On 10 January, early presidential elections were held in Kyrgyzstan, following the resignation of the incumbent, President Zheenbekov (Kyrgyzstan at a political crossroads – new elections, new ideas, old problems). The atmosphere in which the vote was conducted remained tense. This had been the case since the results of the October elections were announced, in which the opposition grouping failed to win a single parliamentary seat. The opposition parties accused the authorities of electoral fraud, vote rigging and a number of irregularities in the pre-election process (Kyrgyzstan: in a vicious circle of political instability). The consequence of the escalating emotions was the widespread outbreak of public discontent and the announcement of new elections.
Many candidates, one favourite
Initially, 60 names appeared on the list of candidates for the highest office, but eventually the Central Election Commission registered 18 of them (only 20 provided the required documents in time, two of them failed to meet the requirements). However, only 17 stood for election, because the head of the local branch of Gazprom, Rashid Tagiyev, withdrew from running. Of course, the list includes the most important players: the prime minister and acting president for a while Sadyr Japarov, the head of the United Kyrgyzstan party Adakhan Madumarov, as well as a former judge of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, Klara Sooronkulova, who fought hard to postpone the new elections from December to January. Surprisingly, former president Soronbay Zheenbekov, who resigned following the October unrest, was not on the list.
Practically from the moment the date of the new elections was announced, the leader of the presidential race was Sadyr Zhaparov, who was transferred to the prime minister’s seat from a prison cell. He was serving a sentence for leading the riots that led to the kidnapping and imprisonment of a government representative (see below). This did not prevent him from winning public support (polls showed him at 64%) not only for his candidacy for the highest office in the country, but also for pushing through a referendum on the change of power to a strong presidential system, as part of the electoral process.
An attempt to unite opposition candidates
Four well-known political activists: A. Madumarov, K. Sooronkulova, Kanatbek Isayev and Kanybek Imanalev decided to join forces, rightly believing that alone none of them would gather enough votes to prevent S. Zhaparov from winning more than 50% of the votes. Failure to overcome this threshold would have meant a second round of elections.
The main problem, however, was which of them could effectively block the Prime Minister’s victory in the first round, as Adachan Madumarov, the highest ranked in the polls, did not exceed 14% of public support. In the end, apart from the common elements of campaigning and abstaining from acting against each other, all four ran in the election. The opposition parties realized that the choice in this case was limited to voting for or against Zhaparov. This was confirmed by the poll results: 37% of respondents, when asked who they would vote for if they could not vote for their candidate in the second round, said “against all”, and 33% could not name anyone else.
Why is Zhaparov so popular?
Zhaparov’s unusually strong position in pre-election polls was surprising, as the politician was not widely known in society until his appointment as Prime Minister. However, the image of a local politician who opposed the power structure and openly spoke out against abuses in the Issyk Kul province, particularly denouncing the government’s policy towards the republic’s most profitable enterprise, the Kumtor gold mine, remained in the minds of supporters. In 2012, when a parliamentary committee debated the future of the mine, managed by Canada’s Canterra Gold, he openly called for its nationalization as the most effective method of increasing state revenues from gold mining. At the time, he pointed out that Kyrgyzstan had received only USD 44m from mining, contrary to what the government side reported, that the Canadian shareholder had paid USD 625m in taxes to the budget, and that revenues from all the mine’s operations had brought USD 1.9bn into the economy. Zaparov’s voice was so audible in the country and inconvenient for the ruling team that attempts were made to buy his silence, although there is no evidence of this. Zhaparov’s continued activism in the Kumtor case led to social unrest and the imprisonment of government attorney Emilbek Kaptgaev in October 2013. This act was considered by the court as kidnapping (in fact, Kaptagayev was held for several hours in a car), and Sadir Zhaparov was considered the main provocateur of the event. After the events, Zhaparov went into hiding abroad for several years and was only arrested in March 2017 when he returned to the republic. The court sentenced him to 11.5 years in prison for leading the riots that led to the kidnapping and imprisonment of a government representative.
The spectacular transfer of Zhaparov from prison to the hotel where the representatives of the winning parties were meeting and his appointment as prime minister turned out to be an excellent strategic move. The media quickly reminded the public of who the new prime minister was and why he had been convicted, which won him public favor despite the justified allegations against him throughout the electoral process.
Rapid reinforcement of authority
From the moment the date of the presidential election was announced, Prime Minister Zhaparov set out to consolidate his position in society, travelling around the country as acting president and convincing people of his candidacy and his project for change. He also quickly began a media campaign, making sure to be ever present on television screens and visible on thousands of posters in the streets of cities and towns. All these activities translated into the Prime Minister distancing other candidates, especially those supported by the opposition, who – in the face of the intensely created image of the future pro-socialist president – were not able to undertake joint actions in the campaign.
