Kyrgyzstan elections, the strongman has spoken
Last Sunday on October 15th, Kyrgyzstan held its presidential election which swept Sooronbay Jeenbekov, nominee from the incumbent Social Democratic Party, into power by a large margin. The election also ensured continuity for the ruling party and financial security for the outgoing president Almazbek Atambayev.
What started as the first competitive presidential election in Kyrgyzstan after the country’s independence concluded as the transfer of power from the outgoing ruler to his anointed successor. The process that could have been truly democratic resulted in administrative pressure on voters and forced transition of authority. Mr. Atambayev fought tooth and nail to prop his handpicked successor and leave no space for alternative.
Kyrgyzstan’s election campaign, and especially its last weeks, saw fierce smearing attacks on the opposition candidate, voter-buying, media bias and overall blatant administrative pressure to support Mr. Jeenbekov. In a fleeting moment, the country with the most democratic potential in Central Asia joined the club of long-lasting clan-led dictators who rob their populations of any ruling alternatives for decades to come.
Executives in public institutions, military units, schools and universities were ordered to vote exclusively for Sooronbay Jeenbekov. Army generals and commanders threatened to check soldiers’ individual ballot papers to ensure the desired outcome.
In some districts, similar requests were directed at public servants, teachers and doctors. Several school administrators went as far as to call for individual reports from the teachers after they cast their votes to know where and how they voted. In some cases the demands included a photo of the ballot paper.
The outgoing leader himself pulled a number of stunts straight out of the authoritarian playbook. He openly discredited opposition candidates by claiming that the neighboring countries were attempting to influence the election. These claims were based solely on the fact that the presidential candidates met with other Central Asian leaders during the election campaign.
Having secured his successor’s presidential victory, Mr. Atambayev guaranteed his clan the right to control and distribute financial flows that Kyrgyzstan receives from the neighboring countries for various infrastructure development projects.
In one swift move, the outgoing leader has also provided security to his own business. Considering that Mr. Atambayev had soured relations with all of Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors – accusing them of “undermining democracy” and “exerting pressure on internal politics” – it is hard to imagine any of the neighboring leaders harboring Mr. Atambayev in case of persecution for his financial crimes.
The true test comes ahead: what will these election results mean for Kyrgyzstan?
In the last years of his presidency, Mr. Atambayev isolated himself not only from Uzbekistan but from a long-standing ally in Astana. Having lost the support of its most strategic partner and neighbor, Bishkek risks being isolated completely which in turn can spur crisis and public unrest.
It is quite clear that Mr. Atambayev secured his grip on power and ability to rule behind the scenes. If he chooses to step in as the prime minister, repeating Russia’s scenario, he could run as the presidential candidate again after Mr. Jeenbekov’s term. Recent changes to the Kyrgyz constitution allow this power play.
According to the experts, the current forced transition of power in Kyrgyzstan will most likely lead to social and political tensions in the country. The question remains whether they will spark public clashes that happened to bring Mr. Atambayev to power back in the day.
Akmat Liev, special for Caucasus Times