The two-month countdown to Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary elections has started, and President Sooronbai Jeenbekov has been clear the elections will take place despite the huge problems the coronavirus is causing for the country.
Such Kyrgyz votes have traditionally been energetic and controversial affairs. But the October 4 vote promises to be the most interesting to date, since for the first time there are no front-runners.
While that should make for spirited competition, it always raises questions about the role money might play in parties’ victories at the polls.
A Wide-Open Field
As of July 9, Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Commission (CEC) said 44 parties had presented preliminary documents indicating their intention to participate.
More than half of those parties are new, and probably only about one-quarter of them will actually appear on ballots. In the last elections, in 2015, 14 parties competed.
Two of the six parties that have seats in the current parliament – Ata-Jurt and Onuguu-Progress – are not participating.
Respublika, which ran in a coalition with Ata-Jurt in 2015, is participating. But its onetime leader, former Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov, has withdrawn from the party and politics in general in order to avoid legal entanglements that emerged when he ran for president against Jeenbekov in the 2017 presidential election.
The Respublika-Ata-Jurt coalition, which officially split in November 2016, still maintains a unified faction in parliament, where it has the second-largest number of seats, 28.
Onuguu-Progress did not submit the documents to field candidates this time. There are reports that party leader Bakyt Torobaev and other members of Onuguu-Progress will run as candidates of the new Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (My Homeland Is Kyrgyzstan) party.
The Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), which former President Almazbek Atambaev helped found, has fallen into disarray since Atambaev stepped down as president, started criticizing his successor, Jeenbekov, and created ever more legal problems for himself.
Atambaev has already been convicted of corruption and sentenced to 11 years and two months in prison, and he is on trial on other charges, including murder.
His SDPK party has splintered into several groups. Two of them -- the Social Democrats and the SDPK faction led by Sagynbek Abdrakhmanov that was the first to split from Atambaev’s group -- have announced their intentions to participate in these elections.
The CEC initially refused to accept the documents from Abdrakhmanov’s faction, dubbed the SDPK Without Atambaev faction, but the Supreme Court overruled that decision and forced the commission to clear Abdurakhmanov’s SDPK to run.
The SDPK has the most seats in the current parliament, 38.
The SDPK is the party that nominated Jeenbekov for the presidency. But his public feud with Atambaev reportedly fueled the split in the party, and it is unclear whether any of the SDPK factions are on favorable terms with the president.
Bir Bol also has seats in the current parliament, but a scandal could be mounting over the party’s alleged ties to former President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who was chased from power in the April 2010 revolution.
For 25 years, there have been waves of political parties merging prior to Kyrgyz elections. The Respublika and Ata-Jurt parties did so before the 2015 vote.
In 1999, the former vice president and future prime minister, Feliks Kulov, formed the Ar-Namys (Dignity) party, which was quickly refused registration for elections in 2000.
Kulov was expected to be at the top of the Ar-Namys party list. But instead, five opposition groups -- the Popular Party, Kairanel (Poor People's Party), the Kyrgyz Democratic Movement, the Republican Party, and Ar-Namys -- formed a bloc, and Kulov emerged as their candidate, only to lose in what was almost surely a rigged election in his Kara-Buura district. (The district CEC head committed suicide shortly after the runoff election in March.)
There are already signs of similar alliances forming for these elections.
Omurbek Tekebaev is the leader of the Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party. At the moment, it does not appear that Tekebaev, a former parliamentary speaker, will be a candidate in October, since he is under house arrest. Tekebaev was a vocal critic of former President Atambaev, and when Tekebaev went abroad seeking evidence for suspicions that Atambaev had funneled money out of Kyrgyzstan, Tekebaev suddenly faced charges of corruption and fraud in what critics said was a politically motivated case. In August 2017, Tekebaev was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison, which was commuted to house arrest in August 2019 but which also disqualifies him from running for office.
But, on June 5, Tekebaev and the leaders of the Ak-Shumkar party (ex-Prime Minister Temir Sariev) and the Liberal Democratic Party (Janar Akaev), SDPK lawmaker Ryskeldi Mombekov, and others announced the creation of the political group called Zhany Dem (New Breath). They said the new group “will go into elections as a united front and will participate as such in election campaigns at all levels."
Ata-Meken and the Liberal Democratic Party each handed in documents on their intentions to compete in these parliamentary elections.
Tekebaev said Akaev would head the Ata-Meken party list.
And on August 5, Ak-Shumkar leader Sariev said his party was withdrawing from a coalition with Ata-Meken, the Liberal Democratic Party, and the others for reasons that were not immediately clear.
The nationalist group Kyrk Choro, named after the 40 companions of the Kyrgyz people’s legendary hero Manas, has also floated the possibility of joining a political party. Its founder, Kubanychbek Duysheyev, said in March that Kyrk Choro would compete in the elections and was in discussions with 10 political parties, none of which Duysheyev named.
