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 intense.
With only three decades since independence, Kyrgyzstan does not have a long democratic tradition. The early years post independence involved a period of turmoil and complex social, economic and political changes, leading to revolutions in 2005 and 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 peaceful transfer of power via elections.
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. Following official request from the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) for UNDP assistance, a Needs Assessment by the UN Department of Peacebuilding and Political Affairs (DPPA) identified these and other challenges as requiring attention, and mandated UNDP to develop support to the countries’ parliamentary and local elections.
In accordance with the key objective of UN electoral assistance to assist UN Member States in their efforts to hold credible elections that have the full confidence of the electorate, 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 percent of the electorate below the age of 40 — a very young voting population — the time is ripe for addressing five key areas.
1. Combat vote buying and voter intimidation
The financial factor — money — should not decide the outcome of an election. Still, concerns over the misuse of public resources, pressures on voters, and vote-buying are frequently cited in past reports by international election observers. Over time, sustained civic education for voters to understand all aspects of their rights in a democratic society is critically important. In the near term, 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. There is no possibility for anyone to see how another person has voted, as the biometric voter’s register is offline on election day, and the automated ballot boxes use an entirely separate system using only manual input. Unfortunately, voter intimidation tactics are sometimes used also to stop people from voting. The Youth Lab invited young people to contribute their ideas on how to persuade their peers not to sell their vote — and this generated 18 new communications products that are now online in several media. The CEC has also used humor as a tool to raise awareness of voting confidentiality and the campaign “Don’t Sell Your Vote” has been endorsed by a number of media “influencers”.
Some political parties apply undue influence — such as paying voters for their loyalty — to gain support and Kyrgyzstan is challenged in intercepting, investigating and prosecuting offenders, not least due to scant evidence. The recently adopted regulation of electoral campaign financing helps level the playing field by limiting contributions and imposing spending limits. It discloses the sources of campaign financing and spending so that the voter can make an informed choice of the party, including on the basis of funding.
With the help of UNDP, the CEC created “Candidate”, a digital platform which contains all information about political parties participating in the elections, including detailed information about campaign financing, such as spending pattern and transparent identifiable contributions. This is a groundbreaking new product, and the media have already begun querying and reporting on the parties’ financial performance. In addition, it allows the CEC to verify parties’ reports of funding source acceptability by consulting other governmental databases and thereby determining possible violations.
The introduction of the new platform included public dialogues on the importance of transparency in political party financing, as this legal regulation is being implemented in the national elections in Kyrgyzstan for the first time, and requires public discussion to form a new culture of reporting. Training sessions were conducted for political parties on the new rules of the game, and for NGOs and media on how to monitor campaign financing.
2. 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 voters register. Through successive registration rounds, this number has reduced to below 400,000, many of them in rural, remote areas. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic however, the conditions have disabled further outreach and registration rounds in the months leading up to elections.
In view of large numbers of labor migrants in the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, and Turkey there is a significant number of unregistered voters among labor migrants in these countries, a group that was also identified as disadvantaged in past elections. With support from UNDP, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the CEC has created “Mobile Registration Teams” who travel to places with a density of Kyrgyz citizens residing abroad and raise electoral awareness, collect biometric data and provide consular registration so that citizens can be included in the voter list. To reinforce the process, the CEC hosts weekly online meetings with Diaspora leaders and members of their associations. Through this work, 32,000 voters abroad are now registered to participate in elections, and polling stations in missions abroad now number 45.
A comprehensive information campaign underpinning this includes innovative new features such as a chat bot that responds to queries, and a special hotline for migrants where Kyrgyz citizens living in Russia and Kazakhstan can call free of charge and receive advice from the CEC on how to exercise their voting rights. The operators of this hotline are persons with disabilities, youth, pensioners and ethnic minorities, thus increasing inclusion on the side of the duty bearers.
3. Support women in politics
Women are increasingly underrepresented in elected office and in state bodies. On the campaign scene, discrimination and defamation of women is still common. A recent decision by the Parliament to also set a 30 percent quota for women 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. On election day, the CEC will uncover an exhibition of past women political leaders, developed with UN Women.
The CEC has made significant efforts to increase women’s capacity to participate in politics. An ongoing national information campaign informs the voters about increasing women’s participation in the electoral process. The platform “Our Vote” is being developed in the Kyrgyz and Russian languages, with educational materials on women’s participation in politics, including an online theatrical performance, a series of interviews with famous men and women of Kyrgyzstan on the importance of women’s political representation, and a series of comics on women’s participation as voters. There is also a relay race on social platforms Tik Tok and Instagram, which helps develop a positive perception of women in politics, dispels gender stereotypes and highlights the importance of women’s participation. Winners of the relay race will be invited to visit the Parliament and learn more about the legislative process.
4. Address human rights and hate speech
Professional and unbiased support from security forces is an integral part of the electoral process. Training law enforcement officials to provide security during elections and the planning processes is therefore an important step in ensuring that security forces are prepared to respond effectively to threats arising during the electoral process. Together with the OSCE and OHCHR, UNDP is conducting a series of trainings for law enforcement agencies on ensuring human rights and electoral security, as well as prevention, investigation and accountability for electoral offences.
The spread of hate speech complicates the electoral process by spreading misinformation, reducing confidence in the electoral process and contributing to polarization of society. The increased risk of complaints can lead to violence and instability. But as political parties compete, they often use strong statements that are not always hate speech. It is critical that law enforcement agencies remain non-partisan and clearly distinguish hate speech from other statements. We are conducting a series of trainings for criminal justice actors — judges, special forces, police and prosecutors — on countering hate speech as well. And have supported the CEC in developing a code of conduct and training material in this regard.
5. 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. UNDP has also played a key role in helping the development of safety protocols and in procuring PPE. At the end of the day, the day of elections will require the cooperation between local officials, elections commissioners, and the general public to ensure that safe and considerate voting conditions are maintained on election day.
In a few days, the people of Kyrgyzstan will go to the polls, and the CEC will service 2,475 polling stations. This 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.