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Following The Twists, Turns In Kyrgyzstan's Presidential Race


Presidential candidate Temir Sariev (center) meets with local residents while campaigning in the village of Kun-tuu, near the capital, Bishkek, on September 11.

There are no elections in Central Asia like Kyrgyzstan's elections, and the upcoming presidential election there is further proof of that.

As of early August, there were 59 people saying they would run for president. There are now 11 candidates left in the race and there will probably be even fewer by October 15, when the election is held.

Since September 17, two of the stronger contenders have indicated they are supporting the front-runners in an example of the political deal making we're likely to see much more of before mid-October.

There have been accusations of "administrative resources" being used to support the incumbent president's pick as his successor. And there have been complaints about some of the endorsements candidates are receiving, and accusations of biased coverage on TV.

On September 10, Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission announced the 13 officially registered candidates for the presidential election.

The three leading contenders were all prime ministers during incumbent President Almazbek Atambaev's term in office -- Omurbek Babanov, Temir Sariev, and Sooronbai Jeenbekov.

Four other candidates -- Adakhan Madumarov of Butun (United) Kyrgyzstan, Bakyt Torobaev of Onuguu-Progress, Kamchybek Tashiev of Ata-Jurt (Fatherland), and Azimbek Beknazarov from the newly formed Union of National Patriotic Forces of Kyrgyzstan -- probably could not win, but they would likely each receive 5 percent or more of the vote.

Omurbek Babanov (left) and Bakyt Torobaev join forces in Jalal-Abad on September 17.
Omurbek Babanov (left) and Bakyt Torobaev join forces in Jalal-Abad on September 17.

We recently heard from Bakyt Beshimov, professor at Northeastern University in Boston and a former deputy in Kyrgyzstan's parliament, and Timur Tokotonaliev, the Bishkek-based Central Asia editor for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, that the race is really between Babanov and Jeenbekov.

Strongest Candidates Emerging

Recent events support their assertion that a process of consolidation has started among the candidates.

It started with Babanov, a businessman who leads the Respublika party. On September 17, Onuguu-Progress presidential candidate Torobaev and Babanov announced they were forming a tandem. Should Babanov win, Torobaev would become prime minister.

Admittedly, Torobaev might not prove the staunchest of political partners. At the start of August, a short-lived alliance was formed consisting of Torobaev's party, Madumarov's Butun Kyrgyzstan, and Tashiev's Ata-Jurt with the goal of nominating a single candidate.

There was speculation at the time that the three candidates, all from southern Kyrgyzstan, were merely trying to strengthen their hand for potential quid pro quo negotiations with one of the front-runners: give your support in the elections now in exchange for positions in the government later.

That alliance fell apart in mid-September and days later Torobaev joined with Babanov.

Madumarov had already showed up at a Babanov campaign rally in the town of Uzgen on September 16, but Madumarov held back from making any direct statements of throwing his support behind Babanov.

Tashiev announced on September 20 he was dropping out of the presidential race and appeared the same day at a rally for Jeenbekov. Tashiev announced his support for Jeenbekov, indicating the Ata-Jurt party was moving behind Jeenbekov's (and President Atambaev's) Social Democratic Party.

In the meantime, the Respublika-Ata-Jurt coalition that was formed before the 2015 parliamentary elections continues to maintain the unity of its faction in parliament.

Elmira Ibraimova, the campaign manager for Temir Sariev and his Ak-Shumkar (White Falcon) party, announced on September 25 she was leaving the team due to differences with Sariev over the course of campaigning.

There are rumors Sariev might be planning to make a deal with Jeenbekov.

'Administrative Resources'

There have always been accusations of the use, or more correctly misuse, of administrative resources in Kyrgyzstan's elections and this one is no exception.

The accusations target Jeenbekov, who has the official backing of President Atambaev. There are claims of pressure being put on employees and students to vote for Jeenbekov or face an uncertain future.

The Knews.kg news site posted a photograph on September 25 purportedly showing a Jeenbekov campaign banner hanging on a polling station in the southern Nooken district.

Sooronbai Jeenbekov (pictured) is backed by the outgoing president, Almazbek Atambaev.
Sooronbai Jeenbekov (pictured) is backed by the outgoing president, Almazbek Atambaev.

Babanov's and Jeenbekov's respective campaign teams have complained to the Central Election commission about reports in various news outlets that they contend are meant to smear their images.

There have been accusations against other media outlets.

Torobaev, who is still a presidential candidate despite the announcement of the tandem with Babanov, rejected his allotted 15-minute campaign spot with the Public Television and Radio Corporation because he said the station had broadcast material that blackened his reputation and caused harm to his political reputation. Torobaev called on other candidates to boycott their free 15 minutes of airtime on the station, too.

Powerful Endorsements

The greatest uproar has come from endorsements and perceived endorsements for Jeenbekov and Babanov.

