Presidential Elections in Kyrgyzstan: Democratic Competition in a Clan Society

Antje Kästner, 10 October 2017 –

On 15 October, Kyrgyzstan is electing a new president. These elections are a small sensation in the Central Asian country, because they could mark the first peaceful power transfer since independence. President Atambayev is not seeking another term. At the same time, it is uncertain whether the ruling party’s candidate will be able to win the vote. Still, it would be wrong to speak of democratic elections.

Kyrgyzstan is only rarely topping the news. The small Central Asian country of roughly six million most of all drew attention due to a number of violent political upheavals.   In March 2005, the so-called Tulip Revolution led to the ouster of President Akayev. A year later, his successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, faced similar mass protests, before being eventually deposed in another revolution in April 2010. This was followed by bloody ethnic riots, in which an estimated 2,000 people lost their lives and hundreds of thousands were displaced.

Kyrgyzstan is politically distinct from the other Central Asian republics. Due to its comparatively free media and party landscape Western observers have long referred to it as “island of democracy” in the region. Yet in fact, Kyrgyz politics are far from being truly democratic. Kyrgyzstan was the only of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia that the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House in 2017 ranked as “partly free”. This, however, puts the country still into the same category as Myammar, Jordan, or Haiti.

Still, the upcoming presidential elections are notable. In contrast to the other Central Asian republics, where power transfers only occur after the death of the incumbent leader, they could for the first time in the country’s history mark a peaceful transition of power.  President Almazbek Atambayev’s six year term is coming to an end on 1 December 2017. In line with the country’s constitution, the 61-year old is not entitled to stand for re-election. He himself repeatedly stressed that he intended to respect this. Atambayev is from the North of the country. Geographic origin and the associated clan affiliation play an important role in the ethnically–torn county, where Northern and Southern elites are competing for power.

Atambayev is an experienced politician. Already in Soviet times he worked as an aide for the presidium of the Kyrgyz SSR’s Supreme Soviet. At the beginning of the 1990s, he co-founded the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK). In 1995, he was elected into parliament and in 1999 became the SDPK’s chairman. Without a reasonable chance of success, he competed in the 2000 presidential elections against President Akayev.

After the Tulip Revolution, Atambayev shortly served as Minister for Industry, Trade, and Tourism. But when President Bakiyev single-handedly altered the constitution, he resigned and started to organise mass protests. Bakiyev managed to defuse the situation by appointing Atambayev as prime minister. In 2010, however, Atambayev was once more among the opposition leaders who mobilised citizens against Bakiyev and his government. This time they succeeded.

Following the April-Revolution, however, not he, but his party colleague Roza Otunbayeva became interim president. The newly adopted constitution not only stipulated a shift from a presidential to a parliamentary system. It also prohibited Otunbayeva to run for both the presidency and a seat in parliament. Subsequently, Atambayev became the SDPK’s candidate and won the presidential elections of October 2011 in a landslide.

Since then, the party managed to consolidate its position. In the 2015 parliamentary elections, it was able to secure roughly one third of the seats in parliament, thus, emerging as leading political force. It formed a broad ruling coalition with four of the five other parties that had entered parliament: the Kyrgyzstan Party, Onuguu-Progress, Bir-Bol and Ata-Meken. Only Respublika-Ata Jurt went into opposition.

From mid-2016, however, the ruling coalition started to crumble, after President Atambayev initiated controversial constitutional reforms, that amongst other things suggested to shift power from the president to the prime minister. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which is offering states constitutional advice, judged that the planned amendments would negatively impact on the balance of power by strengthening the powers of the executive, while weakening both the parliament and, to a greater extent, the judiciary.

Domestically, criticism was primarily voiced by Ata-Meken and Onuguu-Progress. Omurbek Tekebayev, the leader of Ata-Meken, who had sided with Atambayev and Otunbayeva during the April-Revolution and who is known as the father of the 2010 constitution, reprimanded that according to law the constitution could not be changed before 2020. Also, he suspected that the reforms aimed to maintain the political influence of Atambayev and his entourage also beyond the end of his presidential term.

