BISHKEK -- The chief rival of the candidate authorities say won the presidency in Kyrgyzstan has alleged the voting was marred by violations but suggested he would not challenge the official result, potentially paving the way for a peaceful transfer of power.
Omurbek Babanov spoke at a news conference on October 16, hours after the Central Election Commission said preliminary results indicated ruling party candidate Sooronbai Jeenbekov won more than 54 percent of the vote -- enough to avoid a runoff.
International observers, meanwhile, praised the vote as competitive and transparent but said that "numerous and significant problems were noted" during the count and that "misuse of public resources, pressure on voters, and vote-buying remain a concern."
Babanov, who the commission placed second with just under 34 percent according to an initial count of nearly all ballots, said that he and his backers faced pressure and bias throughout the campaign.
"State television channels were used to pour dirt on us. There was a black PR [campaign] against us. Our campaign activists were abused; they did not know whom to turn to as law enforcement was also one-sided," Babanov said.
However, he said, "The election has taken place, and the people have made their choice."
Confirmation of the results and a smooth transition would mark the first peaceful handover of power from one elected president to another in the any Central Asian country since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Presidents were driven from power by street protests in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 and 2010, and for more than two decades only the death of a president in office has ushered in a new leader in any of the other four countries.
“Kyrgyzstan has demonstrated a generally positive example for holding competitive elections and a peaceful transfer of power, but some concerns remain,” said Azay Guliyev, leader of the short-term observation mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE ODIHR).
“Our mission received credible reports about the misuse of public resources and pressure on voters, as well as allegations of vote-buying,” said Alexandre Keltchewsky, the overall head of the ODIHR mission. He said that in the run-up to election day, monitors "observed several cases of open and official interference in the election campaign from the State Committee of National Security and other official institutions and other officials as well.”
Keltchewsky also said there were indications of Central Election Commission members “favoring certain candidates, thus demonstrating the CEC’s lack of impartiality.”
Babanov said that his campaign workers are currently conducting an "alternative" vote count and that information from some polling precincts is not available, but he said that "even if it was available, they would not affect the official result."
"Despite the administrative pressure, many voters supported me and I am very thankful to them," he said.
Answering a question about reports saying that his supporters might be planning mass protests, Babanov said he had nothing to do with any such plans.
"I call on all my supporters to stay away from any illegal actions," Babanov said.
In the northern city of Talas, in Babanov's home region, hundreds of his supporters demonstrated near his campaign headquarters and marched across the city holding Kyrgyz national flags. They said the election was not transparent.
A handover to Jeenbekov, 58, could herald a continuation of the policies of outgoing President Almazbek Atambaev, who has close ties with Moscow and brought Kyrgyzstan into a Russian-led economic alliance in 2015.
“My task is to preserve what has been achieved, to strengthen what has been started,” Jeenbekov, said shortly after the preliminary results were announced on October 15.
He praised what he said were the predominantly Muslim county of 6 million's “great achievements and developments in all sectors in the past six years,” referring to Atambaev’s term.
Both Jeenbekov and Babanov served as prime minister under Atambaev but the outgoing president vocally backed Jeenbekov, prompting accusations from critics that he abused the levers of power to ensure victory for his favored candidate.
Analysts and opposition politicians had predicted a closer race, and opinion polls had suggested that neither man would clear the 50 percent threshold, forcing a runoff.
A total of 11 candidates, including one woman, were on the ballot to replace Atambaev, who was constitutionally barred from running for a second term.
Underscoring the animus in the election, Jeenbekov was asked whether he would ask Babanov to join his team. He responded that he “never had such intention.”
Amid concerns of potential unrest and political confrontation, Temir Sariev, another candidate who is also a former prime minister, said on October 15 that “there shouldn’t be any tension” in the country and added: “The election must finish tonight.”
Jeenbekov, who stepped down as prime minister in late August to focus on the presidential race, used his political leverage and support from the incumbent to wage a heated battle with the 47-year-old Babanov, a wealthy entrepreneur and former oil trader from the northern province of Talas.
Atambaev had unleashed a series of accusations as the vote approached, claiming that opponents were plotting unrest and accusing larger northern neighbor Kazakhstan and its long-ruling president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, of interfering in the campaign and backing Babanov.
He warned on October 15 that the authorities "have jailed and will continue to jail" those planning unrest "so that they don't spoil our celebration."
Government critics say the campaign was marred by a bribe-taking conviction and eight-year prison sentence handed down to opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party leader Omurbek Tekebaev in August after a trial he said was politically motivated.
Meanwhile, the government accused Babanov of trying to buy votes and late last month it detained one of his supporters, saying there were efforts to plot a coup during the election.
Babanov has denied the accusations and in turn alleged the government has used “administrative resources” -- the political levers held by those who control power and budget funds -- against his candidacy and in favor of Jeenbekov.
Russia, which has an air base in Kyrgyzstan and is vying for clout in Central Asia with economic powerhouse China as well as the West, stayed neutral on the surface during the campaign. The main candidates were all seen as friendly to Russia.
A meeting at which Kyrgyz officials say Nazarbaev endorsed Babanov added tension to the campaign.
Atambaev said in a speech that Kazakhstan was ruled by corrupt "sultans" and later called an unnamed leading contender in the elections a “flunky” of a foreign country.
Kazakhstan’s government called the remarks "unacceptable" and introduced tighter controls this week on the Kyrgyz border, citing security concerns.