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Kyrgyzstan: Decoding Party Programs Amid Parliamentary Election Campaign

The banners are unfurled again for the Kyrgyz parliamentary elections in October. (Photo: Dean C.K. Cox)

The spectacle of Kyrgyzstan’s politicians campaigning for votes ahead of the October 4 parliamentary elections cannot but bring to mind the words of Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. “A party is a group whose members propose to act in concert in the competitive struggle for political power,” he wrote in his 1942 classic Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.
 
That definition seems particularly tricky to apply to the political situation in Kyrgyzstan. After five years of cross-party defections and intra-party mutinies, the 120-member lists drawn up by the 14 parties competing in next month’s elections create an impression that parties in Kyrgyzstan tend to be fragile coalitions of convenience that target a regionally divided electorate.
 
A questionnaire administered by nongovernmental organization Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society provides insight into the political philosophies of the leading parties. The questionnaire was designed to help voters identify the party most compatible with their own beliefs. But it also offers a marker against which the eventual winners of the vote can be judged should they suddenly change their tune once in the parliament. Overall, eight of the 14 competing parties completed the questionnaire.
 
One of the biggest talking points in the last five years of Kyrgyz politics has been whether Kyrgyzstan’s experiment with a parliamentary republic should remain in place.
 
Two revolutions testify to the inherent risks of allowing corrupt presidents and their families to accumulate too much power. While constitutional reforms in 2010 may have put checks on the unbridled acquisition of power and resources by ruling families, parliament has little to show for its five years of work. Critics suggest that deputies have, if anything, mainly hog-tied the state decision-making process while backing laws that violate fundamental rights.
 
Only the Bir Bol and Butun Kyrgyzstan-Emgek parties support a return to the presidential system, the questionnaire shows. Respublika-Ata Jurt, which did not partake in the questionnaire, is known to favor the idea. The Social Democratic Party (SPDK), Ata-Meken, Ar-Namys, Onuguu-Progress and the Kyrgyzstan parties all prefer the status quo.
 
Meken-Yntymagy — dubbed “the most unsure party” by local media outlet Kloop, which published the results of the questionnaire — said it did not know.
 
Another matter Kyrgyz deputies have been unable to leave alone over the last half-decade is the Kumtor goldmine. The mine’s activities are responsible for generating around one-tenth of the country’s economic activity most years, but it has been mired in a protracted ownership dispute between Kyrgyzstan and Canadian co-owners Centerra Gold.
 
Centerra, it seems, will have much to fear if both Ata-Meken and Butun Kyrgyzstan-Emgek make it into the new legislature, since these two parties say they want to nationalize the mine. Centerra executives are likely to be cheered by the fact that the SDPK, which is the party of President Almazbek Atambayev, enjoys an undoubted advantage in the race, and it remains opposed to nationalization. Four other parties share the anti-nationalization stance.
 
Again, Meken-Yntymagy was not quite sure what it thought.
 
In terms of Kyrgyzstan’s foreign relations, six of the eight parties said relations with key strategic partner Russia should be prioritized over those with other countries. Meken-Yntymagy in this instance disagreed, as surprisingly did Ar-Namys, whose party head Feliks Kulov was once viewed as one of the most pro-Russian politicians in Kyrgyzstan.
 
Notwithstanding Kyrgyzstan’s recent abrogation of a key cooperation treaty with the United States after a spat over a jailed human rights defender, only one of the eight parties participating in the questionnaire — Butun Kyrgyzstan-Emgek — believes Kyrgyzstan should decline to accept assistance from Washington. The other parties seem content to keep getting tens of millions of dollars in aid annually. Yet again, Meken-Yntymagy did not have an opinion.
 
Elsewhere, rising Chinese investment was acknowledged as a potential danger by all parties except SDPK and Meken-Yntymagy, while a growing Turkish ‘political, economic and cultural presence’ was broadly welcomed, with only the Kyrgyzstan party opposed.
 
Corruption is widely acknowledged as one of the single biggest problems besetting Kyrgyzstan. Atambayev says his war on graft is a serious one, although only his political rivals have actually been convicted by local courts for graft-related offenses, while his allies have so far eluded punishment when faced with charges.
 
Five of the eight participating parties — not including Atambayev’s — believe the government is taking the wrong tack in the so-called “battle against corruption.” While a slim majority of parties polled opposed a hike in electricity tariffs, and there was a 50-50 split over whether foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations represented a threat to stability, there were also areas of total unanimity among the eight.
 
Among those issues where consensus reigned is the need for the rich to pay more taxes and for the government to intensify control over the “sphere of religious groups.” The latter suggests broad support for the occasionally abrasive secularist approach that has characterized state policy towards non-traditional Islam, proselytizing Christians and other groups, whichever parties make parliament.
 
Only one party (Kyrgyzstan) believes that vigilante groups such as Kyrk-Choro that go to extra-legal lengths to impose what they deem to be national mores should not be prosecuted.
 
Butun Kyrgyzstan-Emgek, led by a bazaar-owning oligarch and a nationalist former parliamentary speaker, is the only party so far to declare support for polygamy.

Kyrgyzstan: Decoding Party Programs Amid Parliamentary Election Campaign

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