Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Electoral Stakes, Labor Migration, and Voter Turnout: The 2011 Presidential Election in Kyrgyzstan

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Electoral Stakes, Labor Migration, and Voter Turnout: The 2011 Presidential Election in Kyrgyzstan

Article excerpt

Abstract: Voter turnout in the 2011 presidential election in Kyrgyzstan revealed a dramatic divide between electoral behavior in the north and south of the country. Instead of the traditional socio-economic factors associated with variation in voter turnout, this study finds that differences in levels of labor migration and perceptions of the electoral stakes explain the turnout gap between northern and southern voters. Building on the work of Franklin and others, this research illustrates the importance of the character of the election in shaping voter behavior.

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There is a growing, but still under-developed, literature on turnout in post-communist elections. (1) The focus of this research ranges from the marked decline in voter participation over the two decades of the post-communist era to regional variations in turnout in a single country. (2) Understandably, given its size, diversity, and political importance, Russia has been the subject of most of the research on regional variations in turnout. (3) However, regional diversity in electoral behavior is pronounced in other post-communist countries, witness the east-west divide in Ukraine. In the May 2014 presidential election in Ukraine, turnout rates varied from a high of 78.2 percent in the western region of Lviv to only 15 percent in Donetsk region in the east, a testament to the declining legitimacy of Ukraine's central government among residents in many eastern regions as well as the extent of the fighting. (4)

This article examines the dramatic variation in turnout levels between Kyrgyzstan's north and south, which are divided not just by high mountains but by level of economic development and ethnic, linguistic, and religious features. The stunning 22-point regional gap in turnout levels in the 2011 presidential election is unprecedented in the country's two-decade history and a rarity in the post-communist electoral experience. We argue that although economic conditions and electoral supply influenced participation rates in the north and south, the major reasons for the sharply higher turnout in northern districts were more "missing voters" from the south, who were working abroad, and a significant regional divide in the perceptions of the electoral stakes. Northern voters and leaders appeared to be convinced that they had far more to lose by the return to power of a southern president, especially a president of immoderate views, than southern voters did with the election of a northern president. Thus, political and social context is not only an essential component of any turnout model, as Mark Franklin has insisted, but in some instances it may be the decisive one. (5)

Our analyses of electoral behavior in Kyrgyzstan are based in part on detailed district-level demographic and economic data from the 2009 national census as well as complete district-level--and in some cases precinct-level--electoral results from the 2010 parliamentary election and the 2011 presidential election. (6) These data allow us to distinguish turnout patterns across the country in two elections in close proximity and to find associations between demographic and economic data and electoral behavior at the district level. Using these data, we have constructed a multivariate model that permits us to reach tentative conclusions about the significance and explanatory weight of variables that are associated with turnout variation by district. However, because so much of the variation in the 2011 election is explained by a single variable, the north-south divide, a major challenge for this work is to tease out from various qualitative sources compelling explanations as to why, in the absence of socio-demographic differences that could explain variations in participation rates, northern voters were so much more active than their southern counterparts. (7) Qualitative approaches are especially appropriate when certain structural and contextual factors--and not just socio-demographic or economic variables--play a critical role in voters' calculations about whether, and for whom, to vote. …

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