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KYRGYZSTAN: Focus on voter expectations - OCHA IRIN
Friday 18 March 2005
 
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KYRGYZSTAN: Focus on voter expectations


[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]



©  IRIN

An unprecedented amount of political advertising can be seen in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, in the run-up to Sunday's election

BISKEK, 22 Feb 2005 (IRIN) - Although Kyrgyzstan is set to elect its fourth parliament on Sunday and, possibly, the second president in its history later in the year, voter trust in the election system remains low. If President Askar Akaev keeps his promise not to run for re-election, it will be Central Asia's first change of leader since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Voter turnout is expected to be higher than in previous elections for a number of reasons, including the unique and decisive political moment, events in Ukraine and Georgia which have inspired many voters hoping for change, as well as numerous voter rights awareness raising campaigns, supported by international donors. Moreover, the candidates themselves have matured since 2000 and improved their outreach techniques. Never before have voters been so inundated with so much political advertising reaching out to them from billboards, loudspeakers, television and radio.

Despite all that, most voters in the mountainous state are unconvinced that the elections will be fair and free. "Elections have never been fair before and they will not be fair now," Nikolai Sidorenko, a resident of the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, told IRIN. "I will go and vote, but not because I believe that it will change anything... I don't have anything interesting to do on Sunday and these elections will be a good reason to take a walk."

The NGO Interbilim, which supports the development of civil society in Kyrgyzstan, reports numerous violations observed by their staff. "We have seen many cases of illegal campaigning. The methods are very simple. Candidates' representatives distribute coal, vodka or potatoes to the people, paint their doorways or simply invite the whole house for a free meal," Elena Voronina of Interbilim told IRIN. "Most of those who live below the poverty line are ready to vote for such a benevolent person. Our trainers teach these people that they should vote according to their beliefs and are not obliged to return the favour."

According to the NGO, the population remains passive and poorly informed about the elections. "Many people do not even know the date when the elections will take place. Surprisingly, many of them think we are electing a new president this Sunday. Retired persons remain the most active and best informed group of all," Elena Lamygina, a trainer for Interbilim, told IRIN.

Tursunbai Bakir uulu, the ombudsman of the Kyrgyz Republic, told IRIN that in his view elections in 2005 would be the least fair of all.

"The people are more experienced in elections but they are more cowardly at the same time. They do not pay attention to the candidate's speeches or his promises. Instead, first of all they consider his economic situation. They will vote for those who have stable wealth and who can use it for the benefit of their voters. This time people will choose more businessmen and the current governmental representatives to the parliament and fewer representatives of the opposition," Bakir uulu said.

Uulu said that the modern Kyrgyz electorate suffered from political apathy, noting that the main reason why voters remained passive was their disbelief that the elections would be fair and their conviction that the outcome of the elections had been decided by the authorities from the very start.

UNIVERSITY STUDENTS

The so-called university constituency, comprising 30,000 voters, remains one of the most problematic in the former Soviet republic. It is infamous for the manipulation of students' votes which previously won the elections for all the candidates supported by the Kyrgyz National University. During the 2005 election campaign, the president's daughter, Bermet Akaeva, is running for parliament in the constituency and the university has mobilised its resources to support her election campaign on a scale never before seen.

Two students from the Kyrgyz National University agreed to speak to IRIN about their personal experiences over the last two months but refused to be identified. "We do not want to be on a black list of our national security service. Talking about these things openly will ruin our future career," one claimed.

The university authorities use a combination of methods to influence the voting decisions of their students. The passports of university students who come from outside Bishkek are confiscated and then returned with a registration stamp which makes them residents in one of the hostels and forces them to vote in that particular constituency. "I have received this registration stamp and the university people threaten to kick me out if I do not vote for Akaeva," another student told IRIN.

"The university authorities told our classmates that before the elections we will receive ballots already marked for Bermet Akaeva. We will have to put this ballot in and return the clean one to our deans," he added.

Bermet Akaeva is reportedly the only candidate allowed to conduct meetings freely with students. "We would like to meet other candidates but they are not allowed on campus. Their political advertisements are instantly removed... During our meetings with Akaeva we were warned not to ask any provocative questions. Once I asked her about her family's property and was called out of the auditorium immediately and warned not to ask such questions again," one student told IRIN.

Bolotbek Maripov, who is running against Akaeva in the constituency, confirmed that he too had been prohibited from conducting any meetings with students. "Those who eventually dared to talk to me were put on a list of candidates to be expelled from the university. During a special raid the administration confiscated all alternative campaigning material in the dormitories... Students are not allowed to have their own political preferences," Maripov maintained in an interview with the local Analitika newspaper.

