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A Primer On Kyrgyzstan's Presidential Election

  • Bruce Pannier

President Kurmanbek Bakiev greets supporters at a stadium in Bishkek two days before the vote.

President Kurmanbek Bakiev greets supporters at a stadium in Bishkek two days before the vote.

Kyrgyzstan enjoys a reputation of being the most democratic state in Central Asia, but that image stands to be tainted by the early presidential election to be held on July 23.

The opposition appears to have weakened considerably and is crying foul, claiming that the media and the terms of the campaign favored the incumbent. The result is essentially a foregone conclusion – the only question being the margin by which current President Kurmanbek Bakiev will win reelection.

RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier explains why the election is unlikely to unseat the incumbent president.

What is the expected outcome of the July 23 presidential election?

Incumbent President Kurmanbek Bakiev is nearly certain to soundly defeat his five challengers.

John MacLeod, acting director of Central Asia programs at the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), said the campaigning all comes down to personalities and resources.

"It's very much about personalities and in this case we really have one big personality, the president, who's got the resources to put his posters around, and big billboards -- and the other [candidates] have much fewer human and even financial resources to do that kind of campaigning," MacLeod said.

Since he came to power in 2005, Bakiev has co-opted part of what was once a strong opposition in Kyrgyzstan and marginalized other formerly strong opposition parties and movements.

Under Bakiev, Kyrgyzstan has backtracked on many of the policy promises that earned his administration the respect of Western democracies, such as establishing a totally independent media, eliminating criminal elements in the government, and launching an economic program to improve social conditions in the country.

Erica Marat, an analyst at the Jamestown Foundation and the author of Freedom House’s report on Kyrgyzstan in the annual "Nations In Transition" for 2008 and 2009, said the situation in Kyrgyzstan today is actually worse than it was prior to Bakiev's presidency.

"The situation in the country is definitely worse than it was four years ago,” Marat said. “During the [Askar] Akaev regime, we saw a lot of corruption but we didn't see that much criminal activity. Today journalists and opposition leaders are constantly threatened with being attacked by criminals, and the law enforcement structures of Kyrgyzstan are powerless to curb those criminal gangs."

Marat has been following the Kyrgyz presidential campaign closely and told RFE/RL that while Bakiev is sure to win, the margin of victory won't be anywhere near what it was in his 2005 landslide victory.

"Bakiev's popularity, according to different polls, ranges from 50 to 60 percent,” Marat said. “So he's not supposed to get 70 or 80 percent, that's for sure. That's what different polls tell us."

Kyrgyzstan's strong civil society was the driving force behind the protests that became the Tulip Revolution – also known as the People’s Revolution – of 2005, leading to the ouster of President Askar Akaev and Bakiev’s rise to power.

MacLeod says there is a good chance there will be protests following this election.

"The opposition has in fact made reference to the Iranian protests, and of course since Bakiev came to power in the summer of 2005, there have been a number of pretty massive protests,” he said. “So in fact big demonstrations are a regular feature of political life in Kyrgyzstan."

Who is President Kurmanbek Bakiev?

Bakiev, who turns 60 on August 1, was a city and regional Communist Party official when Kyrgyzstan was a Soviet republic, and after independence was a district head in southern Kyrgyzstan. In 1997, he became governor of Chu Province, where Bishkek is located. In 2000 he was named prime minister.

He resigned in May 2002 amid popular unrest and widespread protests at his government's failure to address the shooting of protesters by police during a demonstration two months earlier.

Bakiev joined the opposition and in March 2005 became a leader of the Kyrgyzstan People's Movement, one of several opposition groups trying to capitalize on the growing protests over parliamentary elections. He was named acting head of state just hours after crowds chased the previous head of state from the country, in a process that has never been fully clarified.

Bakiev then won an early presidential election in July 2005, receiving nearly 89 percent of the vote in the only Central Asian election to date to be considered free and fair by the OSCE.

Recently, Bakiev has made numerous public appearances around the country. Although these speeches and visits are ostensibly part of his routine presidential duties, he has used them to great effect in his reelection campaign.

President Bakiev speaks to workers at the Kambara-Ata hydropower station on July 3 in what was effectively a campaign stop.

Why is the election being held this year instead of 2010, as originally planned?

Bakiev was elected president on July 10, 2005, and should serve a five-year term according to Kyrgyzstan’s constitution. But early this year the opposition asked for clarification about the election date.

According to MacLeod of the IWPR, "There was a technical point that was under dispute earlier this year about when the presidential term runs to -- does it run until a set date within the fifth year of the presidential term, or does it run for a full five years? A decision was taken by the constitutional authorities that it was in fact to be this year."

MacLeod says holding early elections in tough times is nothing new.

"Any opposition is going to be taken by surprise by this bringing forward of the date and it obviously makes life rather difficult for them because, by their nature, the opposition parties are somewhat fractured,” MacLeod said. The Kyrgyz opposition parties “have tended not to unite into blocs that encompass all of them, and also the blocs have tended to be rather fluid."

Is the public enthusiastic about this campaign?

Media coverage in Kyrgyzstan indicates that the electorate is apathetic about the upcoming poll. Marat said this can be partly explained by the late start of Bakiev's opponents, particularly his main challenger Almazbek Atambaev.

"A month ago the opposition was still very passive and the opposition's campaign was very incoherent,” Marat said. “They didn't have a central agenda, it was very disorganized, whereas now Atambaev is extremely active."

Will the vote be monitored?

More than 500 foreign observers are expected to be on the ground, including from the OSCE and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Local organizations will also have observers on hand.

While the OSCE gave Kyrgyzstan passing grades for its 2005 election, it is not likely to be as supportive of this poll.

MacLeod said other monitoring missions are likely to assess the poll differently than the OSCE.

"The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will show up and will probably make some damning remarks depending on what they find. They'll certainly be critical but whether that counts for anything in the long run remains questionable,” Macleod said.

He continued: “Another force that generally turns up is from the Commonwealth of Independent States, who are really Russia and its close allies, and they tend to give very positive reports to elections in any country, even one-party states. And then the third grouping that one would expect to be there would be local election monitors from a variety of monitoring groups."

Why is the international community keeping a close watch on this election?

With its proximity to Afghanistan and its border with China, Kyrgyzstan has attracted a number of powerful suitors seeking to improve and influence the security situation there. The country hosts two foreign military bases -- one Russian and one American.

Western democracies, aware that Kyrgyzstan has sought to preserve its image as the most democratic state in Central Asia despite some recent setbacks, hold out hope that the country can be a democratic model for its neighbors to emulate.