BISHKEK -- Kyrgyz nationalist politician Sadyr Japarov -- who was serving a 10-year prison sentence for kidnapping just a few months ago -- has called for national unity after winning a weekend presidential election that observers said "generally respected" fundamental freedoms even though the vote was not "fully fair."
Candidates in the January 10 vote "could mostly campaign freely" but the campaign was "dominated by one candidate who benefited from disproportionate financial means and misuse of administrative resources, resulting in an uneven playing field," the observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) said in a preliminary report on January 11.
With nearly all ballots counted, the Central Election Commission said Japarov received almost 79.2 percent of the vote, cementing his hold on power just three months after a popular uprising over a parliamentary vote widely seen as rigged sent the country into political chaos.
In a referendum held in tandem, voters opted for a presidential system in the Central Asian nation of some 6.5 million that will give Japarov greater powers when a new constitution is passed.
Japarov, speaking to supporters in Bishkek's central square promised a "dictatorship of law and justice" on January 11 and dismissed fears of a strongman crackdown.
"There will be no dictatorship as some scaremongers say. There will be a dictatorship of law and justice," Japarov said, borrowing a phrase from Russian leader Vladimir Putin, whose country is a key ally for Kyrgyzstan.
"We have waited for this moment for 30 years," he told supporters at a concert of traditional music, asking them to "criticize, advise, and guide" him in his work.
"Now we need unity,” Japarov said. He also pledged that Russia will remain the country's "main strategic partner.”
Among the 16 other candidates in the presidential race, Japarov’s closest rival, Adakhan Madumarov, won nearly 6.7 percent of the vote.
'Far From Reality'
There were no reports of major violations during the vote, but Madumarov described the early election results as "far from reality" and vowed to "seek justice through legal means."
The turnout was less than 40 percent, but there is no legally imposed threshold for the presidential vote, while 30 percent is the minimum threshold for the referendum to be considered valid.
Kyrgyzstan has been in crisis since parliamentary elections in October led to protests that triggered the toppling of the government and the resignation of then-President Sooranbai Jeenbekov -- the third time since 2005 that a Kyrgyz president and his government had been ousted by protests.
Japarov, 52, was among several prominent politicians freed from prison by protesters during the unrest. He had been serving a 10-year prison sentence for hostage-taking during a protest against a mining operation in northeast Kyrgyzstan in October 2013. He has steadfastly denied the charge.
"The past months have been dramatic for the people of Kyrgyzstan and chaotic for its politics, but yesterday we saw a generally well-run process," said Peter Juel-Jensen, special coordinator and leader of the short-term OSCE observer mission.
"However, if Kyrgyzstan is going to live up to the aspirations of its people for a functioning democracy, fully fair competition on a level playing field is critical. This was not the case here," he said in a statement.
Extreme cold was blamed for low turnout and glitches that caused lines to form at some of more than 2,300 polling stations, along with a change that prevented people from voting where they currently reside if they are still registered in their birthplace.
Reinhold Lopatka, head of the OSCE PA delegation, said another factor may also account for the relatively low turnout.
"While Kyrgyzstan has previously distinguished itself within the region for its level of political debate, discussion was more centered on personalities than programs," he said.
After polls closed on January 10, Japarov, said that the fight against deeply rooted corruption in Kyrgyzstan will be among his priorities as president.
Putin was among the first leaders to congratulate Japarov on his victory, noting that further cooperation between the two countries "meets the fundamental interests of our friendly nations and contributes to stronger stability and security in the Central Asian region."
In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek said on January 11 that the United States looked forward to working with "newly elected President Japarov to deepen cooperation and partnership between our countries through strengthening democratic institutions, economic development, a joint response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and cooperation in the fight against corruption and international organized crime."
The Central Election Commission reported around 60 complaints from polling stations, most of them allegations about the use of administrative resources or accusations of vote-buying.
The election team of presidential candidate Klara Soorunkulova claimed that they had received reports of "vote-buying" but didn’t say which candidate’s supporters were involved.
Gulgaaky Mamasalieva, a member of Soorunkulova's team, said the reports came from the Southern District of Osh.
"Also, local residents complained that certain people were putting pressure on them telling them who they should vote for. But when we arrived in the polling station, they ran away." Mamasalieva told RFE/RL.
Meanwhile, Kloop.kg news agency conducted its own project to monitor the voting process, deploying more than 1,500 observers in polling stations across the country.
Elvira Sultanmurat, Kloop.kg news agency's editor in Osh, said that the "majority of the irregularities [reported by Kloop.kg observers] were linked to technical problems, like an automatic ballot box not functioning, or being broken."
The vote comes after the results of the October 4 parliamentary elections were annulled following protests to condemn large-scale vote-buying campaigns benefiting parties close to Jeenbekov.
The protests turned violent as clashes with police left one protester dead. A day later, the government was chased from power, and Jeenbekov resigned soon afterward.
In the ensuing power vacuum, Japarov became prime minister and was then voted in by lawmakers as acting president.
In a series of questionable maneuvers, he used the old parliament to rush through motions for the referendum on a presidential system.
A second referendum must be conducted, tentatively in March, to vote on a new draft constitution.
Japarov said that, if the switch to a presidential system won voter support, the Constitutional Council would resume work on January 11 to prepare a new draft constitution.
Critics, including Human Rights Watch and legal experts, say Kyrgyzstan's caretaker parliament did not have the legitimacy to initiate far-reaching constitutional amendments because its term had expired. It's still not clear when new parliamentary elections will be held.
Japarov and his supporters have pushed for the referendum saying the country needs the change to strengthen the role of the president by adding extensive legislative and executive powers similar to those in other neighboring Central Asian countries. Critics have pointed out that those powers are often abused.