Originally Published 2010-10-30 00:00:00 Published on Oct 30, 2010
Kyrgyzstan held its first parliamentary election on October 10, making it the first country in the region to opt for a parliamentary democracy. However, leaders of the other Central Asian Republics remain apprehensive of the path chosen by Kyrgyzstan.
Will Kyrgyzstan be able to sustain  democracy?
Kyrgyzstan held its first parliamentary election on October 10. About 55.9% of the population participated in the election, making it the first country in the region to opt for a parliamentary democracy. A national referendum in June led to the constitutional change from a Presidential to a Parliamentary system.

International observers in general have called the election free and fair. Twenty-nine political parties contested for 120 parliamentary seats, of which only five political parties could cross the minimum five percent votes required to enter Zhogorku Kenesha, the Parliament of Kyrgyzstan. Ata-Zhurt with 8.89% votes received the highest votes, followed by Social Democratic Party (8.04%), Ar-Namys (7.74%), Respublika (7.24%) and Ata- Meken (5.6%). The leaders of these five parties are-Kamchybek Tashiyev (Ata-Zhurt), Almaz Atambaev (Social Democratic Party), Felis Kulov (Ar-Namys), Omurbek Babanov (Respublika) and Omurbek Tekebayev (Ata-Meken). 
Though the parliamentary election in Kyrgyzstan is a big leap towards democracy for a region ruled by autocratic leaders, the outcome of the election has raised serious doubts about the future of parliamentary system in the country. Will Kyrgyzstan be able to sustain as a democratic country and restore stability? Three of the five political parties (Ata-Zhurt, Ar-Namys and Respublika) that came out victorious support presidential system.

The interim government led by Roza Otunbayeva took charge after the former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who is now living in exile in Belarus, was forced to step down in April. The parties opposed to the interim government like Ata-Zhurt, Ar-Namys and Respublika performed well in the election, raising doubts about the popularity of the Otunbayeva government. Ata-Zhurt, which had strongly opposed the parliamentary system, received the highest vote. With Presidential election due in 2011, political crisis can again erupt in Kyrgyzstan, if the three main political parties go ahead with their opposition to the new system. If Ata-Zhurt forms the government, Kyrgyzstan will face another challenge. The Party is close to Bakiyev and before the election, the Party is said to have stated that it would make way for Bakiyev’s return to Kyrgyzstan. The Party, however, later denied having said so.

The Social Democratic Party, which supports the constitutional reform, came out second in the election. Another pro-reform party Ata- Meken, which was expected to perform better, could barely cross the five percent threshold. One of the reasons for its poor performance could have been the alleged video scandal targeting its leader, Tekebayev. The members of the Ata-Meken Party were one of the main architects of the new constitution and its electoral loss is a blow to the interim government.

No party could get the required majority to form a government and thus Kyrgyzstan is moving towards a coalition government. According to some analysts, one of the possible options is Ata-Zhurt forming a coalition government with Ar-Namys and Respublika, which seem to be a strong possibility. These three parties are opposed to the parliamentary system and are pro-Russia, providing a common ground for the three to cooperate. The other option is Ata-Zhurt and Social Democratic Party joining hands with either Ar-Namys or Respublika. Some also suggest the possibility of Social Democratic Party collaborating with Ata-Meken and Respublika or Ar-Namys to form the government.

Will a coalition government able to address the country’s problems, which is threatened by social tensions and poor economic growth? Kyrgyzstan today needs a strong government to make the country stable, which a coalition government in a nascent democracy may not be able to deal with. Given the present situation, the future of democracy in Kyrgyzstan does not seem too bright.

The challenges before the new government are many. Since April, the country has been torn apart by political and social tensions. First was the violent protest against Bakiyev that led to his removal. Before the country could come out of the political chaos, Kyrgyzstan was gripped by ethnic tension between the two main ethnic groups-Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan. The ethnic clash further intensified the political crisis in the country. Whoever comes to power in Kyrgyzstan has to first ensure stability and bring back the trust between the two communities, which will not be easy, given the past experiences. Can the government headed by Ata-Zhurt regain confidence of the ethnic Uzbeks, who after the May incident feel alienated in the country? The new government also has to bridge the gap between the north and the south. The divide is reflected in the election results too. Ata-Zhurt has received more votes in the south, a stronghold of Bakiyev.

Another major challenge for the new government would be to ensure economic growth. Poor economic development is one of the primary causes of social and political upheavals in the country. Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries in the region. Unlike the other Central Asian Republics (CARs) (except Tajikistan), the country is poor in hydrocarbon reserves. Corruption is yet another issue that the new government has to address. In the last five years, two Presidents have been ousted from the country; both the regimes were charged with corruption.

The transition to democracy not only has far-reaching consequences on the domestic politics but also on Kyrgyzstan’s equation with the two major external players (the U.S. and Russia) and on the future of democracy in the region.
Both the U.S. and Russia are carefully watching the developments in the country. Kyrgyzstan is the only country in the world to host both U.S. and Russian bases. The U.S. has a base at Manas, which is a major logistical hub for the U.S. led coalition forces mission in Afghanistan. Russia since 2003 has a base at Kant and has recently acquired a second base at Osh. There is speculation that if pro-Russian parties come to power, the U.S. would loose its base at Manas. However, given the economic benefits that Kyrgyzstan receives from the base, it does not seem that any government would prefer to shut down the base. Nevertheless, there will be hard bargaining with the U.S.

On the other hand, Russia’s position in the country has been boosted. Before the election, some important Kyrgyz leaders like Almaz Atambaev, Omurbek Babanov and Felis Kulov visited Moscow. These leaders along with Myktybek Abdyldaev, Co-Chairman of the Ata-Zhurt also visited Moscow after the election. The pro-Russian parties opposed to parliamentary system have done well in the election, making way for stronger Russian presence in the country. After the June referendum, Russia has expressed its scepticism for democracy in Kyrgyzstan. The poor performance of the pro-west Ata-Meken Party, on the other hand signals dwindling U.S. position in the country.
At the regional level, the leaders of the other CARs remain apprehensive of the path chosen by Kyrgyzstan. These leaders feel that the countries in the region are not yet prepared for western style democracy, which, if imposed. will lead to chaos. Given the prevailing political instability, economic hardship and social tensions in Kyrgyzstan, the regional leaders’ opposition to democracy is rising. If Kyrgyzstan falters, the prospect of democracy in the region will receive a set back. Forces opposed to democracy would use Kyrgyzstan’s failure as an excuse that the countries in the region are still not prepared for democracy. On the other hand, if Kyrgyzstan succeeds, which at present looks difficult, it  would set an example in the region. 

(Angira Sen Sarma is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

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