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Kyrgyzstan's Presidential Election Looks To Be A Cliffhanger

In some polls, Omurbek Babanov has already emerged as a front-runner. Will his campaign run into the typical legal hurdles?
In some polls, Omurbek Babanov has already emerged as a front-runner. Will his campaign run into the typical legal hurdles?

The nomination of candidates in Kyrgyzstan's presidential election officially started on June 15, and the vote already promises to be one of the most interesting and exciting elections yet seen in Central Asia.

Current Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev is prohibited by the constitution from seeking another term and, unlike leaders in some of the neighboring Central Asian states, Atambaev is really going to honor that stipulation.

So Kyrgyzstan will have a new president before the end of this year, and four months before polling stations open we don't know who that will be. It might require a second round of voting to determine the winning candidate.

That's absolutely unheard of in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. It's always clear who will win there and there is never a need for a second round.

Courts Playing A Role

This won't be smooth sailing though. There is already controversy and it seems that, like Kyrgyzstan's elections in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the court system will be playing a prominent role during the registration and campaign process.

So far, at least 10 people have expressed an interest in running for the presidency.

From the political parties, so far former Prime Ministers Temir Sariev of the Ak-Shumkar (White Falcon) party and Omurbek Babanov of the Respublika party have indicated they will run, as have the current prime minister, Sooronbai Jeenbekov of the ruling Social Democratic Party; Bakyt Torobaev, leader of the Onuguu-Progress party, who actually was the first person to say he intended to run back in January; former parliament speaker Akhmatbek Keldibekov; Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party leader Omurbek Tekebaev; and former deputy Sadyr Japarov of the Ata-Jurt (Homeland) party.

There are also several people, such as Taalatbek Mamasadykov and Kamila Sharshekeeva, who are contemplating running as independent candidates.

Tekebaev and Japarov are currently both behind bars.

Tekebaev is being held on bribery and corruption charges. He was detained at Bishkek's Manas Airport on February 26 as he returned from Europe with what he claimed was evidence of President Atambaev's business interests outside Kyrgyzstan.

Courts have extended Tekebaev's detention several times while the investigation continues.

Japarov, a nationalist politician, is wanted for his alleged role in an incident in the northeast town of Karakol in 2013 when the regional governor was taken hostage by an angry crowd and held until police launched an operation to free him. He fled the country to avoid arrest and was taken into custody shortly after he returned to Kyrgyzstan on March 25.

Japarov was also briefly imprisoned in the first half 2013 after he and two other members of Ata-Jurt were convicted of attempting to forcibly seize power, a verdict that was overturned less than three months later.

On June 14, Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission informed Keldibekov he was not eligible to run for the presidency because, technically, he has a criminal record.

The Supreme Court fined Keldibekov 10 million soms ($142,900) in October 2016 for abuse of office when he was speaker and corruption when he was head of the State Tax Service. Keldibekov paid the fine on November 8, 2016.

According to Kyrgyzstan's Criminal Code, a conviction is removed one year after serving or execution of the sentence, meaning Keldibekov is ineligible to run until November 8, 2017, several weeks after the presidential election.

Keldibekov told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, that he was not surprised and would fight the decision while he forged ahead with his bid for the presidency.

Situation Normal...

Some might view all this as confusing, but for voters in Kyrgyzstan this is nothing new. Similar incidents occurred in previous elections.

In Kyrgyzstan's 2000 parliamentary elections, for example, several political parties were banned from participating just three months before election day. Individual candidates were declared ineligible days before the elections, and party leaders suddenly found themselves charged with offenses.

In one of the more memorable incidents of the 2000 elections, Ar-Namys (Dignity) leader Feliks Kulov, who had been fighting off lawsuits throughout the campaign, won the first round of voting but inexplicably lost in a runoff election to an opponent who had received half the votes Kulov had in the first round.

It sparked riots in Kulov's home district. Kulov himself was detained barely a week after the runoff election and eventually imprisoned. And amid the controversy over the questionable outcome of the election, the local election commission official committed suicide.

So expect this upcoming presidential election campaign to provide an abundance of twists and turns.

Outliers, Front-Runners

As for the other likely candidates, Sariev is a veteran politician and served as a prime minister for 11 months in 2015-16 despite his Ak-Shumkar party not being represented in parliament.

Torobaev's Onuguu-Progress party is new to Kyrgyzstan's political stage. The party took part in elections for the first time in the 2015 parliamentary elections, winning 13 seats (fourth out of the six parties that got seats).

The two front-runners, at the moment, would seem to be businessman and Respublika party leader Babanov and Prime Minister Jeenbekov, who enjoys the support of President Atambaev.

The newspaper Vecherny Bishkek published the results of an informal poll of its readers that showed Babanov well ahead of others who might run for the presidency.

For that very reason, some suspect Babanov's campaign will be derailed somehow.

Charges have emerged suddenly against many perceived opposition candidates in the past, Kulov and the corruption charges against him being one example (he later became prime minister in 2005-07).

There are all sorts of other potential obstacles in Kyrgyzstan's political minefield -- citizenship issues, tax payments and declarations, sources of funding, and for those seen as the pro-government candidate, use of administrative resources for campaigns.

"Admin resources" is a term you're almost guaranteed to hear once the campaigning gets under way. And that won't happen officially until September 10, after the registration process (August 1 to September 10) is completed.

This will likely be another problem since it is sometimes difficult to define what constitutes campaigning. Some of these potential candidates appear to have already started articulating their platforms to the public.

The requirements to register as a candidate are: to be nominated by a registered political party or, in the case of independents, fill out the necessary documentation to run as an independent; pay a 1 million-som (about $15,000) deposit; pass a Kyrgyz-language test demonstrating above-average proficiency in the language; and collect signatures of support from at least 30,000 registered voters.

Ata-Meken is already disputing the signatures requirement, saying that number is not specified in the election regulations. (Unofficial support of the Kremlin is underlined by many candidates in the latest elections, and potential hopefuls now also try to show their loyalty toward Moscow.)

So get ready, here comes one of the most unpredictable elections yet in Central Asia.

Azattyk Director Venera Djumataeva contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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