There was the incident with Deputy Prime Minister Duishenbek Zilaliev in Batken on September 19, when he addressed a group of state employees and not only openly pledged support for Jeenbekov, but warned those present they should do the same.

However, Jeenbekov would receive far more powerful support the next day at a campaign rally in Jalal-Abad.

At the same event where Tashiev announced he was supporting Jeenbekov, the country's former chief mufti, Chubak Ajy Jalilov, addressed the crowd.

"I came here not as the former mufti, not as a member of the international council of the Ulema or as a member of the Ulema Council of Kyrgyzstan, but as a son of the Kyrgyz people, as a citizen of this country," Jalilov said. "Standing here, on our soil, in front of our people, next to Kamchy ake [Tashiev], we say that you Kamchy ake, are not alone...we also will give our support [to Jeenbekov]."

Civic activist Adil Turdukulov and Erik Iriskulbekov, the head of Babanov's campaign team, complained immediately to the Central Election Commission.

Article 22 of the Electoral Code clearly forbids clerics from campaigning for political candidates.

"Chubak ajy Jalilov is a well-known religious figure and an active member of the Ulema Council," Turdukulov said. "And the question of responsibility [for allowing Jalilov to speak] needs to be raised with the campaign team of Sooronbai Jeenbekov, who permitted this."

Jeenbekov's campaign team responded that Tashiev had invited Jalilov to the event and the former mufti spoke because members of a workers group asked him to do so.

Whatever the election commission says about Jalilov's comments, Jalilov is an extremely influential person, and what he said is very likely to have an effect on the course of the campaign. I spoke with an Uzbek friend of mine who is from the Osh area. He told me Jalilov was a "powerful weapon that cannot be overestimated."

Jalilov is generally popular in Kyrgyzstan, but importantly he appears to have the respect of the 700,000-strong Uzbek community in southern Kyrgyzstan, many of whom did not vote in the 2015 parliamentary elections.

Kyrgyzstan has some 3 million registered voters, but more than 600,000, officially, are outside the country, working mainly in Russia. Most of these will not cast ballots.

So the possibility of picking up a couple of hundred thousand votes from the Uzbek community represents a huge boost to Jeenbekov's chances.

Foreign Aid

There is another element in Kyrgyzstan's elections that has not been seen before. On September 19, pictures were published of Babanov meeting with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Candidates are forbidden from posting pictures of themselves with foreign officials, the result of previous elections when candidates went to Russia to get pictures with top officials there.

In this case, the pictures came from Kazakhstan, but they appeared in Kyrgyz media and Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Ministry handed over a note on September 20 protesting the meeting and Nazarbaev's alleged support for Babanov.

Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry shot a note back quickly dismissing these allegations and noting that Nazarbaev had met with Jeenbekov as recently as August 14.

Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry omitted mentioning that Jeenbekov was still Kyrgyzstan's prime minister at the time and was in Astana for a meeting of the prime ministers of Eurasian Economic Union countries.

Babanov's meeting with Nazarbaev came after a curious incident earlier in September, when Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev visited Kyrgyzstan.

Mirziyoev met with leaders of Kyrgyzstan's political parties who were lined up to shake hands with the Uzbek leader. When Mirziyoev reached Babanov he stopped for a few extra seconds and said to Babanov, "[I've] heard something about you."

Mirziyoev continued walking down the line of political party leaders without ever explaining the cryptic remark.

Russia has certainly had an influence on some of Kyrgyzstan's previous elections, whether it was Russian officials making visits to Kyrgyzstan ahead of elections, or political figures from Kyrgyzstan going to Russia during campaigning, or simply Russian TV broadcasts, widely available in Kyrgyzstan, reporting in favorable or negative terms on a particular candidate.

The Central Asian leaders really have never had a chance to dabble in Kyrgyz elections.

During the 1990s they had their own problems and were in no position to try to influence the outcome of elections in Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan's 2005 parliamentary elections caught everyone by surprise when they sparked a revolution that ousted President Askar Akaev.

The other Central Asian leaders were shocked to see a fellow postindependence president forced to flee the country, and there was nothing they could do when Kurmanbek Bakiev was elected three months later but work to ensure something similar could not happen in their own countries.

The April 2010 revolution again shook up the other Central Asian leaders and again there was little they could do as a parliamentary system was approved in Kyrgyzstan, and parliamentary elections were held in October 2010 and a presidential election the next year.

This time it appears the Kazakh and Uzbek leaders are taking a greater interest in Kyrgyzstan's presidential election.

Runoff Unlikely?

The shifting political landscape seems to indicate the first round of elections will be the only round.

Had most, or all, of the second-tier candidates, such as Torobaev and Tashiev, participated it is unlikely any single candidate could have received the 50 percent plus one vote needed to win outright, which would have necessitated a second round in November.

The recent political horse-trading increases the probability Kyrgyzstan's next president will be elected on October 15.

Based on material from RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those 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 some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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