Soon after, Atambayev started to proceed against his former allies. Still in September 2016, he tasked the Prosecutor General to investigate, whether the former members of Otunbayeva’s interim government had links to Kadyrshan Batyrov, a businessman who had gone into exile in Sweden over charges of having fuelled ethnic unrest in 2010.

After the Kyrgyz Supreme Court concluded that the proposed constitutional amendments conformed to existing legislation, the Kyrgyz leadership in December 2016 legitimised them by means of a referendum. Compared to previous constitutional referenda, both turnout and the pro-vote were with 42% and 79.6% respectively rather low. As no minimum turnout was required, Atambayev in late January 2017 signed the amendments into law.

In the following months, the Kyrgyz leadership moved against political opponents and critical media. On 26 February, Omurbek Tekebayev was arrested at the airport when returning from Europe. He was accused of having accepted a million dollar bribe from a Russian businessman while serving as deputy prime minister in 2010. On his own account, Tekebayev was arrested because he had evidence of President Atambayev’s business interests outside Kyrgyzstan. Also, Tekebayev planned to run in the presidential elections. Despite his arrest, Ata-Meken nominated him as their candidate. Over the summer, he was put on trial and sentenced to eight years in prison on corruption charges.

Tekebayev’s arrest was followed by a host of other criminal proceedings, that observers said were politically motivated, not the least due to their temporal proximity to the presidential elections. By the end of May, corruption charges had been raised against seven lawmakers, both of the ruling coalition and the opposition. Additionally, numerous activists of smaller opposition parties were arrested and put on trial. Many of them were sentenced to long prison terms.

In parallel, the leadership increasingly targeted critical media. In July 2017, the popular news outlet Zanoza.kg was charged with libel in five cases and ordered to pay a very high penalty. Similar charges were raised against Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. They were, however, dropped after the broadcaster’s president turned to Atambayev.

Who is benefitting from these political reprisals? The constitutional referendum of December 2016 has strengthened the premiership and the SDPK-led government. Atambayev’s successor will have less influence over financial matters and cannot veto the appointment and dismissal of cabinet members. And after a supermajority is now needed to hold a no-confidence vote, parliament is no longer realistically able to dismiss the government.

The sanctions against politicians and media outlets contribute to the demobilisation of opposition voters, especially in the South of the country. This, in turn, is promoting the chances of the leading contenders for the presidency. Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Commission announced on 10 September, that only thirteen of the 59 applicants had been registered for the election. According to opinion polls, three candidates are in the lead: Sooronbai Jeenbekov, Omurbek Babanov, and Temir Sariyev. All three have the advantage to have served as prime minister under President Akayev and are accordingly well known to the public.

Roughly two months ahead of election day, Sooronbai Jeenbekov (58) resigned as prime minister in order to run as SDPK-nominee for the presidency. The agricultural expert is from the South of the country. After the April-Revolution, he became governor of the Osh region and from 2015 served as the President’s representative in the region.

The second leading contender is Omurbek Babanov (47). He is leader of Respublika and heads the parliamentary opposition. He is, however, not running for his party, but as independent candidate, possibly in order not to risk the parliamentary alliance with Ata Jurt. The businessman is one of the richest men in Kyrgyzstan. He is known for his philanthropist activities, for instance regarding the construction of schools and kindergartens. Babanov was appointed prime minister right after Atambayev’s election to the presidency in 2011. He lost the post in September 2012, following a corruption scandal.

The third promising candidate is Temir Sariyev. He is from the North and was nominated by Ak-Shumkar (White Falcon), which in 2015 failed to re-enter parliament. The economist served as Minister of Finance in Otunbayeva’s interim government. In May 2015, he became prime minister, but resigned roughly a year later after lawmakers accused him and his government of bribe taking. When asked whom he regarded to be his main contender, Sariyev replied to see two: Administrative resources and oligarchism.

In fact, there are signs that the government is employing administrative means in support of Jeenbekov’s election campaign. Vice-Premier Duishenbek Tsilalijew, who was tasked to oversee the organisation of the election, was accused of having called on civil servants to support Jeenbekov. Soon after, teachers at the State Law Academy were alleged to have pressured students to vote for Jeenbekov.

Most apparent, however, were Russia’s and Uzbekistan’s foreign political advances towards the Kyrgyz leadership. Around 700,000 of Kyrgyzstan‘s three million voters are currently working in Russia. And although only a small share of these migrants will take part in the elections, they and their families are interested in good relations between Russia and Kyrgyzstan.

