The basic element of every democratic election is the citizen making his or her choice for political leadership. On Sunday, October 30, I had the opportunity to witness first-hand the commitment to democracy of the people of the Kyrgyz Republic as they went to the polls to vote for a new president. Kyrgyzstan is a small, mountainous, Central Asian country that has been on the path to democracy for exactly 20 years. Despite setbacks, the country has made tremendous progress on its political reforms.
Throughout the campaign and on that snowy, cold Sunday, I was struck most by how seriously citizens take the election process in this country. Kyrgyzstanis from all regions and demographic groups had sharp choices among the three major candidates. They turned out to vote in large numbers, they heard the candidates debate and most chose Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev in a peaceful vote.
But, beyond the result, there was a special element to this election: the role of women. At every level of the process, women's political participation proved once again to be a measure of a unique feature of the political culture of Kyrgyzstan. This starts at the top with President Roza Otunbayeva, whose support for the democratic process and the peaceful transfer of power is truly exemplary. As the first Central Asian leader to voluntarily step down and respect the outcome of an election, she is creating a precedent for the region. She confirmed that her term will end December 31, 2011.
Though there were no women candidates, women participate in virtually all aspects of the political process. Civil society in Kyrgyzstan is open, vocal and diverse and that includes in the media. Dinara Suimaliyeva, one of the moderators of the televised campaign debates, deserves attention for putting tough questions to all the presidential candidates. The debates, which were aired live on the main national TV channel, were the talk of the town for weeks and challenged the candidates to address the public's concerns and questions head on. In a country where elections have most often been about personalities rather than issues, the fiery debates brought substance back into the conversation.
Women brought new technologies to bear on the process. Tattu Mambetalieva, leader of the NGO Civic Initiative on Internet Policy, helped promote better elections by providing an electronic platform for the collection of information on election violations. The project enabled citizens and independent election observers to submit over 1,000 election violation reports using their mobile phones and Internet, while simultaneously creating a temporal and geospatial archive of events at the project website. The map allows one to see at a glance where violations are being reported in real time.
Women were also in the forefront of preparing local observers to monitor the elections, a key component in fostering change over time in how elections are conducted. Dinara Oshurahunova, head the NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, and Ainura Usupbekova, head of the Association Taza Shailoo, led separate efforts to train over 1800 short term and nearly 85 long-term election observers. Dinara Oshurahunova said she received calls from many candidates and the Central Election Commission on Election Day, a measure of the credibility her organization enjoys across the political spectrum.
And, back at the individual polling stations, women played a critical role in supporting the presidential election. As I visited polling stations I talked to dedicated poll workers, men and women. They were working a minimum of 14 hours, and often longer, on a Sunday so that the elections could be held. It was inspiring to see these workers dedication to ensuring their fellow citizens had the opportunity to vote.
The dedicated citizens who worked on election day are part of why the Kyrgyz Republic has long distinguished itself for its robust civil society and it was gratifying to see those and many other organizations active throughout the campaign period and on Election Day. Bringing elections up to international standards takes time and the considerable effort of citizens who care deeply about the democratic process and are willing to be involved. The U.S. Embassy will continue to support Kyrgyzstan's efforts to in this regard and will call on the Central Election Commission to follow the recommendations made by the Office of Democratic Initiatives and Human Rights (ODIHR) mission and other international experts.