External Affairs

Stakes in Presidential Elections Extend Beyond Kyrgyzstan

Former Soviet republics are not really known for peaceful, democratic transitions. Will Bishkek turn the tide?

Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election – to be held on October 15 – is likely to be pathbreaking in many ways, settling not just the fate of Central Asia’s smallest and poorest republic, but also affecting other countries in the region. Eleven candidates are in the fray but the main battle is between Sooronbay Jeenbekov, 58, of the Social Democrat Party (SDPK) and the independent Omurbek Babanov, 47, with the likelihood of others – particularly Temir Sariev – playing spoilsport.

The three leading candidates are former prime ministers who served brief terms under the incumbent president, Almazbek Atambayev. The present constitution mandates that the president can only serve a single term of six years; hence Atambayev has carefully chosen the nominee of his SDPK party. Jeenbekov is a former governor of Osh oblast (province) who was brought to the capital only in 2015 and was gradually elevated to the post of prime minister in April 2016. He resigned in August this year to contest the presidential polls.

Jeenbekov was not really popular or known beyond Osh before his nomination. Atambayev’s critics see his choice as an attempt at ruling the country by proxy even after his retirement since the current prime minister, Sapar Isakov, is also relatively young and is his former chief of staff.

Babanov, the main opposition candidate, is one of the leading industrialists of the country, with varied interests in media, banking and construction. He has been a MP since 2005 and served as the premiere briefly in 2011 before breaking away from the SDPK and launching his own Respublika party. He is in the race as an independent candidate.

Babanov had formed an alliance with Ata Jurt (Fatherland) for the parliamentary elections of 2015 with it emerging as the second biggest block in parliament – winning 28 seats – after the SDPK, which won 38 seats in the 120-member parliament. However, the alliance was short lived and in November 2016, Kamchybek Tashiev of Ata-Jurt withdrew from it. Tashiev filed his nomination papers to to contest the poll as well but withdrew last month in support of Jeenbekov.

If all goes according to plan, the October 15 elections will see the first peaceful and democratic transition not only in the country but across the whole of Central Asia. So far, only Turkmenistan (2006) and Uzbekistan (2016) have witnessed transitions in the region, but those were after their respective leaders died. In Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been in power since independence, while Tajikistan’s Emomali Rahmon has been in power since he emerged as a consensus candidate after the civil war in 1994.

Twists and turns

Although all opinion polls put Jeenbekov far behind Babanov until a few month ago, after Atambayev put his weight – and administrative resources –  behind him, the electoral battle has narrowed considerably. Babanov recently claimed that a survey has given him 60% of the votes while his closest rival could get only 25% of votes.

The president’s office, however, is worried that the election may go to a second round in November as none of the candidates are likely to reach the majority mark. No election in the Kyrgyz Republic (or the whole of Central Asia for that matter) has ever reached the second round, and if that happens, it will mark another milestone.

For the first time in Kyrgyzstan’s independent history, there is real competition for leadership in Central Asia’s only semi-functioning democracy. Credit: Reuters

Bruce Pannier, Central Asian correspondent of RFE/RL, believes that if either one of those two candidates wins outright on October 15, it will probably mean “trouble and likely unrest”. “It is difficult to predict these things in Kyrgyzstan. Very small events can provoke huge responses,” he told The Wire.

According to Pannier, “A better, calmer scenario would be to go to a second round. Enough political deals could be made with other parties that a victory by Babanov or Jeenbekov could be seen as a legitimate result.”

Also read: Is India Finally Getting Serious About Its Connect Central Asia Plans?

Who is whose proxy?

While Jeenbekov is seen as Atambayev’s proxy, the incumbent president has suggested – though not with the exact words – that Babanov is a proxy for the deposed president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted after an uprising in April 2010, which led to the formation of a transition government under Roza Otunbaeva. In fact, it was Otunebaeva’s decision to not contest the following elections that paved way for Atambayev, who was then prime minister, to stand for – and win – the presidentship in 2011.

Meanwhile, in a bold move, a photo of a meeting between Babanov and Nazarbayev was made public along with an official statement from the office of the Kazakh president last month, expressing readiness to work “with a new president in whom the Kyrgyz people will put their trust”. This has led to a diplomatic spat between the two Turkic nations, who have generally had strong and peaceful relations.

The Kyrgyz president has accused Kazakhstan of meddling in the internal affairs of his country and trying to influence the election outcome. Atambayev went so far as to suggest that the Kazakh government loved Bakiyev and supported the police firing he had ordered on protesters in April 2010. “I understand why the Kazakh government wants to impose such leaders, they love Bakiyev. I still hear from the officials of Kazakhstan that the Bakiyevs did the right thing by shooting people,” Atambayev said during an award ceremony earlier this month.

Meanwhile, the Kazakh government reminded its southern neighbour of the financial assistance it provided and cautioned them that all roads from Kyrgyzstan run through Kazakhstan (to Russia or beyond), hinting that Bishkek cannot afford to alienate Astana. In fact, on October 11, long queues were reported on the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border as vehicles moved slowly due to strict vigil and the situation had not changed much even on Thursday (October 12).

