About the Authors: Lian von Wantoch serves as Senior Economic Officer in South and Central Asian Regional Affairs, Morgan Taylor serves as a Foreign Service Officer on the Central Asia desk, and Christine Miller serves as a Program Officer in the Office of Foreign Missions.
Earlier this month, I traveled to the Kyrgyz Republic with two of my State Department colleagues as part of the OSCE/ODIHR mission to help ensure free and fair elections. The election ushered in the first parliamentary government in Central Asia. Over the course of two days, we joined more than 250 international observers in learning about the political and security situation in the Kyrgyz Republic before the three of us were deployed to Jalalabad, Naryn, and Osh provinces, respectively.
My journey involved a spectacular eight-hour drive to Jalalabad Oblast. Once we reached Ala-Bel Pass at 3,175 m (or about 10,400 ft), the scenery on the other side of the pass reminded me of the mountains near Mt. Whitney in my home state of California -- that is, until we came around a corner to find a herd of sheep, goats, and horses travelling the road with us, which brought a whole new meaning to “share the road.”
During our first day in the region, we each visited our polling stations to introduce ourselves to the election commission and to develop our route for the following day, when we would be expected to observe five to 10 different stations. On Election Day, we witnessed the polls opening with eager voters lined up outside. People continued to vote steadily throughout the day, often walking long distances from tending flocks in the field, or from working in the town market. Turnout was as high as 80 percent in some of the villages we visited, where parties were well-organized and active.
Polling officials welcomed us everywhere, as did the many party observers. The observers knew the rules and did not hesitate to speak up if they saw anything deviating from them. Questions generally revolved around the type of identification potential voters were using, or how best to assist elderly or blind voters.
We greeted the groups gathered outside each of the polling stations and took the opportunity to discuss the OSCE mission of helping the Kyrgyz Republic reach its goal of conducting a free, fair, and transparent election. These discussions allowed us to dispel any concerns about our presence and to exchange views with people who previously had little contact with foreigners. Questions ranged from our thoughts on Kyrgyz food and the strength of the Kyrgyz people, to what we thought about the political and economic situation in the country.
At poll closing, the counting went smoothly at the station I observed in the village of Itagar, north of Kerben town. The chairman followed the complicated rules almost exactly, calling out the result of each ballot and stacking them on the floor by party, clearly visible to the host of observers, as well as to a group of interested voters peering through the windows. Butun Kyrgyzstan was the clear winner at this station, winning almost 50 percent of the vote. One area for improvement involved the plan to fax the results to Bishkek before taking the original protocol to the regional center. The new fax machines had only one phone number for all the country's precincts to use. It took longer to fax the results than to count all the votes, because so many stations were attempting to fax at once.
After our station closed, my team ventured into the midnight darkness to follow the ballots to the Territorial Election Commission (TEC) in Kerben town. There, we met again with many of the chairs we met earlier in the day, all vying to have their results confirmed by the official election computer (Gas Shailoo, in Kyrgyz) -- a complicated task, as there were several control equations, including 40 data points that needed to add up, before the computer would accept the results.
The journey was long, but it was an amazing experience. We are grateful to the people and government of Kyrgyzstan for allowing us to witness this important event in their history.
Related Entry: U.S. Congratulates People of Kyrgyzstan on Recent ElectionsFollow the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs on Facebook and Twitter.