Oliver Bullough (TCA staff) spent the day of the presidential elections with a team of OSCE observers. Jun07

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Oliver Bullough (TCA staff) spent the day of the presidential elections with a team of OSCE observers.

Driving out of Bishkek towards Kara-Balta, the area the team was covering, the car broke down. No amount of tinkering would make it shift. Looking back from the end of the day, that helpless wait of an hour and a half by the side of the road seemed appropriate. No matter how hard they tried, the observers just couldn’t get things to work like they should. Officially monitoring 25 polling stations, some 50 km apart, Piers’ and Janina’s task was never going to be a simple one. They were hopelessly over-stretched, and despite briefings, largely learning the job as they went along. In the polling stations, sideways glances and whispered asides gave the impression that they were going by the book only while the observers were present. Frequently a local official with no right to be in the polling station, would explain his presence by saying he was checking the heating, the electricity, the food. Of course, as the polling stations were housed in village halls or schools, he had a right to be in his administrative headquarters. He did not have a right to be in a polling station. This causes a problem when the two operations are the same building, and the local dispenser of state patronage had access to places he shouldn’t. In Kara-Balta, the polling station was organized by a large, smart, local factory. It proudly displayed a white and red pro-Akayev poster. The factory’s hundreds of workers walked under the banner every time they came to work and are unlikely to have failed to notice what the management was suggesting. With an electorate of 1,500, they formed a pretty substantial proportion of the voters. No foul play could be proven. The observers simply did not have enough time to examine such irregularities. The OSCE’s task was made frustrating and, at times, downright bizarre by the some of locals’ failure to understand what exactly the observers were suppose to be doing. The man running one of the polling stations saw his biggest problem as being whether he should have provided more of a party atmosphere. He appealed to the observers for advice, and looked unsatisfied and slightly sulky when Piers told him that he thought elections “should be tun”. His station, it is true, was far more restrained than most. Many had pounding music, festoons of flowers and, occasionally, free food. The local pensioners would be sat around the station in their best hats, chatting, smoking, enjoying the sun and watching all the others come in to cast their votes. An old couple cooking a vast vat of plov told me that they didn’t care how the election went – “We are just here to make sure everyone gets enough plov”. An old man, who refused to reveal his name, unlisted a litany of complaints about censorship and misinformation. He couldn’t understand why the state statistics board listed full harvests when their wheat yield had been only half what it should be. He ended by asking Piers to record that under the Soviets they had had 1000 sheep, and now 300. Piers made notes, but whether the OSCE appreciated them is a different matter. Up in the mountains, as the peaks turned the kind of blues and yellows that would have driven an impressionist crazy, the loudest noise was a bitch playing with her puppy. A four-year-old boy brandishing a string whip drove his bullocks past. This was not exactly election fever. The local shopkeeper, whose store displayed Akayev and Atambaev posters next to each other, confided that the men had got together the day before to decide who they should all vote for – “everyone does as everyone does”, she explained. It is hard to observe the democratic process in a country where the underlying mentality seems so completely absent, and it is easy to see why the OSCE’s “democratic norms” remained incomprehensible. The Lenin statues that often flanked the polling stations kept you aware of why democracy’s roots are so shallow. Slopetropalovska’s polling chief proudly showed us a profile of Lenin on the wall – “It is a monument to Leninism”. It seemed a strange thing indeed to have inside a home of democracy. Strangest of all was possibly the wall of cynicism that the observers faced. At the counting station, they found themselves barred from the room where the information was entered into a computer. As this was contrary to the OSCE’s agreement, they asked why and were shown an email instructing the polling stations to for-bid international observers access to these rooms. The email originated from the headquarters of the electoral commission, who the OSCE had conferred at length with. The observers heard several times that state workers had been given a week’s holiday to persuade the villagers to vote Akayev. They were apparently threatened with the loss of their jobs if they refused. In the face of such manipulation, the equal cynicism of the electorate is predictable. An old man in the mountains saw Akayev as bad, but the others as worse. “If we have Akayev, things will stay the same. But, with the others, things could return to 1937.” Maybe this is the problem that the observers face. With a precedent like the Stalin years in the voters’ minds, Akayev has a lot of leeway in how he chooses to define democracy, and there isn’t much that the observers can do about it.