The elections in Kyrgyzstan will be a test of democracy and inclusion

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Supporters of the former president Almazbek Atambayev gather during a rally near the Media Forum building in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, 3 July 2019. Atambayev risks being stripped from his immunity from prosecution over a controversial contract with China. [Igor Kovalenko/EPA/EFE]

Next week’s elections in Kyrgyzstan will be a key test of the country’s democratic credentials and could be the most inclusive yet, writes Louise Chamberlain.

Louise Chamberlain is the Resident Representative of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to the Kyrgyz Republic

Boasting a reputation as the only parliamentary democracy in Central Asia and a country with considerable freedom of speech, Kyrgyzstan is approaching its next elections on 4 October. The campaign period leading up to the polls on is dynamic, and competition among the 16 registered parties close.

With only three decades since independence, Kyrgyzstan does not have a long democratic tradition. The early years after independence involved a period of turmoil and complex social, economic and political changes, leading in 2010 to a second revolution and tragic events of ethnic violence.

The Parliamentary elections in 2015 were for the first time largely recognized as competitive thanks to significant investment in technology to eliminate voting fraud and manipulation through the introduction of biometric voter identification and automated ballot boxes.

The 2017 Presidential elections further cultivated stability, and for the first time saw a peaceful transfer of power.

Still, observers raised concerns over limited inclusion, misuse of public resources, and pressure on voters. Women participated less than men; migrant workers and people with disabilities had difficulties registering, and the new biometric system automatically generated a category of eligible voters who were not yet registered to participate in the elections.

As UNDP started preparing a programme of assistance for the 2020 Parliamentary elections together with the Central Electoral Commission and with funding from Japan, Switzerland and Germany, we recognized early on that – beyond upgrading IT systems and equipment – the game-changer for the 2020 elections would lie in the “softer” factors.

With almost 55% of the electorate below the age of 40 – a very young voting population – the time is ripe for addressing four key areas.

Combat vote-buying

Some political parties use undue influence – such as paying voters for their loyalty – to gain support.

The introduction of penalties for misusing public resources and a new campaign finance platform have laid bare the financial transactions of parties for the first time in the country’s history, creating transparency and opportunity for the public scrutiny of practices.

Kyrgyzstan is also challenged in investigating and prosecuting offenders; sustained civic education for voters to understand all aspects of their rights in a democratic society, are critically important.

The electoral commission has maximized the use of social media platforms to inform the electorate about voting rights and to build confidence in the integrity of the voting system.

Include migrant and expatriate voters

Almost 800,000 Kyrgyz citizens were disfranchised in 2017 as they could not register their biometric data as prescribed by the law and thus not included in the voter register. Through successive registration rounds, this number has reduced to below 400,000.

But there is still a significant number of unregistered voters among labour migrants residing in the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, and Turkey. Through the dispatch of mobile teams travelling to these countries to register voters, voters abroad now reach 30,000.

Support women in politics

Women are increasingly underrepresented in elected office. On the campaign scene, discrimination and defamation of women are still common.

A recent decision by the Parliament to set 30 percent quota for women also in local councils is an important affirmative action for women to gain experience in politics at the local level and paves the way for being nominated in their own right to parliament.

Efforts must continue to develop a positive perception of women in politics, dispel gender stereotypes and inform women on their right to participate.

Safe voting during the pandemic

The Coronavirus pandemic has become a challenge for many areas of public services, and elections are no exception. CEC has carefully developed safety protocols and mobilized protective equipment to meet sanitary norms at all stages of the electoral process, ensuring all participants can perform their functions without fear of infection.

The people of Kyrgyzstan will soon go to the polls, and the CEC will service 2,475 polling stations. This next round of elections in Kyrgyzstan could be the most inclusive yet.

The work done now will determine whether voters in all areas and population segments have the courage and liberty to vote for the party they feel best represents their interests, in a true test of Kyrgyz democracy.

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