Kyrgyzstan elects a new president today. The winner will replace Roza Atunbayeva, who helped lead the April 2010 uprising that drove President Kurmanbek Bakiyev from the country and led to Kyrgyzstan’s freest and fairest elections since the USSR disintegrated in 1991. Since the 2010 revolution, Kyrgyzstan has revised its constitution to move from a presidential system to one in which the presidency is single-term, largely ceremonial job, and parliament and the prime minister wield the most power. In spite of the position’s diminution, today’s presidential election has attracted dozens of candidates, including a few heavy hitters.
Where there’s a presidential election in an uncertain democracy, there will be concerns about electoral malfeasance. One of the biggest concerns about today’s vote in Kyrgyzstan centers on the partisan use (or abuse) of state resources. As a recent post on Eurasianet reported,
As voters in Kyrgyzstan prepare to elect a new president on October 30, allegations that some candidates are using their official positions to influence the campaign – employing ‘administrative resources,’ in local parlance — continue to saturate the Kyrgyz press.
The principle of avoiding partisan abuse of state resources seems clear; for challengers to have a fair chance, incumbents should not be allowed to take advantage of their incumbency by using state funds or bureaucracies as extensions of their political campaigns.
In practice, however, this sort of violation is particularly hard to judge, because the line between governing and campaigning is inevitably fuzzy. For example, if an American president showers a disaster-stricken state with recovery funds a few weeks before a presidential election, is he doing the right thing or trying to win votes?
And the complications don’t stop there. The use of state resources for partisan ends is also subject to something economists call the principal-agent problem. This problem arises in any situation where one party (the agent) acts on behalf of another (the principal). When the two parties have different interests and the principal cannot perfectly monitor the agent’s behavior, the agent will be tempted to pursue his own interests instead of the principal’s, and principal will find it hard to keep the agent on track.
In the context of elections, the principal-agent problem helps us see how partisan activity by state employees might not always be the fault of the candidates on whose behalf those employees appear to act. State bureaucrats will often have good reason to believe that favoritism from powerful officials will help them advance their careers, and election season gives bureaucrats a great opportunity to curry favor by demonstrating their loyalty. Without any instructions to do so, bureaucrats seeking personal advantage might end up doing partisan tricks with the resources at their disposal. Where one candidate is widely favored to win, those partisan tricks might all end up pointing in the same direction without any conspiracy or coordination. In other words, what looks like an organized plot to sway an election through the partisan use of state resources can also occur by emergence, like geese flying in formation without being told to do so.
If Kyrgyzstan’s front-runner is to be believed, this is exactly what’s happened in the run-up to today’s presidential vote. As RFERL reports in this election-eve story (emphasis added),
Kyrgyz presidential candidate Kamchybek Tashiev has accused the frontrunner in the race of using official resources to aid his election campaign…Tashiev said at a press conference in Bishkek on October 28 that Almazbek Atambaev, who stepped down as prime minister last month to run for president, was using his official ties to the government to help his campaign.
“The authorities are trying to use all sorts of dirty methods to turn the election result in [Atambaev's] favor,” he said. “We all see how starting from the Central Election Commission, governors, district governors, and municipal chiefs are scaring teachers, doctors, students, ordinary people, and veterans; how they are intimidating them [to vote for Atambaev].”
Tashiev, 43, did not give any examples or offer any proof to support his charges…
Atambaev’s campaign staff has denied using any administrative resources since the election campaign began last month. Atambaev did admit during his televised debate on October 27 that some people are trying to “butter him up” and are “overacting” in an attempt to show their support for him as the frontrunner.
In other words, seeing that state resources are being used to partisan advantage does not necessarily reveal that a conspiracy is afoot. And the distinction matters. If Atambaev wins and his campaign was aided by overzealous bureaucrats, we have a structural problem. If Atambaev wins and his campaign was aided by a directed effort to take advantage of his party’s incumbency, we have a cheating problem. The first challenge for Kyrgyz watchdogs and international observers is going to be figuring out if there’s fire behind all that smoke about abuse of administrative resources. If they do find fire, the next–and probably harder–challenge is going to be determining if it was set deliberately by Atambaev or erupted spontaneously under propitious conditions.