In the months leading up to the presidential vote, Moscow supported the incumbent Kyrgyz leadership in many ways. In June, President Atambayev made a five-day trip to Russia, where he was received by President Putin. At the end of September, Kyrgyzstan’s new Prime Minister, Sapar Isakov, was invited to a state visit to Moscow and met his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, and Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin (United Russia). The meetings and accompanying statements by Russian representatives, that they hoped the new president would continue Atambayev’s policy line, offered comprehensive media support for the SDPK and their presidential candidate.

But Moscow also provided the Kyrgyz leadership with financial assistance. In summer 2017, the Russian government wrote-off Kyrgyzstan’s debt of 240 million US dollars. Also, Gazprom Kyrgyzstan, a subsidiary of Russia’s state enterprise Gazprom, in late August launched a number of projects aimed at improving the country’s energy infrastructure.

Apart from Russia, the new Uzbek leadership took on a particularly prominent role in the current election campaign. Southern Kyrgyzstan is home to a large Uzbek minority. In the wake of the ethnic unrest in summer 2010, Uzbekistan had closed most border crossings between the two countries. As a result, many families became separated.

The Kyrgyz leadership seized the window of opportunity that opened with the death of Uzbekistan’s long-time President, Islam Karimov. They sought to improve relations between the two countries, not the least to win the votes of the Uzbek community for the SDPK-candidate. Shortly before Jeenbekov resigned from the premiership, he welcomed his Uzbek counterpart in Bishkek to discuss border issues. In early September, Uzbekistan’s new President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to Kyrgyzstan. He agreed with President Atambayev to re-open the border crossings between their countries. At the beginning of October, Mirziyoyev then welcomed Atambayev to Tashkent, and announced that there were no unresolved issues between the two countries.

Interestingly, Jeenbekov’s contender Babanov also resorted to foreign political tools. On 19 September, Kazakh media reported that Babanov had been received by Kazakhstan’s President, Nursultan Nazarbayev. In televised remarks, Nazarbayev said during the meeting that he believed Kyrgyzstan needed a “competent, young and experienced man” like Babanov. In effect, the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry sent a protest note to Kazakhstan, in which they denounced the meeting as interference in Kyrgyzstan’s internal affairs.

In the last weeks ahead of the vote, the list of Kyrgyzstan’s presidential contenders became shorter. Two candidates, who had no chance of winning, but still were thought to receive around 5% each, withdrew their candidacy in favour of the leading contenders. In mid-September, Babanov and Onuguu-Progress candidate Bakyt Torobayev announced to have formed a tandem. Soon after, Ata-Jurts’s nominee, Katshybek Tashiyev, confirmed that he would leave the presidential race in support of Jeenbekov.

While Torobayev and Tashiyev are hoping to secure influential political posts under the new president, Jeenbekov and Babanov were employing this tactic to receive a higher share of votes. According to a poll conducted, by the independent NGO “Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society” in early October, 41.2% of respondents said they would vote for Jeenbekov, while 38.7% supported Babanov. Thus, it seems unlikely that either of the two will be able to win the election in the first round. This was only possible, if one candidate managed to secure more than half of the vote.

From the very beginning, the Kyrgyz leadership anticipated that there would be a close race. President Atambayev already in May announced to move the election date up from 19 November to mid-October. This way, a second round of elections could still take place before his presidential term expired on 1 December. And in case the election result would trigger unrest, Atambayev would still be authorised to act. In the end, the outcome of the election will depend on how the defeated candidates will position themselves before the second round of elections. Especially Temir Sariyev has the potential to act as king-maker.

But it cannot be excluded that a completely different scenario is taking shape. Currently, Babanov has teamed-up with the candidate of the SDPK’s former junior partner Onuguu-Progress, while Jeenbekov went together with the candidate of Ata Jurt, the parliamentary ally of Babanov’s Respublika party. Considering that political decisions in Kyrgyzstan are usually guided by an inter-elite consensus, it would not come as a big surprise, if Babanov withdrew his candidacy after the first round and in return was appointed Prime Minister by Jeenbekov.