Next weekend, Kyrgyz citizens once again head to the polls. While international audiences are attuned to the controversial constitutional referendum that will take place, the local council elections to which the referendum has been piggybacked will be consequential as well.
In February, Colleen Wood urged us to pay attention to Kyrgyzstan’s local elections as they would be “a laboratory for broader political dynamics.” The ebbs and flows of Kyrgyz political dynamics after a tumultuous six months certainly need new maps.
The April 11 vote covers 420 village council elections and 28 municipal (town and city) elections, including in Kyrgyzstan’s two largest cities, Bishkek and Osh. Kyrgyzstan’s local elections — for villages and cities — do not all typically take place at the same time. While this year’s election does not extend to every village and city council, it covers most of them. The convergence of local elections in 2021 is in part due to the fact that 25 village council elections and five city council elections (including Osh’s) were originally scheduled for April 2020 but postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic.
According to the Kyrgyz Central Election Commission, there are 18,772 candidates registered for 7,560 mandates in the 420 village councils. Nearly all of the candidates at the village level are self-nominated, with the CEC noting that just 63 candidates are registered by political parties in those contests.
In the 28 city council elections, political parties are more of a presence, but party composition is a fluid dynamic in Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz idiom for jumping parties is “changing shoes” — politicians change parties as easily as changing their shoes.
The parliamentary election last October triggered protests and eventually boosted Sadyr Japarov from prison to presidency, with the resignation in mid-October 2020 of President Sooronbay Jeenbekov. The protests were sparked, initially, by the election’s preliminary results indicating a victory for the status quo. Only four of the 16 parties contesting the election broke the 7 percent national threshold to secure seats and of those four, two parties secured nearly 50 percent of the votes between them: Birimdik (Unity) with 24.5 percent and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (My Homeland is Kyrgyzstan) with 23.88 percent. The two parties were associated with Jeenbekov (Birimdik) and a former customs chief accused of massive corruption, Raimbek Matraimov (Mekenim Kyrgyzstan), and their strong showings ran counter to the frustration many Kyrgyz had voiced about the government and corruption. The results were soon after annulled; Kyrgyzstan has yet to schedule new parliamentary elections.
Japarov, who was released from jail amid the protests in October 2020, founded the Mekenchil party in 2010 with Kamchybek Tashiev (now head of the Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security) — though in the 2010 election Japarov was elected to the Kyrgyz parliament on the Ata-Jurt party list, with Tashiev that party’s head at the time. The present parliament in Kyrgyzstan includes the Respublika-Ata Jurt faction, the result of a merge before the 2015 parliamentary election that after fell apart everywhere but parliament in 2016. Ahead of the 2020 parliamentary election, Ata-Jurt merged with Mekenim Kyrgyzstan.
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At present, Japarov pledged that there would be no more pro-government parties in Kyrgyzstan and the Mekenchil party is officially putting forth no candidates in the local elections. But as s Kloop analysis shows, some former Mekenchil candidates have merely changed their shoes, as have candidates from Birimdik and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan and others, to contest local city council elections.
In late March, after candidate lists were finalized, Kloop analyzed the more than 11,500 candidates running for city council seats, comparing that list against lists from the October 2020 parliamentary poll. Kloop found 208 people who had been nominated in the 2020 parliamentary election who now are running for city council seats and mapped which parties they jumped to. While they represent a small fraction of the overall candidates, they hint at the politics beneath the surface.
For example, Kloop found that the Ata-Jurt Kyrgyzstan party (running for the first time as such, though arguably an extension of the merger of Ata-Jurt into Mekenim Kyrgyzstan that happened last year) is running 20 candidates in city council elections who ran in the October 2020 parliamentary poll under different banners: seven from Mekenchil, six from Birimdik, four from Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, and one each from Bir Bol, Zamandash and Respublika. Former Mekenchil candidates are running for other parties as well, including Zamandash (which has contested electrons consistently since 2010) and Yntymak.
Yntymak is appearing for the first time in this election, but the party is headed by Marlen Mamataliev, who was number seven on the Mekenim Kyrgyzstan list in the October 2020 parliamentary election. Mamataliev is not himself running for a city council seat but six others who appeared on Mekenim Kyrgyzstan’s October 2020 list are.
Another facet to track is that not every party is contesting every election. For example, 27 parties are contesting for seats in the Bishkek city council, 10 are competing in Osh city, and just five in Mailuu-Suu.
The results of the local council elections, particularly the party-dominated city council elections, will be the tea leaves to read ahead of Kyrgyzstan’s eventual rerun of the October 2020 parliamentary election. On October 22, 2020, the Kyrgyz parliament punted a redo on its elections until after a constitutional referendum. The first part of the referendum took place on January 10, an tandem with the presidential election, and simply asked whether Kyrgyz wanted a presidential or a parliamentary style of government. Although turnout was low, 80 percent of those who voted selected a presidential system.
While local elections (like presidential votes) have no minimum threshold to be considered valid, for a referendum to be legitimate voter turnout has to be above 30 percent. This presents a conundrum for some Kyrgyz who may want to vote in the local council elections, but have no interest in legitimizing the constitutional referendum. According to an explainer by Kloop, Kyrgyz voters have the option to vote in the local council elections but can opt to note take a ballot for the referendum. The explainer comments that a person could, of course, vote “no” on the referendum, or spoil their ballot, but points out that in referendums across the former Soviet Union, the “against” option never wins — suggesting the better bet would be to only take a ballot for the local council elections, getting the referendum rejected on the back of low turnout. If pressured by election officials at the polls to sign for a referendum ballot, Kloop urges people to complain to observers and report the effort to pressure them.