Maripov suggested that students try to resist the authorities by any means possible. "Take the ballot marked for Akaeva and put a second mark against another candidate. This way you will make the ballot invalid."

According to the students, only about 15 percent of their classmates are interested in the elections, while others remain passive, poorly informed or influenced by the university authorities' orders. The youth movement KelKel, which unites about 200 active students from all universities in Bishkek, works to prevent election fraud and tries to convince more young people to use their right to vote.

"We are protesting against unfair elections. Our goal is to achieve a change of power by the means of peaceful resistance. If the results of the elections are falsified and Bermet Akaeva wins, we will protest and demand a second round," the group explained.

VOTERS IN BISKEK

Meanwhile, Bishkek residents remain the least active as compared to other regions of the country. According to the Central Elections Committee, during elections to the local administration held in October 2004, only 34 percent of residents in the capital took part.

The main reasons why people refuse to vote in the elections is their mistrust of candidates, mistrust towards the election system and a conviction that nothing will change whether they participate in the elections or not, according to recent research by the local consulting company Expert, conducted for Internews, an international media freedom support network.

VOTERS IN RURAL AREAS

According to the research, in rural areas and small towns, family ties and tribal relations largely define voters' choices, with many people supporting those candidates whom they know personally. Relatives feel obliged to vote for another relative even if they doubt his ability to serve the constituency in parliament.

Tursunbai Bakir uulu comments that in the capital and surrounding Chui valley, the population is more westernised, more liberal and able to make individual choices, which surprisingly result in a decision to abstain from voting.

"In the rural regions in the south most of the people are traditional and they will participate in the elections due to their inherent respect for the authorities. They live in communities and as long as the candidates have the community leaders on their side - by bribing them, inviting them for free meals - they can be sure that the whole community will vote for them," Bakir uulu explained.

INTERNAL MIGRANTS

One large group, however, which will not participate in Sunday's election, is comprised of people who have recently migrated to Bishkek but have not been officially registered at the place of their new residence.

According to Khalida Rakisheva, director of Bishkek's centre for social initiatives, which works to protect the rights of internal migrants, 77 percent of people arriving to Bishkek come from rural areas in search of employment, with many of them working in the capital's Osh bazaar or other markets.

"Nobody ever counted these people. There could be from 80,000 to 500,000 of them, mostly 14-34 years old. They are a special kind of voters who do not have registration in the capital. According to the law they should go back home to vote, but most of them do not have the money to pay for the fare. So, they are not voting," Rakisheva told IRIN.

People living in new housing blocks built without the state's permission are not registered anywhere and will not vote either. "After the elections many of these people, dissatisfied with the results, will come out onto the streets to protest, but it will be too late. We are informing them about their rights now, telling them to use their voice. If they don't, they should keep their mouth shut for the next five years," Rakisheva continued.

Another problematic group are some 100,000 voters, comprised of those citizens who failed to have their passports renewed or exchanged due to a recent passport reform crisis.

Additionally, the Central Elections Commission made a decision not to organise polling stations for Kyrgyz citizens abroad, something Tursunbai Bakir uulu calls a violation of their civil rights. "What about those 700,000 Kyrgyz citizens who live and work in Russia? Who will vote for them?" he asked.

Now Kyrgyz labour migrants in Russia intend to file a lawsuit with an international court against the actions of the official Kyrgyz authorities and ask the court to protect migrants' civil rights and freedoms.

Whatever the outcome, the mood before this Sunday's election is not one of optimism, but rather of low expectations, outside observers maintain. According to experts, the population does not expect any significant change after the elections, with 53 percent of respondents saying they did not expect their lives to improve.

[ENDS]


Other recent KYRGYZSTAN reports:

Election protests continue,  16/Mar/05

Election protests continue ,  7/Mar/05

Poll ushers in new era of ethnic minority representation,  7/Mar/05

Protests against election results in south,  3/Mar/05

Parliamentary elections fall short of international standards,  28/Feb/05

Other recent Democracy & Governance reports:

MIDDLE EAST: Weekly round-up Number 13 for 12-18 March 2005, 18/Mar/05

SOMALIA: MPs wounded as fighting breaks out during peacekeeping debate, 18/Mar/05

BURKINA FASO: Dial SOS Circumcision and stop girls being cut, 18/Mar/05

ETHIOPIA: Q/A with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on Africa Commission report, 18/Mar/05

BURKINA FASO: Genital mutilation -- a knife-wielder and a victim tell their tales, 18/Mar/05

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