Kyrgyzstan is once again in political crisis. The product of a stagnating economy, accusations of corruption and the failure of the government to rapidly deliver promised prosperity, the latest iteration of the Central Asian republic’s political turmoil highlights both weaknesses that are inherent to parliamentary democracy and the latent potential of Kyrgyz civil society.
Often hailed as a democratic success in a region that is ruled by autocrats, Kyrgyzstan’s political instability inhibits economic and societal progress.
Twice since independence has Kyrgyzstan removed its president from power. Askar Akayev, elected as the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, was pushed out of office in 2005’s largely nonviolent Tulip Revolution. Riots and demonstrations two years ago forced Akayev’s successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, to flee the country. A referendum subsequently approved the switch from a presidential to a parliamentary system under a new constitution.
Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary democracy was erected to prevent the concentration of power in a single person or party, doing away with presidential immunity and allowing only a parliamentary majority to select the prime minister. In the event that no single party has a majority in Kyrgyzstan’s unicameral legislature, the president selects a party to initiate coalition talks.
Last December saw Kyrgyzstan’s first successful transfer of power, from the interim president, Roza Otunbayeva, to the newly-elected Almazbek Atambayev, former leader of the Social Democratic Party. Omurbek Babanov, a prominent businessman and one of the country’s richest citizens, became premier.
At the time, many analysts were hopeful. The new parliament and cabinet were stuffed with experienced professionals. But there was also reason to be skeptical. Many members of the government had served in previous administrations. The system had changed but many of the players remained the same.
Elections in October 2010 had brought five parties to parliament, four of which formed a government. In late August of this year, two parties quit the coalition, the socialist Ata-Meken and the pro-Russian Ar-Namys, while levying allegations of corruption and calls for resignation at Prime Minister Babanov. He resigned on Saturday. A spokesman said that the decision was made because the “formation of a new coalition has practically been decided.”
President Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party has been charged with forming a new coalition. It is likely to pull in Ata-Meken and Ar-Namys but leave out Babanov’s Respublika.
The only party left out of the previous government, the right-wing Ata-Zhurt, has held a plurality of the seats in parliament since 2010 and enjoys wide support among Kyrgyz nationalists, particularly in the south. It was the only political party to call for Bakiyey’s reinstatement after the riots of 2010. Whether it will be invited into the new ruling coalition is uncertain. The remaining three parties don’t need it to find a majority.
Kyrgyz political analyst Mars Sariyev notes that “Babanov is a businessman. He has carried his aggressive business style into politics. It’s beneficial for him to move into opposition and maintain forward momentum.” But momentum will be difficult for Kyrgyzstan to achieve if its political leadership remains susceptible to corruption, partisanship and an inability to compromise.
The country’s present political crisis contains many of the themes of previous rounds of unrest. The recitation of political grievances is close to rote. Every ousted leader has been accused of the same crimes by their opponents and successors — corruption, cronyism and a failure to deliver on promised economic improvements.
Kyrgyzstan has a multitude of issues to juggle, from a struggling economy build almost entirely on gold and remittances to great power pressure from Russia and the United States — both of which maintain military bases in the country — from a history of ethnic tension and periodic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks to a national habit of rejecting governments that don’t deliver on pipedream promises.
It can be reasonably hoped that the practice of even imperfect democracy in Kyrgyzstan will instill the attributes needed for successful government in the future. Though built to encourage compromise, parliamentary systems can make room for endless political stagnation — see Belgium’s 541 day epic journey to form a coalition. But the parliamentary system also allows for political parties to break up an unsatisfactory government without resorting to public protests, which have been the method of ousting every Kyrgyz president to date.
While neither of the country’s two revolutions were exceedingly violent or protracted, that is no guarantee that the next one won’t be, especially given rising tensions between the country’s minority Uzbek population and the ethnic Kyrgyz.
Peaceful change of power means that there is hope for Kyrgyz democracy but the country’s politicians have to move beyond petty squabbling to the difficult business of tackling corruption, ethnic tension and economic woes, sooner rather than later.