On Sunday, the 10th of October, Kyrgyzstan proved its skeptics wrong and voted in the first ever ballot to elect the law makers of the country. Twenty-nine parties were in the fray with 3000 candidates for 120 seats at stake. Exit polls and early trends indicate that the electorate sees secure future under a coalition and hence has not favoured any single party lest the country runs the risk of returning to the old times.
The election, in a way, is a vindication of the faith of interim President Roza Otunbayeva in the innate wisdom of her people. She championed the new political system even though it was clear that her mentor, Moscow, and neighbouring Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan were unhappy with her plans to make Kyrgyzstan the first parliamentary republic in Central Asia. The ballot was a logical follow-up to the referendum she had held in June on the constitution, which gives key powers, such as the right to choose the Prime Minister, to Parliament.
Otunbayeva has every reason to celebrate the new chapter in Kyrgyzstan’s 20-year history. April revolution (the second in a decade) saw the ouster of president, Kurmanbek S. Bakiyev, who, like his predecessor, became a symbol of cronyism and corruption but was followed by political feuding and vicious inter-ethnic violence. Some four hundred persons, particularly minority Uzbeks were killed in the bloodshed that bordered on ethnic cleansing.
It is too early to confidently assert that the elections will bring about the stability to the impoverished, landlocked nation of 5.4 million. Much would depend on how political parties, particularly, the pro-Moscow Ar-Namys party led by former Prime Minister Felix Kulov, strongly nationalist Ata-Zhurt ( Fatherland) party, and the pro -government parties, Social Democrats and the liberal-orientated Ata-Meken, led by former speaker Omurbek Tekebayev, make their moves.
Several loyalists of deposed President Bakiyev, former generals and police officials have taken their political baptism. Interest will be centered on Kulov as he has pledged to reverse the reform course and take the country back to Presidential rule. In short, there is going to be no dull moment on the political scene.
VIBRANT CONTEST- FAIR VOTE
But one thing is clear. The election had seen a genuinely vibrant contest, with streets plastered with posters (some candidates appeared in their military uniforms) and politicians going the extra mile to win over the women voters in particular. One standard practice on the campaign route was kissing babies.
And the polling itself was a surprisingly smooth affair with about 800 election observers monitoring the vote nationwide. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) stationed some 40 long-term observers around the country and sent another 200 short-term observers on the eve of polling.
The turnout was a robust 56.59 per cent. Osh, in South Kyrgyzstan which was devastated by ethnic fighting, saw the highest turnout of 66 per cent vote.
The Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, a local group, said there had been no significant violations in the election. Both international observers and western diplomats echoed the same assessment saying that the infringements, if any, were minor and that the voting was generally flawless. A couple of instances of poll officials issuing extra ballot papers were reported from Jalalabad. The officials concerned face seven-year prison term for this offence.
There was no money power on display like in some third world countries. A Social Democratic candidate summed up the situation thus; “We don’t have the money to bribe anybody. And nobody is financing us from abroad’. President Otunbayeva reflected the ground reality when she exclaimed that the whole election process had been transparent and open.
The new government’s main task will be ensuring political stability. It also will have to grapple with security concerns in the wake of reports that Islamist militants are making inroads into Central Asia.
Both the US and Russia have military bases in Kyrgyzstan. The US base is located at Manas, outside the capital, Bishkek. In a manner of speaking, the American base has become vital to the Kyrgyz economy in recent months. For Americans, the base is important to ensure troop movement to Afghanistan as the much preferred route through Pakistan has been coming under terrorist attacks and has in fact become a local political football.
For Russia too, Kyrgyzstan is strategically important. It has five military facilities and has just concluded an agreement to open a new base in the South of the country to give Russia the edge it lacks as of now to be a bulwark against encroaching US and Chinese influence. (China’s Xinjiang borders Kyrgyzstan). Russia has similar agreements with Ukraine and Armenia. Expected to become fully operational before 2010 is out, the deal would allow Russia to keep five existing military facilities and the proposed new base operational for 49 years
The new deal appears to be an initiative of Roza Otunbayeva government. According to Russian daily newspaper Kommersant, Kyrgyz defence minister Abibulla Kudaiberbiyev made the offer during a meeting with his Russian counterpart Anatoly Serdyukov in Moscow in early September. He reportedly told his host that Kyrgyzstan wanted payment for the facilities in small arms and military hardware instead of cash.
While time frame for opening Russia’s base in Southern Kyrgyzstan is not yet clear, it may coincide with the deployment of international policing mission in the turbulent region. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had agreed in June to send the policing team to Osh and Jalalabad at the request of Uzbekistan. The demand was backed by Washington as well since there was a general feeling that the ethnic Uzbeks needed to be protected from the Kyrgyz majority in Osh, Jalalabad and other southern cities in particular. But, the government of President Rosa Otunbayeva suggested a delay in the OSCE deployment, saying that it would be “reasonable, timely and useful if the (OSCE) starts actual work in Kyrgyzstan after the parliamentary election.”
Osh and Jalalabad are the strongholds of deposed president Bakiyev. When unrest broke out there in June, the Otunbayeva government called for troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), to help it establish its authority and control. CSTO is Russia-led military alliance. Both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are members. But Uzbekistan opposed the move. And the Americans backed President Islam Karimov and cashed in on his strained relations with Moscow.
For the Americans, Uzbekistan is a key element of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) that feeds NATO troops in Afghanistan. The US is developing Uzbekistan’s Termez airfield as an alternative logistics center to Manas air base. Already Termez has become a stop-off point for German’s military aircraft en route to northeast Afghanistan. Moreover, a major new US base is fast coming up at Mazar-i-Sharif which is close to Afghanistan’s border with Uzbekistan.
Well, for the Kyrgyz nationalists, Tashkent -Washington ties were hot campaign themes in the just concluded parliament election.