Thursday, 22 January 2015

Biometrics and Kyrgyzstan's 2015 Parliamentary Elections

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By Zamira Sydykova (01/22/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

It is not even ten years since Kyrgyzstan went through two revolutions and an ethnic conflict of the summer of 2010, but we are now approaching new parliamentary elections which, as we are promised, will employ new IT technologies. However, even today, more than six months before the elections (they are planned for October-November 2015) these technologies are a subject of concern among the general population and of an even bigger unease among politicians. 

This is the biometrics technology which the government of Kyrgyzstan is making hasty attempts to implement and is so readily reporting every day how many citizens and from which regions submitted their fingerprints.

For Kyrgyz people who already staged two revolutions, one of which (in 2005) was instigated specifically by the falsified elections, each suspicion sparks their revolutionary spirit. Cheated by previous governments, they are very wary of the biometrics and are very apprehensive because they believe that the new elections will spark new instability.

The biometrics technology was only tested during elections by a handful of countries – Mongolia, Bolivia and Venezuela. For instance, in Mongolia, a country with a population of 5 million people, the citizens were fingerprinted and the government retained the fingerprints. Polling stations were equipped with special machines that read the fingerprints of each voter, so on the day of the elections voters would just open up their computers and push on the candidate, party or law that they were voting for and that was it. Voters could vote from anywhere, even if they were in a different city or abroad. The votes were counted immediately.

However, neither Europe, nor the U.S. adopted this approach for reasons of security in general and specifically because this would constitute a violation of the citizens’ right to the secrecy of vote. Their discussions did not even include fingerprinting which in itself is a highly sensitive procedure involving storing highly sensitive information. For instance, in order to collect biometrical data of the 5 million people in Mongolia, 5,000 IT specialists were employed. It is unlikely that they were all sworn to secrecy.

Initially the government of Kyrgyzstan intended to implement an automated system, National Registry of Citizens, which would contain data for different categories of the population. It was later decided to combine this with the voter registration system so that they could obtain a list of voters and their identifying information – all in one registry. But when the campaign to collect biometric data commenced, a lot of issues surfaced. It is entirely possible that this issue would not have gained so much publicity were it not for the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Aside from purely technical issues which were in great detail presented in Kyrgyzstan by the civic organization Citizens’ Initiative for Internet Policy, and in particular, how biometric data will be stored in view of the peaked cyber-attacks around the world (e.g. during the elections in Estonia the database was kept in an embassy of a foreign state), there are many other problems which need to be solved.

Biometric voter registration is not prescribed by any law and neither is it part of the constitution which in Part 4 of Article 2 states, “Elections are free. Elections of the representatives to Zhogorku Kenesh, of the President and representatives of the local elective government bodies are held on the basis of universal, equal and direct right to vote by secret ballot”.

The Government of Kyrgyzstan has announced that those who did not submit their fingerprints would not be allowed to vote. Moreover, even if an individual did provide his or her biometric data but for some reason will be in any other place or outside of the country, the person will definitely not be able to vote. However, internal and external migration in Kyrgyzstan are very high. It is inevitable that civic activists will be filing complaints with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of the Kyrgyz Republic about violation of their voting rights. This, in turn, will add to the chaos surrounding the upcoming political process in the country.  

Part of the population is already of the opinion that the electronic voting will be easy to falsify, whereas the political elite who is poised to take part in the elections yet needs to figure out what rules will apply. At this time the parliament of Kyrgyzstan has on its docket four draft laws on elections. A serious concern is the impending increase of the 10 percent threshold and a non-refundable deposit (which will be just short of a million dollars). This will significantly impede the competitive abilities of political parties. Moreover, these restrictions are proposed by the governing pro-presidential coalition in the parliament. Rumors hold that the upcoming elections are being prepared by the presidential administration and the government and not by the Central Election Committee who now is not in charge of anything, not even of the voter registration.

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