Pro-government candidates did well in the first round of voting, but with a majority of seats in the 75-member unicameral parliament still up for grabs in 13 March runoffs, alleged improprieties in first-round voting have sparked protests. The government is dismissing the demonstrations as the last gasp of a discredited opposition, while the opposition charges that a discredited regime is losing its grip. But while the situation remains fluid, the terms of the struggle are finally coming into clear focus.
First-round elections on 27 February produced outright winners in only 31 of 75 constituencies, with many of the victors either members of the pro-Akaev Alga, Kyrgyzstan! party or otherwise affiliated with pro-government forces. Voting in Tong district was postponed because of protests, and in Kochkor district a majority of voters cast ballots "against all"; as a result, both districts will effectively hold first-round elections on 13 March. In 42 other districts on that date, runoffs will take place, many of them involving prominent members of Kyrgyzstan's opposition, such as Kurmanbek Bakiev, the leader of the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan. Not all "government" candidates scored first-round knockouts, however -- Bermet Akaeva, daughter of President Askar Akaev, also faces a runoff on 13 March.OSCE vs. CIS
In keeping with recent tradition, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) produced sharply different assessments of the voting. The OSCE noted some improvements on past efforts but concluded that the election "fell short of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections in a number of important areas," with the "competitive dynamic...undermined throughout the country by widespread vote buying, de-registration of candidates, interference with independent media, and a low level of confidence in electoral and judicial institutions on the part of candidates and voters."
By contrast, the CIS observer mission noted minor flaws but on the whole pronounced the ballot free and fair, in harmony with the findings of CIS observer missions in such countries as Belarus and Uzbekistan. Predictably, the assessments of Kyrgyzstan's authorities and opposition split along similar lines, with the former hailing progress and the latter alleging malfeasance.Temperatures Rise
The political temperature began to rise as soon as first-round voting ended. By 4 March, protests had broken out in a number of cities, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. In Jalal-Abad, crowds numbering up to 3,000 demonstrated, condemning election fraud by the authorities and voicing their support for second-round parliamentary candidate Jusupbek Bakiev, the brother of People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan leader Kurmanbek Bakiev.
Protesters in Jalal-Abad occupied the provincial administrative center, an event that was repeated in the Uzgen district of Osh Oblast on 7 March, where 1,000 protesters condemned fraud and took over the district administrative center. Demonstrations broke out in Naryn Oblast after a local election commission removed candidate Ishenbai Kadyrbekov from the race on 5 March. Other protests took place in Issyk-Kul Oblast and elsewhere in Osh Oblast. In Jalal-Abad, a number of pro-government demonstrators marched as well, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported.
Although many of the protests began over local issues like the removal of a particular candidate, slogans and demands quickly grew in scope. RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 7 March that protesters in Jalal-Abad carried placards reading "Down with the regime of Askar Akaev" and "The people are sick of Askar Akaev!" When demonstrators in the Uzgen district of Osh Oblast took over local administrative offices, they not only condemned election violations, but also demanded the resignation of President Akaev, RFE/RL reported.Official Disdain
National authorities brushed off the protests as the actions of provocateurs and malcontents. Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev told a news conference on 5 March that the organizers would be "brought to account," and Bolot Januzakov, deputy head of the presidential administration, charged that demonstrators received money to participate in protests, ITAR-TASS and RFE/RL reported. Presidential spokesman Abdil Segizbaev explained that the protest organizers were candidates who had either already lost or who lacked confidence in their second-round chances.
On the ground, police appear to have conducted themselves with restraint among protesters, and the only clashes reported thus far involved scuffles in Jalal-Abad on 5-6 March between antigovernment protesters and pro-government demonstrators.
For its part, the opposition has begun to advance a unified series of demands. On 6 March, Kurmanbek Bakiev addressed demonstrators in Jalal-Abad, calling for an emergency session of parliament and preterm presidential elections. Roza Otunbaeva, co-chairwoman of the Ata-Jurt opposition bloc, and Ishengul Boljurova, a leader in the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, repeated the demand for an emergency session of parliament at a news conference on 7 March. They proposed extending the current, pre-election parliament's powers, holding presidential elections -- currently scheduled for October -- within three months, and then setting about elections to a new parliament. An opposition deputy said that 20 of 70 members of the outgoing Jogorku Kenesh (lower chamber of parliament; the switch to a unicameral parliament is slated to take place after the present elections) have already signed on to the idea, although two-thirds are needed for an emergency session.'Who Comes After?'
Bakiev, a former prime minister who has announced that he intends to seek the presidency, said on 6 March that President Akaev is attempting to provoke a crisis over the elections so that he can declare a state of emergency and cancel the October elections. Akaev, who is constitutionally barred from seeking another term, has said repeatedly that he will not try to stay in office. But the opposition is suspicious. Fueling their unease are comments like the ones Kyrgyz Ambassador to Turkey Amanbek Karipkulov made to Turkey's "Zaman" on 6 March: "Kyrgyzstan is the leading country in Central Asia in terms of democracy. Its annual growth rate is 7 percent. The [International Monetary Fund] program is functioning well. Our public sees this. They want the president to stay. They have collected 200,000 signatures, which are sufficient for the constitutional amendment. Revolutions like those in Georgia and Ukraine will not take place in Kyrgyzstan. What would happen if a bad man comes after the president?"
With no evident successor, Akaev's long-term plans to prevent a bad man from replacing him remain cloaked. But the short-term goals of the president and his supporters are clearly to contain the recent expressions of discontent and ensure as favorable a parliament as possible.
The opposition's mounting calls for an emergency session of parliament and preterm presidential elections raise the question of selecting a single candidate to carry the opposition's flag. They also raise the prospect of a direct confrontation with the authorities, especially if the initiative is blocked and mass protests emerge as the opposition's only recourse. What is increasingly clear is that even as Kyrgyzstan prepares for parliamentary runoffs on 13 March, the real struggle is, as Ambassador Karipkulov suggested, over the man who comes after the president.For news, background, and analysis on Kyrgyzstan's 27 February parliamentary elections, see RFE/RL's webpage "Kyrgyzstan Votes 2005".