
“At the moment we have five ‘communist’ parties in the parliament, each with their own dictator,” said Baktygulov of the tendency for parties to coalesce around individuals, rather than use ideas as the glue that keeps them together.
Baktygulov adds that the party-list system has “failed to create a connection with local communities.” To be included on a party’s list, one must be accepted by that party’s leader. Critics say the system encourages informal payments and ensures seats are held by wealthy businessmen with selective interests in lawmaking. Voting records show a regular absentee rate of over 25 percent. On one occasion last November, only 17 of the 120 deputies appeared. And a new law enabling proxy-voting means the absentee rate is growing.
Maintaining that it is better for quarrels to take place “inside the walls of parliament,” rather than on the streets, MP Moldobayev accepts that catcalling and fistfights have weakened public faith in the legislature. “The other day I was at a phone-in at a radio station. Callers told me: ‘We don’t trust our MPs; you only fight among yourselves.’ I understand them completely,” he said.
Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.