Here is what has happened. Election Day saw numerous reports of irregularities, including vote-buying schemes and busloads of people shipped in to vote at strategic locations where they had been fraudulently registered.
Thousands gathered in the capital, Bishkek, to protest irregularities and voice discontent with the results. When government security forces tried to control the crowds with pepper spray and rubber bullets, these demonstrations spiraled out of control. Protesters occupied the parliament building and the president’s office, demanding new elections.
What’s driving the unrest?
With unrest in other Eurasian countries — including protests in Belarus and renewed fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan — it is tempting to frame events in Kyrgyzstan as the result of post-Soviet legacies or Russian geopolitical ambitions, both common explanations of Central Asian politics. There is no evidence that Russia is driving unrest in Kyrgyzstan, however.
This is not Kyrgyzstan’s first experience with forceful leadership change: Large protests in 2005 and 2010 ousted previous presidents. Both times, protests centered on the public’s frustration with corruption and the involvement of the presidents’ families in politics.
After both revolutions, political elites tinkered with Kyrgyzstan’s constitution and electoral rules, hoping to improve the balance of power between the president and parliament. But President Sooronbay Jeenbekov and his predecessor, Almazbek Atambayev, managed to weaken parliamentary power. This strategy was successful: A study of 1,200 laws and protocols found that parliamentarians vote favorably on bills 98 percent of the time, with almost no debate.
Hoping to reverse these trends, Kyrgyzstanis formed new political parties, but only 4 of the 16 competing parties managed to secure seats in Sunday’s elections. On Tuesday, the Central Election Commission annulled the election results — a move some Kyrgyzstanis saw as a sign of the reform movement’s effectiveness. Instead, this appears to have created a power vacuum. Two self-appointed coordination councils have claimed responsibility for “handling the immediate uncertainty” by choosing new leadership, who would decide when and how to have new elections. Meanwhile one parliamentary faction has appointed a former lawmaker — who until the night before was in jail for hostage-taking — as interim prime minister. This type of extralegal opportunism, however, is what inspired civil protests in the first place.
Political rules facilitate personal gain
Kyrgyzstan’s constitution creates incentives for presidents and parliamentarians to seek personal gain. The constitution restricts presidents to a single six-year term — this was a move aimed at preventing a power-hungry president from overstaying his or her welcome. This weekend, for instance, President Emomali Rahmon in neighboring Tajikistan is up for reelection, having come to power in 1992.
But the presidential term limit means that prime ministers — and those that serve at the pleasure of the president — are functionally lame ducks from the moment they are sworn into office. This institutional arrangement means that leaders worry about their personal legacy or — more realistically, given Kyrgyzstan’s history with revolutions — an “exit strategy” more than they might if they had to face reelection.
In Kyrgyzstan, prime ministers know they will not be in power for long. The country has had nine prime minsters since 2010. These short terms increase temptations for corruption, at all levels of government. This corruption has a devastating effect on service delivery.
Parliamentarians are no less corrupt. Kyrgyzstan’s parties have the power to select party lists, and thus determine which candidates actually end up in parliament. While quotas require every party to put forward a certain number of women, youth and ethnic minorities, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament is dominated by men who have played musical chairs across parties and official posts for decades. Prominent politicians tend to treat parties as vehicles for their personal interests, rather than coherent groups bound by ideological interests and policy preferences.
The country raised the threshold for parliamentary seats
When Kyrgyzstan transitioned to a proportional electoral system in 2007, parties had to reach a 5 percent threshold to take seats in parliament. That threshold increased to 7 percent after the 2010 revolution. It was raised again in 2017 to 9 percent, but lowered back to 7 just before this year’s parliamentary elections.
The idea behind high thresholds is that only the strongest parties will be able to clear the barrier, and they will be best-suited to check presidential authority, but this system can also reduce representation. The four parties that passed the threshold in this election represent only 65 percent of votes cast, effectively blocking opposition parties from government and ignoring more than a third of Kyrgyzstan’s voters. And the parties that secured seats are pro-government, effectively giving the president a supermajority — what the threshold system was supposed to prevent.
Kyrgyzstan has a national one-district, party-list system, which means parliamentarians represent the entire country, rather than specific geographic constituencies. This leaves parties and politicians few incentives to cultivate meaningful relationships with citizens, and diffuses parliament’s accountability to the people. To the extent that politicians represent constituents, they represent narrow community interests in the districts where they were born or currently reside.
As of Friday, Jeenbekov had announced his willingness to resign once it is clear who will be prime minister. Two competing groups have put forward their own candidates for prime minister but parliament has not been able to reach quorum to confirm either.
Given the gridlock caused by Kyrgyzstan’s political institutions, it may seem puzzling that people across the political spectrum — including the president, seasoned politicians and youth activists alike — hold onto the constitution. But Kyrgyzstan has organized several free and fair elections under this constitutional order. It’s likely that many see the constitution’s legal limits (imperfect as they may be) as the only legitimate path forward.
Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili (@jmurtazashvili) is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, and director of the Center for Governance and Markets. She is the author of “Informal Order and the State in Afghanistan” (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
Colleen Wood (@colleenwood_) is a PhD candidate at Columbia University’s Political Science Department. Her research on civil society and identity in Central Asia is funded by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.