Whatever Happened To Kamchybek Tashiev?
As mentioned, Kamchybek Tashiev’s Ata-Jurt party is not competing this time. But Tashiev is an established personality in Kyrgyzstan’s political world and personality is what drives the country's political parties.
Kyrgyz political analyst Edil Osmonbetov recently commented to RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, that “in 30 years we haven’t succeeded in dividing parties along ideological lines, those that are ‘right,’ ‘left,’ or ‘centrist.'"
Several parties would like to attract Tashiev to their ranks. Maksat Mamytkanov, a leader in the Chong Kazat (Great Crusade) party, said in mid-June his party was in talks with Tashiev, but Tashiev said at the end of June he would be a candidate for the Mekenchil (Patriotic) party.
The primary concern that hangs over the parliamentary campaign and elections is the coronavirus, whicih has hit Kyrgyzstan hard.
By August 7, Kyrgyzstan had registered more than 39,000 infections and 1,450 COVID-19 deaths, by far the highest reported death toll in Central Asia, where every government is suspected of drastically underreporting their true figures.
CEC Deputy Chairman Abdyzhapar Bekmatov said parties are being encouraged to do their campaigning online and, “if it is essential to organize meetings with the voters, then it must be done under strict observation of rules” on social distancing and limits on mass gatherings.
This change requires parties to be active and savvy on social networks, and any rules are still unclear on advertising for parties on the Internet.
Many people in Kyrgyzstan are already on Facebook and other social networks, so the audience is already there. Political parties have also been active on social networks, but this time they will be depending on such sites to allow them to get their message out to voters.
Show Me The Money
Money will play a big role in such advertising, money has already played a large role in previous elections, and money will be more important than ever in these parliamentary elections.
Many Kyrgyz, such as former lawmaker Bektur Asanov, are worried that those with significant financial backing will dominate the elections and create an “oligarchy-clan” system.
An August 4 report by vesti.kg noted that 41 of the 44 parties planning on running have already opened bank accounts to allow the CEC to track their contributions and expenses.
Only four of the parties had received money, but the Mekenim Kyrgyzstan party had a significant lead in fundraising -- of 3.35 million soms (about $43,500), followed by Bir Bol with 676,000 soms (about $8,800), and then the Social Democrats and Green Party of Kyrgyzstan far behind that with 103,450 soms (about $1,345) and 200 soms (about $2.60), respectively.
In a May 5 article on Russia's Nezavisimaya Gazeta website, Kyrgyz political analyst Asilbek Egemberdiev said Mekenim Kyrgyzstan was one of two parties that could be positioning themselves to be pro-government parties, the other being Birimdik.
As mentioned above, President Jeenbekov came from the now-shattered SDPK. He has not given any indication so far of favoring any particular party.
Egemberdiev said Mekenim Kyrgyzstan “is connected to the Matraimov brothers."
The Matraimov brothers are Raimbek, a former deputy chief of Kyrgyzstan's Customs Service, and Iskender, currently a deputy in parliament.
Raimbek Matraimov has been at the center of a scandal that involves allegations of murder and hundreds of millions of dollars taken out of Kyrgyzstan contained in an investigative report released by Azattyk, the Kloop.kg news website, and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
Bir Bol has changed its political council and said it will have “new faces” as candidates for the 2020 elections.
A recent report noted there was talk of ties between Bir Bol and ex-President Bakiev’s family when posts on social networks drew attention to Symbat Maratbek, a daughter of Bakiev’s brother Marat, who currently occupies an important post at party headquarters and handles its financial matters.
Bir Bol leader Altynbek Sulaymanov confirmed that Maratbek is a member of the party but said she will not be a candidate. “She is one the representatives of educated youth who studied abroad and found her place in society,” Sulaymanov said, adding, “We all have children; they don’t answer for their parents.”
How Much For Your Vote?
Kyrgyzstan’s elections, presidential and parliamentary, have been plagued by allegations of vote-buying.
Janar Akaev said in mid-June that some parties planning on competing in these elections were already “looking for entrepreneurs in every region – owners of markets and coal deposits, who have $400,000.... They’re discussing already the best way how to give out $50 to people in villages, and because most don’t have any dollars in hand, seeing this money they will vote for them..."
In January, Bir Bol’s Altynbek Sulaymanov even jokingly advised that if people were ready to sell their vote, they should at least demand 20,000 soms (about $260) rather than 1,000 soms.
Sulaymanov’s comment drew criticism from some, Omurbek Tekebaev among them.
Vote-buying is always a serious concern in Kyrgyz elections. But with so many people out of work or only working part-time because of the coronavirus, the temptation could be greater than usual for many in Kyrgyzstan.
Parties have until August 25 to conduct a party congress, assemble a list of candidates, hand over the list for the CEC to confirm, and pay the 5 million som fee to compete.