I travelled to the northwestern Talas region to observe the Parliamentary Election as an accredited international observer. Most of what I saw there suggested an honest effort to hold a free vote.
Good Faith Efforts
The Precinct Election Committee (PEC) Chairman at my first stop was a young man of about thirty. He was described in the official roster as an ‘entrepreneur’, though later confessed to us that he had not had steady work in many months. He did his work by the book, literally, as he read the instructions aloud while fulfilling the pre-voting tasks: randomly assigning duties to members, unsealing and counting the ballots, and respecting the requests and suggestions of the election observers.
PECs throughout my trip were, on the whole, quite welcoming, open, and willing to show me anything. They were comprised largely new members, many of whom claimed to have been assigned by local self-governing councils. Some were party members, most were unaffiliated.
Voting was moderate, certainly lighter than at the Constitutional Referendum in June, but not brisk enough to make the turnout figure of over 50% seem credible. The pace was higher in the morning, with crowds at several polling places. The atmosphere was generally positive and calm. Probably the most interesting sight was of the dozens of party observers crowding up many of the precincts.
They filled isles upon isles of school children’s chairs. They were often sat in ridiculously improbable positions, along long hallways with no view of the proceedings, on modest school theatre stages as if they were the show. Only a small number represented independent civil society groups. At many locations, several observers represented each of the leading parties, prompting requests from Chairpersons that they arrange shifts to sit in the voting room in order to share the sparse available space.
Nearly all of the obvious violations I observed appeared to be the result of negligence and ignorance among the inexperienced and poorly-trained Precinct Election Committee members. Chairpeople took on too many responsibilities, believing that ‘controlling everything’ was synonymous with doing everything right. Voters attempting to vote outside their home precinct were usually verified by only one member, and rarely submitted statements. Ink was occasionally put on the left hand, while doormen occasionally checked only the right. Safes with spare ballots were left ajar. One parliamentary candidate, a popular boxer from the area, barged into a Precinct through the exit, shook hands with the women, hugged the men, voters, committee members, and observers alike.
The party observers were a halfhearted lot. Of the hundreds I encountered, about a half dozen seemed to take seriously their charge. Not one professed to witnessing any violations. During the day, they mostly chatted with each other, tried to count the number of votes dropped in the box, or sat and stared blankly in their boredom.
Also in keeping with the air of adolescence and informality to the proceedings, Russian pop music blared from each village schoolhouses, advertising the polling places to the masses. As if the dozens of men milling about dated cars in the parking lots and older ladies gossiping in the schoolyards were not clear enough indications of where the action was to be found in the village that day.
The vote count was I observed was particularly transparent – everything in the box was fairly counted and apportioned. The vote even corresponded to some level of logic. Ata-Meken and Respublica, who had top candidates on their lists from from Talas, scored well (24% and 20%, respectively). Ata-Jurt, whose top candidates are from the South and Bishkek, scored exceedingly poorly (1%). The Chairwoman transitioned from mistrusting me, to asking me to review her math. Her counts were way off. And she was an accountant.
What Doesn’t Money Buy?
While the election was free, assuming it was fair would require something of a leap of faith. Circumstantial evidence pointed to multiple voting, though proof was hard to produce. Election laws stated that a voter could vote in the district of their residence, even if they were not on the voter list, if they provided proof of residence. Thus, a voter could vote more than once, if provided with forged documents, or if those documents weren’t checked properly. Invisible ink, the only safeguard against these vulnerabilities, was hard to verify even to the trained eye. We saw one minibus pull out from a precinct after a bunch of young men piled in, each clutching their passports. Several men were getting drunk in a minibus outside another precinct shortly after the polls closed for additional voters. In many places, we found voters coming in small groups. However, these problems were limited, in our observation.
Through dozens of towns and villages in the region, campaign signs provided what little color there was to see. Posters of suited party hacks and Kyrgyz-language slogans in bright reds and yellows lined the main road throughout every habited place. The parties had setup headquarters in each, renting out a modest house or a floor of a failed retail center.
When I asked, more than a few party observers could not recall who their party’s leader was, or even which party they represented. During the final vote count, they scrambled around the room, copying numbers from each other’s papers and asking PEC members for signatures and stamps. The scene was reminiscent of my 11th grade Latin class. I guesstimated that they were paid something like 500 soms ($11) for their time. Many of the PEC members were unemployed or farmers, which made the stipend of 1200 soms ($25) for the Chair and 700 ($15) for the other members well worth their effort.
The conventional wisdom, taken to an extreme, suggested that every leaflet distributing ‘aggravator’ was paid for their afternoon, every minibus driver given some small amount to fly a flag off its antenna. Rumors of vote buying were prevalent even for one-time voters. The streets of Talas was certainly filled with revelers after 8pm. My colleagues joked that everyone was out to spend their various election-begotten per diems. I replied to them – a student and our driver – that they were getting per diems too.
It was clear to me that the election was competitive – at least competitive of a sort. It is thanks to that novel fact that this election may have been the greatest one-day boondoggle to hit the Talas Valley since the fall of communism.