There were expectations that the January 10 elections in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan would fail to truly reflect the will of the people in those two Central Asian neighbors.
Now that preliminary results are in, they look even worse than feared.
Kazakhstan's vote was its first parliamentary elections since Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev became president nearly two years ago.
Campaigning was barely noticeable, but election officials still claimed that more than 63 percent of voters cast ballots.
Despite Toqaev’s promises of allowing genuine opposition parties to participate in politics, no such parties were registered and allowed on the ballot, though several tried.
That left five pro-government parties to compete.
Toqaev also said he would ease restrictions on peaceful demonstrations, but there was no evidence of that in the days leading up to elections or the day of voting.
Reports from Kazakhstan on election day included members of Oyan Qazaqstan (Wake Up Kazakhstan) and the unregistered Democratic Party of Kazakhstan being surrounded by police in Almaty and forced to remain there in freezing temperatures for more than eight hours.
Police prevented any of those who were ring-fenced from leaving, forcing some with no choice but to urinate on the ground, and prevented outsiders from bringing tea or food to the demonstrators.
Two people were taken by ambulance to the hospital, one with frostbite.
Dozens of activists were detained, arrested, or fined ahead of or on election day.
Reports said more than 100 people were detained in Almaty alone. Some people planned to protest, but others said they were detained as they left their homes on the way to cast their ballots, thus depriving them of their right to vote.
The number of independent election observers has been growing in Kazakhstan since the 2019 presidential election. But on January 10, many were prevented from doing their jobs.
Some were ejected from polling places.
Some said they were turned away because they didn't have documents certifying they had been tested and were negative for the coronavirus.
Activist Roza Musaeva posted on Twitter that she was a “legal observer” but that police detained her and that the head of the local election commission told her that her accreditation had been revoked.
The outcome of the elections was never in doubt.
But when the preliminary tally was announced, it also appeared to vindicate the skepticism of those who warned that there would be no difference between these elections and previous Kazakh parliamentary elections.
The results suggested that the only three parties to win seats in the 2012 and 2016 elections were once again the only parties to be awarded seats.
In 2012, the state allocated some 5.2 billion tenges (about $34.5 million at the time based on the 2012 average exchange rate of 150 tenges to $1) from the budget for the elections to parliament and local councils, or maslikhats. The result was that the Nur-Otan party, headed by longtime Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, won 83 of the 98 available seats, the Aq Zhol party won eight seats, and the People’s Communist Party of Kazakhstan won seven.
In 2016, Kazakhstan held early parliamentary elections after authorities said the deteriorating economic situation caused by the fall in the price of oil -- Kazakhstan’s major export -- demanded a new parliament with fresh approaches to deal with the situation.
The state allocated 4.8 billion tenges (about $14 million at the March 2016 exchange rate of 340 tenges to $1) for those elections.
The result was that the Nur-Otan party won 84 seats, while Aq Zhol and the People’s Communist Party of Kazakhstan were each awarded seven seats.
Kazakhstan’s Central Election Commission said in October 2020 that some 15.3 billion tenges (about $34 million at the January 2021 rate of 420 tenges to $1) would be spent on the January 10 elections to parliament and local councils.
The result was the Nur-Otan party reportedly winning 76 seats, Aq Zhol 12, and the People’s Party of Kazakhstan (they dropped "communist" from their name in November) 10 seats.
Even if these results were genuine mandates from the masses, the three parties that won seats are neither gaining nor losing much support over the past decade. The government has spent tens of millions of dollars (or tens of billions of tenges) in that time for elections that produced essentially the same results.
And this continues to happen as the younger generation in particular in Kazakhstan has been calling for change since Nazarbaev stepped down as president in March 2019.
In Kyrgyzstan, fewer than 40 percent of eligible voters participated in the snap presidential election and national referendum on January 10.
According to RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, Kyrgyzstan has 3.56 million eligible voters, some 1.354 million of whom cast ballots.
Among 17 candidates, Sadyr Japarov, a man who was in prison barely three months ago, won the election with almost 80 percent of the vote, the second-highest total in a presidential election in Kyrgyzstan’s history after Kurmanbek Bakiev’s 89.5 percent in the 2005 poll.
According to Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission (CEC), Japarov received 1.1 million votes.
In the accompanying referendum on whether Kyrgyzstan should have a presidential or parliamentary form of government, almost 81 percent, or some 1.147 million people, voted for a presidential system.
Both figures look like overwhelming victories for both Japarov and change.
But looked at another way, it is difficult to see them as the will of the people.
In part, that is because more than half of eligible voters did not participate.
Some good reasons have been offered for this.
Japarov and others in his interim government claim there was less vote-buying and less use of administrative resources. Certainly the former, if true, would be one reason that fewer people turned out on January 10.
Vote-buying plagued the October 4 parliamentary elections and played a large role in fomenting the popular backlash in Bishkek on October 5 that eventually brought down the government.
Authorities scrapped the use of Form No. 2, a document that allowed people living away from their registered area of residence to vote anywhere in Kyrgyzstan so long as they registered there ahead of election day.
And perhaps some of the 2 million-plus voters who did not cast ballots were simply disillusioned. Kyrgyzstan held a referendum on constitutional changes in 2016, a presidential election in 2017, and then there were last year’s parliamentary elections.
It is worth remembering that the population of Kyrgyzstan is around 6.5 million.
So Japarov is said to have received the backing of 1.12 million people, while the referendum got support from 1.15 million. Each figure represents around 17 percent of the country’s population, which arguably does not qualify as overwhelming popular support.
Japarov’s amazing rise from prisoner to president is thought by some to be the result of backing from organized criminal groups.
Such suspicions will likely limit foreign investment in Kyrgyzstan in the coming months, and possibly years, potentially prolonging the deep economic problems that Kyrgyzstan faces.
Democratic governments have given the lion’s share of Central Asian aid to Kyrgyzstan because it was seen as an “island of democracy” that could set an example for its neighbors of the goodwill that accompanies democratic progress.
Voting for a presidential system of government could limit such aid in the future.
Russia has been cautious about the change of power in Kyrgyzstan after October and has withheld promised aid, though President Vladimir Putin did send Japarov a letter of congratulations on January 11.
Kyrgyz authorities -- before and since October 4 -- have made repeated requests to China for more time in repaying loans. In so doing, they likely put Kyrgyzstan on Beijing’s list of high-risk countries for future investment.
And the coronavirus continues to affect Kyrgyzstan’s economy, with little indication so far of when vaccines will be available and the health crisis brought under control.
Speaking to supporters on Ala-Too Square in Bishkek on January 11, Japarov said time is needed to put the country on the right track.
But some think Japarov will need to hurry. He has promised a lot, and much of the reason people voted for Japarov was because they wanted change for the better -- and soon.
And in a country that has seen three presidents chased from power by protests since 2005, there already seems to be ample room to bring Japarov’s election and the referendum into question.