Kyrgyzstan’s Electoral Dilemma

Between Kyrgyzstan declaring its independence in 1991 and 2016, the Central Asian republic has had three presidents. However, only one was elected into office. The following two were installed as part of a transition government following the First and Second Tulip Revolution in 2005 and 2010, respectively. The First Tulip Revolution was over fixed, disputed election results. It resulted in a transition government led by the opposition party’s leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Yet just five years later, the Kyrgyz people became fed up with Bakiyev’s complacency with government corruption, nepotism, and stagnation with opposition parties. He was continuing many of the same practices as that of his predecessor, causing discontent among the Kyrgyz public. Protesters stormed government buildings throughout southern Kyrgyzstan and a few days later, the Presidential Palace in the country’s capital Bishkek. The First Tulip Revolution was bloodless, while the Second left between 40 and 100 dead. It set a precedent for the former Soviet republic that only revolution could create change. Democracy was a dream that had yet to be realized.

The democratic dream gained some breath this past October in Kyrgyzstan’s first competitive elections since its independence. Almazbek Atambayev was succeeded by Sooronbay Jeenbekov in the country’s first peaceful transition of power. Jeenbekov is the former prime minister of Kyrgyzstan, having served from April 2016 to August 2017, when he was nominated by the ruling Social Democrat Party to run as their presidential candidate. His main rival was Omurek Babanov, a millionaire businessman-turned-politician who leads the Respublika opposition party who also served as prime minister from December 2011 to September 2012. They were joined on the campaign trail by nine other candidates – including one woman. Jeenbekov relied on his close relations with Atambayev, who personally endorsed him. The president-elect vowed on the trail to continue the policies pursued by Atambayev. Babanov, meanwhile, promised “a crackdown on corruption, constitutional reform to reintroduce presidential rule, and more effective foreign policy.” In a turnout of 56%, Jeenbekov received 54% of the casted votes, thereby making a runoff election with Babanov unnecessary. However, not all are completely satisfied with the election results. The October elections were a success in that they created a peaceful transition of power from one president to another, although Kyrgyzstan has much to work on to become a full-fledged, liberal democracy.

In the run-up to the election, the campaign trails encountered several snags that worried voters and international observers over the legitimacy and peacefulness of the elections. Yet international observers including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) noted instances of abuse of public resources, pressure on voters, and vote buying in the weeks and months leading up to the election. The OSCE also wrote in the same report how registration laws to run for president “provide overly broad grounds for candidate deregistration, despite previous OSCE/ODIHR recommendations.” The OSCE additionally concurred with “concerns, noting that while technical aspects were ‘well-administered,’ and that candidates could campaign freely, public resources were misused in the run-up to the election.” In other words, while all candidates were able to freely advertise their campaign without censorship, teachers and government officials were forced to support Jeenbekov. Lastly, Kyrgyz citizens living abroad were denied the right to vote – omitting thousands of voters. Thus, while Kyrgyzstan has set itself apart from its more authoritarian neighbors, the country’s electoral system has many flaws that need to be improved.

The situation became even tenser after Babanov, who once resided in Kazakhstan, met in September with Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev. During the meeting, Babanov mentioned that the Kyrgyz people “appreciate and support the peacemaking efforts” of President Nazarbayev. By painting Nazarbayev as the hero, Babanov simultaneously showed himself as the representative of Kyrgyzstan and outmaneuvered the sitting president Almazbek Atambayev. In other words, Babanov began acting as president before being elected. President Atambayev railed against him and “publicly deplored the alleged Kazakh meddling in Kyrgyz internal affairs, pointing to the Kazakh government’s control.” The blunder dealt a political deathblow to Babanov’s campaign and sparked a standoff between the two Central Asian states. After Atambayev’s remarks, Kazakhstan on October 10 reintroduced border controls and customs checks to Kyrgyzstan and partially suspended the import of dairy products, which was then followed by the Kyrgyz parliament voting “to rescind an agreement to receive $100 million from Kazakhstan…. It is an ‘own goal’ of epic proportions.” The move is likely only going to hurt Kyrgyzstan more than Kazakhstan. The former desperately needs to grow its domestic industry and economy, which would have been aided by Kazakhstan’s aid. Currently Kyrgyzstan is one of the most remittance-dependent countries in the world (30% of the GDP in 2016, estimated at 37.1% for 2017). Bishkek joined the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in 2015 as a way to integrate its economy with those of its more developed neighbors. However, this standoff with Kazakhstan has raised questions over Kyrgyzstan’s future with the EEU. That being said, since its citizens are so dependent on foreign income, the chances of Bishkek leaving is minimal. Nonetheless, Radio Free Europe writes how this dispute highlights “the weakness of the Russian- and Kazakh-led [EEU].”

        On October 15, Election Day finally arrived. Polls opened and closed with few problems reported across the country. The Diplomat reports, “The election itself proceeded peacefully in most localities except Osh, the second-largest city in the country, and Jeenbekov’s home region. Here, it was marred by allegations of ballot destruction, intimidation, and violence towards reporters.” Jeenbekov began his political career in Osh, which raises question if there is any significance in this correlation. However, there is no information as to why only Osh experienced these issues. Nonetheless, they were not enough to warrant the elections invalid. Babanov accepted the results at a press conference where he said, “The people have made their choice,” but also adding, “State television channels were used to pour dirt on us. There was a black PR [campaign] against us. Our campaign activists were abused; they did not know whom to turn to as law enforcement was also one-sided.” While Babanov’s backhanded concession speech was just a small part of a brutal election campaign, the Kyrgyz election has its merits. Of the five Central Asian states that were once part of the Soviet Union, this marks the first peaceful transition of power from one president to another through the form of an election. Artur Gerasymov, Head of the OSCE delegation observing the elections, called the election “an important benchmark for the Kyrgyz Republic…. I hope that the positive developments we have seen will serve as the basis for a consolidation of democracy in this country and in the region.” That being said, Jeenbakov has his work cut out for him. His country’s GDP has shrunk by 12% in the past three years and is now in a diplomatic spat with neighboring Kazakhstan. Furthermore, with a turnout of 56%, only about three in ten Kyrgyz voted for Jeenbekov. Considering that Babanov was backed by a third of the electorate, Jeenbekov is walking a tightrope.

The October elections were a success in that they created a peaceful transition of power from one president to another. However, Kyrgyzstan has much to work on to become a full-fledged, liberal democracy. The elections were fraught with misuse of public resources, reports of voter intimidation, vote buying, and alleged media bias towards Jeenbekov. However, this election marks the first peaceful transition of power in Central Asia among the five former Soviet republics. The run-up to the election caused tensions to spark between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan over presidential candidate Babanov’s meeting with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, triggering a string of events that have entrenched the two republics in a diplomatic spat. President Jeenbekov has a wide range of issues to fix with high expectations set on him by the electorate. Only time will tell if the democratic dream in Central Asia will remain an idea or manifest itself into a free, fair, sustainable form of governance.