Case Study in the shortcomings of PR: Kyrgyzstan 2010

Kyrgyzstan held a legislative election on October 10, a major election in that it is the first since a April 2010 coup ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and the first since a June referendum in which a parliamentary form of government was adopted in stead of the traditional presidential form of government, in vogue in most of the former Soviet Union and especially in Central Asia.

Authoritarian President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who himself had ousted an authoritarian leader (Askar Akayev) in 2005, was overthrown in a coup in April 2010 and a provisional government led by Roza Otunbayeva. A constitutional referendum, held in the midst of ethnic riots between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in southern Kyrgyzstan (the native stronghold of Bakiyev and a nationalist hotbed) in June 2010, approved a change from a presidential system of governance to a parliamentary system of governance. Presidential elections, originally scheduled for October 10, were delayed by a full year to October 2011 partly as a result of the underlying crisis in the country. Kyrgyzstan is of vital importance in the region as it is a key strategic point between Russia and Afghanistan, and as a result it houses both Russian and American bases. Though the provisional government’s early moves were thought to be pro-Russian, Russia has apparently been annoyed at the creation of a parliamentary system.

The election for the 120 seats in the Supreme Council were held through closed-list PR, with the threshold for representation being 5% of registered voters and obtaining more than 0.5% of the vote in all 9 provinces. As a democratic system in its infancy, political parties are likely in their early days and reflect the main political leaders and lobby groups vying for a share of power.

The main parties were the conservative Ata-Zhurt, a southern-based nationalist party thought to be close to Bakiyev,  the governing pro-American and pro-parliamentary Social Democrats (SDPK) of the incumbent President, the  pro-Russian and anti-parliamentary system Ar-Namys, the Respublika outfit led by some wealthy oligarch and finally the centre-left pro-government Ata-Meken.

Here are the results:

Ata-Zhurt 8.88% winning 28 seats
SDPK 8.04% winning 26 seats
Ar-Namys 7.74% winning 25 seats
Respublika 7.24% winning 23 seats
Ata-Meken 5.6% winning 18 seats
Butun Kyrgyzstan 4.84%
Ak-Shumkar 2.63%
Zamandash 2.11%

Yes, you read correctly. The largest party has just 8.88% of the vote (though a bit over 15% of the votes cast, turnout was 55%) and the five parliamentary parties account for only 37.5% of the votes (though 67.1% of the votes actually cast). It still means that 62% of voters, a lot of whom did not turn out, are unrepresented. This election will become a case study in the shortcomings of PR systems, even if some people who will use it as such won’t even know what Kyrgyzstan is. Clearly, the most ridiculous aspect of the system here is the fact that the threshold is based on the registered voters and not valid votes actually cast, something which penalizes all parties and in which non-voters are given a role far larger than they deserve. For example, if the threshold had been a much saner and traditional 5% of valid votes cast, Butun Kyrgyzstan would have gotten in easily, but they miss out only because of the relatively low turnout. In a country like Kyrgyzstan, riots and protests as a result of this election and the hand-wrangling which could follow is certainly not impossible.

My comprehension of Kyrgyz and Russian being what it is, I haven’t hunted down results by province, but Wikipedia, which isn’t a reliable source but whatever, has mentioned that Ata-Zhurt dominated the south but barely cleared the other threshold, 0.5% in each province, in the Bishkek and the northern Chuy Province. The 0.5% threshold may have good intentions in that it could prevent an exclusively regional-based party from emerging (something which is a major danger in fragile countries such as Kyrgyzstan where secession is a major threat), but it could turn out to be ridiculous in that it would also result in the non-representation of certain key regional interests. Imagine such a system being applied in Spain!

The election was still largely free and fair, a very positive result for the country as it tries yet another transition from authoritarian sham democracy to liberal democracy. Yet, the divisive results of this election as well as Ata-Zhurt’s first place showing is a cause of concern given that it could lead to further instability (like in Iraq post-election) and parliamentary division as parties struggle to find coalition partners.

These elections have given a bad name (somewhat unfairly) to proportional representation, remains to be seen if they’ll also give a bad name to parliamentary regimes in the region dominated by strong presidential systems.

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    Posted on October 13, 2010, in Kyrgyzstan. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

    1. This is a case study in the shortcomings of thresholds for representation, not a case study in the shortcomings of PR.

      A lot of PR systems have thresholds for representation bolted on, but they don’t have to – doing so deliberately makes the system non-proportional.

    2. The thresholds are more and less due to kept out extremist parties in parliament. In Germany, for exemple this is especially important.

      Another example of a weird result due to a 10% threshold is the Turkish election in 2002 where ALL outgoing parties were defeated with no MP with 43% of voters having their party not represented in parliament.

      This made out that a party which had 34% of the popular vote had 66% of seats and another party which had 19% of the popular votes had 34% of seats.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkish_general_election,_2002

    3. thresholds keep SMALL parties out of the parliament. many extremist parties are able to cross even high thresholds (Hungarian Jobbik would cross almost any) and, of course, many small non-extremist parties are not able to gain parliament representation because of the threshold.

    4. Isn’t it more conventional when you give a percentage per party, you mean a percentage of votes cast and not a percentage of electorate?

    5. Normally that would be the convention Bancki yes, but as we’re dealing with a system that has a 5% of registered voters its probably more instructive. Having seen this result in a few places though this was the first to make that fact clear to me. Nonetheless, it is a fascinatingly odd result.

    6. Yeah, I agree with Edmund. Proportionality was messed up by an absurd threshold system combined with low turnout and excessive partisan divisions. Anyways, that’s still an improvement compared with precedent regimes.

    7. Also, what kind of party is Butun Kyrgyzstan ? I wonder if the Parliament escaped to another nationalist block or if they were pro-government.

    8. Great minds think alike!:
      http://whoruleswhere.com/2010/10/12/kyrgyz-still-desperately-short-of-vowels/

      To answer some of the questions on here Bhutun Kyrgyztan are a Kyrgyz nationalist party with their links in Osh and the Bakiyev movement. They are effectively a more hardline Ata-Dzhurt.

      I haven’t seen regional breakdowns either but I would have expected Ata-Dzhurt’s support to be in the south. So far rallies by excluded parties in the north have brought out a few hundred people, and in the south a few thousand.

    9. Butun Kyrgyzstan is a pro-Russian and nationalist party. Their demand for a recount is supported by Ata-Zhurt quite actively, while the government seems uneasy with the issue.

    1. Pingback: Electoral Digest: October 24-30 2011 « World Elections

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