Kyrgyzstan elections signal unease with parliamentary rule

Weekend Kyrgyzstan elections came off smoothly and fairly. But they also demonstrate popular unease with reforms designed to prevent a return to one-man rule.

Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters
People pass by an election poster in the city of Osh, Sunday. Kyrgyzstan is trying to form the first parliamentary democracy in a region dominated by post-Soviet strongmen, but this weekend's election demonstrated popular unease with the reforms.

Despite predictions of disruption and fraud, weekend elections in Kyrgyzstan for the first genuine parliament ever to sprout in the turbulent political soil of Central Asia were peaceful and, most reports say, clean.

International observers praised Kyrgyzstan's polls as a mostly free and fair exercise that could go far toward erasing the little post-Soviet country's grim reputation for repetitive cycles of authoritarian rule punctuated by violent street revolts.

A new constitution, adopted by national referendum in June, stipulates that the legislature, which reflects Kyrgyzstan's ethnic and regional diversity, will set policy and determine the composition of government.

But for those hoping the polls might bring stability to Kyrgyzstan, the ominous news is that three of the five parties which managed to vault the 5 percent barrier for winning representation in the new 120-seat parliament are opposed to the new constitution and have pledged to work for restoration of a "presidential" system of strong, one man rule.

"This is the first time that we have had such transparent and objective elections, with a truly unpredictable outcome like this," says Mars Sariyev, an analyst with the independent Institute of Social Policy in Bishkek. "But the outcome is a shock. No one expected an opposition party to take the lead, least of all our authorities. But this is democracy, and we'll have to work with the results."

Russia-US rivalry

Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous country of 5-million at Asia's heart, has been the object of a strategic tug-of-war between Russia, which maintains a military airfield at Kant, and the US, whose airbase at Manas is an increasingly crucial link in efforts to resupply NATO forces in nearby Afghanistan as political turmoil and enemy action threaten to shut down the main route through Pakistan, as was made clear by Pakistan's recent closure of the Khyber pass to NATO traffic, since lifted.

The biggest surprise, with almost all votes tallied, is that the Kyrgyz nationalist Ata Zhurt party, which includes former colleagues of ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was leading with around 9 percent support. Analysts suggest that anxious ethnic Kyrgyz voters may have rallied to the party after bloody ethnic riots rocked southern Kyrgyzstan in June.

The Ata Zhurt party, led by former emergencies minister Kamchibek Tashiyev, has sharply opposed the provisional government since it seized power from Mr. Bakiyev last April, and made its opposition to parliamentary rule a major plank in its election campaign.

Running a close second is the Social Democratic Party, which backs the interim government, with just over 8 percent. The party's leader, Almazbek Atambayev, who'd hoped to be prime minister, ran on pledges of sweeping economic reform.

In third place is the pro-Russian Ar-Namys party, headed by former prime minister Feliks Kulov, with just over 7 percent. Mr. Kulov, whose election billboards featured him shaking hands with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, has vowed to overturn the parliamentary system, as has the leader of the pro-business Respublika party, which also won around 7 percent of the vote. The small, pro-government Socialist Party was trailing with about 6 percent.

Spoils to the victors

The five winning parties will divide up the shares of the 22 parties that failed to take more than 5 percent of the vote, according to a complicated proportional formula. But experts say the upshot is that a governing coalition will have to be formed, and it does not look good for hopes of political tranquility or for the liberal
constitutional order introduced this year by interim leader Roza Otunbayeva.

Ms. Otunbayeva, a former ambassador to the US, declined a chance to assume full presidential powers for herself following last April's uprising and chose instead to craft a system of parliamentary supremacy which she hoped would finally bring real democracy to Kyrgyzstan.

Though the constitutional referendum passed, Otunbayeva quickly found the concept under withering attack from powerful opponents within Kyrgyzstan. Though her plan was welcomed in the West, Russian President Medvedev publicly slammed it as doomed-to-fail at an international meeting last summer.

"I don't think the Kyrgyz people have thought through the implications of constitutional change. What they want is stability, protection from anarchy, for someone to take responsibility," says Sanobar Shermatova, an analyst of Kyrgyzstan with the official Russian RIA-Novosti agency. "What they want is a strong hand. But what kind of
strong hand will parliamentary leaders provide if they squabble among themselves? We're at the beginning of a very long road, and the most important challenge in the coming period will be to keep it within the bounds of legality."

Russian anaylysts were in I-told-you-so mode on Monday. Russia abandoned its own experiment with parliamentary democracy amid a mini-civil war in downtown Moscow in 1993, and Russian officials last week hailed the reversal of parliamentary reforms in neighboring Ukraine in favor of creating a stronger presidency.

"We never opposed parliamentary democracy on principle, but we did say that under present conditions in Kyrgyzstan it won't work," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-sponsored Institute for the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. He says Kyrgyz parties will likely prove unable to create a "vertical of power," a Russian expression meaning a strong, top-down hierarchy of authority, in the way a single executive force is able to do.

"And you see, the majority of Kyrgyz parties do not support the idea of a parliamentary republic either, because it's not based on common sense."

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