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Running Scared? Outgoing Kyrgyz President, Allies In 'Panic' Over Successor Battle

Outgoing Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (file photo)
Outgoing Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (file photo)

If you can't beat them and you can't disqualify them, discredit them.

Critics argue that's what outgoing President Almazbek Atambaev and his allies are trying to do in a desperate bid to help their favored candidate defeat his front-running opposition rival in this weekend's presidential election.

Defenders, meanwhile, say the stakes are high and Atambaev is merely seeking to preserve the constitution's current checks on power and avoid a return to autocracy in one of Central Asia's most democratic countries.

The result has been a roller coaster of intrigue in the run-up to the October 15 vote, which is widely regarded as a two-man race between the ruling Social Democrats' Sooronbai Jeenbekov and Omurbek Babanov, a former prime minister who defected from the same party nearly a decade ago.

The shockers have included a prominent opposition lawmaker's arrest on charges of plotting a pro-Babanov coup, a government election official's death in a "criminal" traffic accident, and President Atambaev himself warning that neighboring Kazakhstan is trying to impose Babanov as "its own" candidate.

Postcommunist Kyrgyzstan has scant experience in the peaceful transfer of political power, the notable exception coming when Atambaev was elected in 2011 after the 19-month administration of interim President Roza Otunbaeva.

Many eyes are on Kyrgyzstan as a test case for democratic gains in a region dominated by legacy autocrats since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Each of the country's subsequent pro-democracy eruptions -- the so-called Tulip Revolution of 2005 and what has been dubbed the Second Kyrgyz Revolution in 2010 -- have been followed by stinging setbacks to the rule of law.

Atambaev's willingness to step down from power after serving the single six-year term allowed under the constitution has been praised in the West as a sign that democracy could be back on track in Kyrgyzstan.

But allegations of voter intimidation during the current campaign, as well as reports of what critics say is a plan by Atambaev to rule from behind the scenes after he formally leaves office, have raised concerns about whether Kyrgyzstan's fragile grip on reforms may be slipping.

Sooronbai Jeenbekov (left) and Omurbek Babanov, the front-runners in the Kyrgyz presidential election (composite file photo)
Sooronbai Jeenbekov (left) and Omurbek Babanov, the front-runners in the Kyrgyz presidential election (composite file photo)

"Since 2014, all the efforts of Atambaev and his team have been directed toward establishing control after the end of his official term in office," Daniel Kadyrbekov, a Tokyo-based consultant and Atambaev detractor, tells RFE/RL. "He's trying to build up a facade for maintaining his own political power" so he can rule from the shadows, he added of Atambaev, "and Jeenbekov is serving that role at the moment."

Atambaev and his supporters reject the notion that he is trying to cement a role for himself after the presidency, suggesting that his goal is to safeguard the current parliamentary system against the aims of some parties to transform Kyrgyzstan into a presidentially dominated system with governments picked by the head of state.

"Atambaev wants to preserve the political system he established -- the parliamentary system, a system in which the president of the country doesn't have full control over all branches of the political power like we had before," says Kuban Abdymen, a Bishkek-based political analyst and director of the Kabar news agency, adding that he is not speaking on behalf of the agency. "He wants to promote the system of checks and balances between all branches government, and thus prevent a one-man rule."

Abdymen speculates that to guard against any drift toward a presidential system, Atambaev wants a successor from the ranks of his former party, the ruling Social Democrats, who oppose such a change.

Just days before the ballot, opinion polls suggested that ruling-party candidate Jeenbekov did not have enough support to win the election outright in the first round -- despite allegations that he has benefited from "administrative resources," a term for the use of the bureaucracy, favorable state media coverage, and loyal officials to pressure or intimidate students and workers into voting for the ruling party's candidate or to otherwise undermine competitive elections.

Babanov said his own polling showed he had support from 65 percent of voters.

PROFILES: Kyrgyzstan's Presidential Hopefuls

Polls cited by Atambaev's office suggested that neither Jeenbekov nor Babanov would secure more than 40 percent of the vote, likely sending the election into a second round.

