Kyrgyzstan bucks the central Asian trend for rigged elections
There’s something very odd about Kyrgyzstan’s upcoming presidential election. The vote is less than a week away, and nobody knows who is going to win.
In a region known for ageing autocrats and rigged elections, Kyrgyzstan is a strange anomaly. The mountainous former Soviet republic of 6 million inhabitants has experienced two revolutions in the past 12 years and is now a chaotic but functioning democracy.
A dozen contenders will take part in Sunday’s presidential vote, and the two leading contenders both say they expect to win. One is a former prime minister and the choice of the outgoing president, and the other is a charismatic businessman who promises more economic opportunities for the impoverished country. The capital, Bishkek, is plastered with billboards promoting various candidates, and the leading candidates draw thousands of people to their rallies.
“This will be the freest and fairest election in central Asian history,” said a senior western diplomat based in the country. “Elsewhere in the region the only intrigue is whether the ruling president will get 99% or 105% of the vote, while here we really don’t know who is going to win.”
Kyrgyzstan is one of the five central Asian “stans”, former Soviet republics that achieved independence in 1991. The other four have seen overbearing personality cults and leaders who only leave office when they die, but Kyrgyzstan is the outlier. The 2005 “tulip revolution” ousted Askar Akayev as president, and his successor Kurmanbek Bakiyev was unseated in a violent uprising in 2010.
After the second revolution, the constitution was changed to allow presidents a single, six-year term. Almazbek Atambayev won the 2011 election and is now preparing to step down. If all goes well, the vote to decide his successor will be the first time in the country’s history that one democratically elected president has handed power peacefully to another.
Atambayev’s choice to succeed him is Sooronbai Jeenbekov, a staid technocrat who represents continuity. His main challenger is Omurbek Babanov, the 47-year-old son of a collective farm boss who studied in Moscow and made a fortune in neighbouring Kazakhstan before entering politics. He served briefly as prime minister in 2012.
“He wants to liberalise the economy, introduce tax reforms and attract more investment,” said a source in Babanov’s campaign. Neither candidate is likely to change Kyrgyzstan’s geopolitical course, with the country firmly in Russia’s orbit and a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Union.
Babanov’s team say they are convinced that their candidate should win a fair vote, and have complained that the current government is using “administrative resources” to back Jeenbekov. An MP loyal to Babanov was arrested in the weeks before the vote and accused of plotting a coup. A senior official was also caught on camera during a trip to the south of the country telling local officials they should make sure they vote for Jeenbekov, and not “spit into the well from which you drink”.
A well-publicised recent meeting between Babanov and Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kyrgyzstan’s wealthier and bigger neighbour, was also controversial. Atambayev accused Kazakhstan of meddling in the election.
Despite accusations of foul play from both sides, however, pressure on the media and other campaign violations, the landscape is still much freer than that of neighbouring countries.
Roza Otunbayeva, a widely respected politician who was interim president between the 2010 revolution and Atambayev’s election, described the incidents of administrative pressure as “completely unacceptable”. She said there were many flaws in the election campaign, but that the country’s progress was still impressive: “We’ve been on a long and hard journey over the past 26 years and we haven’t reached the end yet, but the fact we have free elections is a real achievement.”
The vibrancy of the campaign is due in part to candidates abandoning traditional media in favour of the internet.
“Every campaign headquarters has dozens of people working on social media,” said the source in Babanov’s campaign. “We’re getting tens of thousands of people watching the streams of our speeches and rallies and sometimes hundreds of thousands watching videos.”
Edil Baisalov, a civil society activist who is backing Babanov, said: “Facebook has become our main political arena, and if people aren’t on Facebook then they’re definitely sharing videos on WhatsApp. Even the babushkas are on WhatsApp.”
If neither candidate secures an outright majority in the first round of voting, a second-round runoff will take place. A voting system that uses voters’ biometric data to prevent repeat voting or ballot stuffing makes foul play on the day impossible, say western observers, which perhaps accounts for the ferocity of campaigning and official pressure in the buildup to the vote.
“You have to travel a very long distance from here before you reach another country that has free elections,” said Otunbayeva. “It’s not just central Asia, but also the wider region. We might still have a long way to go, but we are very proud of what we’ve achieved.”
A supporter of the opposition presidential candidate Omurbek Babanov takes part in a campaign rally.
The current president’s choice to be his successor, Sooronbai Jeenbekov.