Kyr­gyzs­tan bucks the cen­tral Asian trend for rigged elec­tions

The Guardian Australia - - World News - Shaun Walker in Bishkek

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.”

Pho­to­graph: Vy­ach­eslav Oseledko/AFP/Getty Im­ages

A sup­porter of the op­po­si­tion pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Omurbek Ba­banov takes part in a cam­paign rally.

Pho­to­graph: Igor Ko­valenko/EPA

The cur­rent pres­i­dent’s choice to be his suc­ces­sor, Sooron­bai Jeen­bekov.

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