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Kyrgyzstan: Pushing Back Against Voter Bribery, But Will It Work?

Members of the electoral commission in the Kyrgyz village of Besh-Kungei, near Bishkek, prepare a polling station for Kyrgyzstan's October 4 parliamentary elections.
Members of the electoral commission in the Kyrgyz village of Besh-Kungei, near Bishkek, prepare a polling station for Kyrgyzstan's October 4 parliamentary elections.

When Kyrgyz voters head to the polls in October 4 parliamentary elections, they’ll be voting not just for candidates from 16 different political parties, but also deciding a larger question: Whether or not their vote is for sale.

In this Central Asian country, where monthly wages average the equivalent of just $234 per month, such transactions have long been the norm, observers say. Nearly a third of Kyrgyzstan’s roughly 6 million people lives beneath the poverty line.

Though the country’s democratic development is considered more robust than that of neighboring China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan ranked 126th out of 198 countries in anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Its political parties, like many throughout Eurasia, generally function according to a patronage system based on “business interests and ‘regional identity,’” stated a 2017 report for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), a government-funded democracy-assistance organization in the United Kingdom.

Former or current government officials as well as oligarchs often put up the cash to finance parties or run them and expect to reap the benefits from those individuals whom the parties have paid to support their interests.

That pay-to-play tactic extends to charging individuals hundreds of thousands of dollars to be included in a party’s list of candidates for Kyrgyzstan’s 120-seat, unicameral parliament.

As a result, ordinary voters can be left by the wayside, the WFD report found.

This year, one Kyrgyz political party hopes to change that. The new Reforma (Reform) party, which has prioritized fighting corruption, describes itself as the first party since Kyrgyzstan’s 1991 independence to rely on donations from ordinary voters. It features no oligarchs among its founders, though its chairwoman, Klara Sooronkulova, did once hold high office as a judge in the Kyrgyz Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber.

As of October 2, the party, half of whose supporters appear to be from the capital, Bishkek, had raised 7.04 million soms (over $88,582) from some 934 voters to finance its campaign. The donations already enabled it to pay the Central Election Commission’s required 5-million-som (about $63,000) deposit to register for the parliamentary elections.

“People gave 100 soms, 200 soms, 150 soms,” said Sooronkulova. Those sums range from just $1.26 to $2.52. “I think that this is an indicator that people want to support the party in which they’re hoping.”

Part of these donations come from party members themselves, made up of primarily young activists, journalists, scholars, IT professionals, and even show business performers. Some of them donated their salary or went into debt.

Unlike other parties, Reforma has placed on its site the names of donors and the amounts of their donations.

Initially, all of Reforma’s resources went into renting an office in the capital, Bishkek, with two small rooms and tiny cubicles, the party says. A table standing in a corner doubles as the kitchen.

Until Reforma paid its registration deposit, few Kyrgyz believed that voters would be willing to donate money to a political party.

In Kyrgyz politics, money often flows in the opposite direction.

“To open an office and pay agitators (promoters), you need a lot of money,” one unidentified opposition activist told an investigation into the influential Matraimov clan’s political activities by RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, the investigative outlets OCCRP and Bellingcat, and the independent Kyrgyz news site Kloop. The activist mentioned a price of 4 million soms ($50,000) to “buy 2,000 votes for 2,000 soms ($25) each.”

Although no party openly acknowledges vote-buying, running for seats in Kyrgyzstan’s parliament does, indeed, not come cheap, according to Central Election Commission records.

At over $1.46 million (116,108, 485 soms), the pro-government party the deep-pocketed Matraimov clan supports, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (My Homeland Kyrgyzstan), had spent the most on the parliamentary elections as of October 2.

A spokesman for the police in the southern region of Osh told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service on October 2 that it had detained one of the party’s aides on suspicion of distributing 313,000 soms ($1,650) in cash to voters. Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, however, denied that the man works on its campaign.

Trailing Mekenim Kyrgyzstan for official campaign outlays were the Kyrgyzstan Party, a ruling coalition member, with more than $1.2 million (96, 301,939 soms), and the pro-government party Birimdik (Unity), which controversially advocates stronger ties with Russia, at just under $1.2 million (94,736,258 soms).

All three parties have extensively purchased billboard space in Bishkek, and appear to dominate the market, locals say. All three are also generally expected to win seats in parliament.

Limits do exist for their expenditures. Kyrgyz law caps campaign spending at 300 million soms (just under $3.8 million). It bans cash donations or contributions from “foreign, state-owned or anonymous sources and religious and charitable organizations,” according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which is monitoring the election.

Parties must publish two financial reports before the elections and a post-vote report that is audited by the CEC, which oversees campaign finance regulations.

Some entertainers and other socially prominent Kyrgyz, however, believe more needs to be done. They are starting to push back against the country’s big-money politics.

Actor Nursultan Kursunali Uulu has filmed an Instagram video in which he parodies the difference between “normal parties” – those that promise to defend voters’ rights – and parties that wildly throw cash around to voters and more.

Kursunali Uulu said that he turned down paid proposals to endorse parties for the election, noting that, if he did so, he would have to answer for their conduct. Usually, parties running for office in Kyrgyzstan don’t keep their promises, he said, pausing to lambast a derelict, apparently publicly funded fence in Bishkek.

“The people aren’t stupid, although it’s possible politicians consider that they’re stupid,” Kursunali Uulu asserted. “We probably understand more than those people who rule our country. We understand them more than they understand us. “

Popular Kyrgyz pop singer Kairat Primberdiev apologized to voters for promoting President Sooronbay Jeenbekov during the 2017 presidential elections. In а recently released song called “That’s Enough!”, Primberdiev sings about corrupt politicians who have robbed voters.

“Enough of taking money before elections!” his lyrics proclaim. “Enough of selling the future for kopecks!”

Despite such appeals, one candidate from Reforma commented to Agence France Presse that the economic turndown brought by the COVID-19 pandemic could increase some voters’ willingness to sell their votes.

"Pro-government parties are extremely rich, and I think they are buying up votes in the villages,” commented candidate Rita Karasartova, without elaboration.

But, ultimately, noted rapper Kaibar, who recently performed in a Bishkek concert intended to discourage young Kyrgyz from selling their votes, that will only cost Kyrgyzstan in the long run.

“As long as we’ll sell votes, our life won’t change,” he said.