Although Kazakh-Kyrgyz ties are quite strong and have largely been smooth since independence, the diplomatic row due to Atambayev’s knee-jerk reaction to an equally bold move by the Kazakh president may hurt ties in the short run, particularly if Jeenbekov wins.

What is interesting in this election is that Russia has not publicly endorsed any candidate, nor have any of them visited Moscow to get Russian President Vladimir Putin’s blessings, although Jeenbekov is largely seen to have Moscow’s tacit support. Perhaps, the Kremlin realises that no matter who comes to power in Bishkek, Russia’s ‘big brother’ role will remain and hence it wants to keep its options open. China too has maintained silence.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Kyrgyz counterpart Almazbek Atambayev at the Ala-Archa State. Credit: Reuters

Atambayev in panic?

In the last lap of the high-voltage campaign, Atambayev appears to be panicking, perhaps fearing defeat for his candidate. He did not himself go to Sochi to participate in the important summits of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Eurasian Economic Union earlier this week and instead sent his prime minister to lead the Kyrgyz delegation.

The official communication from the president’s office noted: “Taking into account the revealed facts of preparation for mass riots on the election day by certain politicians with the involvement of criminals, as well as financial support of such politicians from abroad, the president decided to cancel his working visit in order to personally control the order and security in the country.”

Babanov has been accused of inciting and bribing the Uzbek minority in the south and was even issued warnings by the chief election commissioner, although he denies all allegations. He, in fact, accused the Election Commission of helping one candidate. Babanov has emphasised that he wants the election to be free and fair and has no plan to “capture the White House” – the Kyrgyz presidential palace – with the help of criminals.

Rivals are trying to discredit Babanov by alleging that he only cares for his own narrow business interests, and that under pressure from neighbours, he may reverse the path undertaken for the “progress” of the country. Babanov’s camp wants to stress though that he is already richest man in the Kyrgyzstan and that his pro-industry stance and friendly terms with other countries will help propel the country’s economy.

Nonetheless, Atambayev too has assured the public that he will hold free and “fair elections” any way, never mind the fact that in last few weeks, he has spoken at several state organised functions, indirectly criticising the main opposition candidate and urging people to vote for continuity and stability of the country. In fact, on Thursday, ‘intelligentsia representatives’ wrote a letter to the president, requesting him keep to his words by holding free elections and refraining from openly supporting anyone.

Island of democracy?

The former Soviet Central Asian republic is one of the poorer nations of the world, depending largely on remittances from Russia and Kazakhstan. But it has also, for long, projected itself an “island of democracy,” never mind the fact that it has had to force two presidents – Askar Akayev and Bakiyev – out of office in mass protests in 2005 and 2010 respectively, protests that have been variously termed as revolutions by their supporters or elite coups by critics.

Kyrgyzstan is the first country in the region that is making its parliament strong and switching to a mixed parliament and presidential system. A referendum last year sought to make the office of the prime minister stronger.

Atambayev is viewed positively in the West as a champion of democracy, and by paving way for transition instead of amending the constitution to stay in power, he is clearly acting extraordinarily in a region more famous for authoritarian regimes with sham elections.

In fact, in a recent interview to Time magazine, Atambayev comes out as a champion of democracy, even tutoring the US to reform its 200-year-old presidential system to remove the flaws it contains, saying, “Election fraud like in the US isn’t possible in Kyrgyzstan.”

But observers of Central Asian politics do not really agree. No doubt Kyrgyzstan is an “island” of sort in the region, but it still suffers from several flaws. Dinara Oshurahunova, chairperson of the Kyrgyz-based Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, had earlier said that things had improved considerably after the 2010 revolution, but since 2014, matters have been on a downslide.

Some opposition leaders and even journalists have been arrested recently, including a close associate of Babanov. Critics point that in the last few years, Atambayev has been trying his best to consolidate power to remain relevant post retirement. He must be given credit, however, for bringing stability and, most recently, improving ties with Uzbekistan.

October 15 will decide the fate

Kyrgyzstan has over six million people, but less than three million with biometric cards are eligible to vote. The focus of the campaign has hence been in the south, which has a higher density of population. Jeenbekov comes from the south, which is perhaps why Atambayev chose him. Babanov is from the the northern Talas oblast, but he too has focused his campaign in the south since “the population of whole of Talas is less than one district in Osh,” says a Bishkek-based observer.

“I have not made the biometric card and so will not be able to vote, but I personally feel that it would be good if Babanov wins,” he told The Wire. “Atambayev’s SDPK has a majority in parliament and if Babanov wins, it will work as a check and balance.”

Like other countries in the region, power sharing networks among elites from different regions help maintain stability in Kyrgyzstan. Atambayev has done it masterfully over the past six years, and it was his political acumen that led him to chose a southerner to succeed him even though he is from the north. If Babanov wins, he will have the arduous task of re-building a new coalition of clan-regional elites, but with Atambayev’s SDPK still in the majority in the parliament until 2020, that task will be easier said than done.

Babanov, who had spent about 200 million Soms by October 10, appears to be more popular and will have the edge if elections are indeed fair. But with the help of administrative resources, Jeenbekov remains a stronger contender, although officially, he has spent only half of what Babanov has.

M. Reyaz is a research scholar on Central Asia at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia and also teaches at Aliah University. He is curator of the Twitter handle @eurasia_update.