With the 10 other opposition candidates all expected to endorse Babanov if the election goes to a second round, analysts predict that Jeenbekov's presidential hopes rest on topping 50 percent in the first round.

Weak Candidate, Shadow Rule

Consultant Kadyrbekov says that Atambaev "personally" selected Jeenbekov as a candidate for three reasons: his loyalty to Atambaev, the need to maintain a balance in the Bishkek government in terms of regional representation, and most importantly, Atambaev's hopes of preserving influence after the election.

Kadyrbekov says the authorities in Bishkek have been unwilling to risk disqualifying Babanov because it would destabilize an already explosive political atmosphere -- potentially leading to violence -- but were now panicking because they feared Jeenbekov couldn't win without administrative meddling.

"Most likely, the victory will be claimed by Jeenbekov whether it is true or not," Kadyrbekov says. "Considering the biometric system that is in use right now for counting votes, which doesn't have a synchronization system in a single party center, the results can be manipulated and numbers needed for Jeenbekov's victory can be easily made up."

On October 10, the Central Election Commission issued a third warning for what it said were campaign violations by Babanov.

Babanov's statements during meetings with ethnic Uzbek voters in the south of the country -- where deadly violence broke out in 2010, sending many thousands of people fleeing their homes -- could "incite ethnic discord," it said.

Babanov's campaign on October 10 accused the Central Election Commission of working for Jeenbekov, describing him as "the opponent offered by the authorities."

Analyst and Kabar director Abdymen suggests that Jeenbekov could enjoy Atambaev's support.

"Some presidential candidates, including Omurbek Babanov, have said that...they intend to call a referendum in the future to ask people whether they want a presidential or a parliamentary system," Abdymen says. "Atambaev wants to prevent that."

Overconfidence Effect

Edil Baisalov, a Bishkek-based political commentator and outspoken critic of Atambaev, said the outgoing president overestimated his own popularity in April when he chose Jeenbekov as the candidate to replace him in December at the end of the single presidential term allowed by the constitution.

At the time Jeenbekov was named as the Social Democratic Party candidate, opinion polls suggested he would receive support from only about 5 percent of voters.

"He thought that he could just appoint anybody -- Sooronbai Jeenbekov or just anybody," Baisalov told RFE/RL. "He could have had the same success if he had appointed anybody off the street."

"Yes, of course, Atambaev does have the resources of the incumbent," Baisalov added. "He does enjoy some popularity with some sections of society and he did succeed in raising the profile of Jeenbekov in the last three months, but, no, Jeenbekov does not stand a chance of winning these elections."

After serving as the governor of the Osh region from 2010, Jeenbekov moved to Bishkek in 2015 to become director of the State Personnel Service. In March 2016, he was promoted to first deputy head of Atambaev's presidential administration. A month later, he was appointed prime minister -- a post he held until August, when he resigned from the office amid growing allegations that his campaign was benefiting from friendly official treatment.

Baisalov argued that Atambaev made strategic political mistakes by failing to put Jeenbekov atop the Social Democratic Party list two years ago.

"He should have provided him with opportunities of visibility," Baisalov said. "He should have given him the chance to tour the country actively, but Soonbai Jeenbekov was never allowed by Atambaev to travel extensively around the country because he was not picked as a candidate" until April.

"Most of the indicators show that Jeenbekov doesn't have recognition in the country," Kadyrbekov said. "He doesn't have resources except the state apparatus, and he doesn't have any political platform to present to the voters."

Central Asia experts suggested Atambaev also overestimated his standing with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev -- neither of whom has lent Jeenbekov's candidacy the public support that his Social Democrats hoped for.

"Moscow has changed their strategy this time," Kadyrbekov said, noting that the Kremlin has previously endorsed pro-Russia candidates of the ruling party.

"They know that the political field is purely pro-Russia, so they don't see a point in ruining their legacy for the future," Kadyrbekov said. "They've decided not to interfere in the process at the moment because they've seen what can happen when they endorse a candidate" who becomes an authoritarian figure.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Kyrygz Service and RFE/RL correspondent Farangis Najibullah in Prague

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