Of course the financial potential of the candidates has to be mentioned here. In this area Zaparov’s electoral staff, which spent 44 million soms (approx. USD 628,000) on the campaign, is far ahead of the opposition, because the second on the list, Barbyrjan Tolbayev, spent only 6 million soms (approx. USD 85,000). Of course, the opposition took the opportunity to accuse Zhaparov’s staff of using public funds and government support to run the campaign, but this did not translate into a change in the public perception of the candidates.
In this political reality, the victory of Prime Minister Zhaparov was practically a foregone conclusion. The only uncertainty was whether he would maintain his support of over 60% and, what was extremely important, whether he would gain public support for a parallel referendum on strengthening presidential power. In the latter case, as many as 80 per cent of respondents to a 1,000-person telephone survey conducted in December by the Central Asia Barometer supported the introduction of a presidential model of government.
What oppresses the Kyrgyz
A survey conducted by the International Republican Institute in September made it possible to show how public sentiment has changed over a three-month period. In the IRI survey, the main problem in Kyrgyzstan indicated by respondents (61%) was high unemployment, followed by coronavirus (51%) and corruption (49%). In the results of the December survey, the problem of unemployment was indicated by only 25% of the respondents, and this despite the country’s still deteriorating economic situation. The most frequently chosen answer (40%) was political instability. Even more significant changes took place in the structure of politicians enjoying the greatest trust. The winner of the September survey was Omurbek Babanov (16%), who virtually retired from politics as of 2017 and lives in Moscow, ahead of the co-chairman of the opposition Respublika/Ata Zhurt alliance Kamchbek Tashiev (12%) and the chairman of the co-ruling United Kyrgyzstan (Butun Kyrgyzstan) party Adachan Madumarov (11%). Of course, the list of politicians to choose from did not include the then incarcerated Sadyr Zhaparov.
Three months later, the absolute leader of the ranking with 64% support was S. Zhaparov, who was trusted by 48% of the respondents. However, it is worth noting the high – 31% – percentage of people who do not trust any politician.
An outright victory
The election results made public on 11 January were probably no surprise to anyone, except perhaps for the size of the victory. Sadyr Zhaparov became the new president of Kyrgyzstan with almost 80% of the vote. Adachan Madumarov came in second, but only nine per cent of voters voted for him. With an equally impressive result (84%), voters supported the changes in the system of government proposed by the Prime Minister and now the President.
Although the political and social situation in the country has been very turbulent since October and it might have seemed that Kyrgyz people would not remain indifferent to the post-election events, reality has verified the low sustainability of the public sentiment, as the turnout was only slightly over 39% of those eligible to vote.
Only a few days after the elections, opponents again spoke out, pointing to 10 January as the symbolic end of democracy and the beginning of the era of nationalist populism in Kyrgyzstan. The very name of the new president’s party, Mekenchil (Patriot), points to nationalist inclinations. What is also worrying is its popularity mainly in the agricultural regions of the country, inhabited by poorly educated and relatively poor Kyrgyz people, who consider S. Zhaparov a ‘true patriot’. This model of building support and strengthening power based on the strong promotion of national elements as the guiding principles of the state has become quite popular in various countries of the world (including Hungary and Poland), including experienced and stable democracies (such as the United States).
Return of the presidential republic
Sadyr Zhaparov’s victory will undoubtedly have an impact on the shape of the political scene in Kyrgyzstan, mainly due to the president’s dominant, or even authoritarian, position in relation to other institutions of power (government and parliament). The draft provides for changes to the constitution, the most important of which is the establishment of a body to supervise the activities of the president and parliament (kurultaj, rally, a form of popular parliament). On the surface, this may seem like an interesting idea for keeping an eye on the government, but when juxtaposed with the increase in the scope of presidential powers to a level reminiscent of the position of the first secretaries of the republics in the Soviet system of power, there is no guarantee that the kurultaj will not in fact become a presidential tool for controlling the government. All the more so since, according to the draft, it is the president who is given the right to appoint and dismiss members of the government, heads of standing committees and other executive bodies.
The introduction of a new system of government means a return to the relations that the Kyrgyz people rejected 10 years earlier, by limiting presidential power on the wave of public dissatisfaction with K. Bakiyev’s rule. This sudden turn towards a ‘strong president’ may be due to the deteriorating economic situation in the country, the lack of prospects for its improvement and corruption in the circles of power. The model proposed by S. Zhaparov is in a way a personification of power by identifying it with a specific person, in this case the president. In the system in force since 2010, power, and therefore responsibility for the consequences of political decisions, was distributed between the government, parliament, committees and the president. This was complicated in the public perception, hence the popularity of ‘simplifying’ the rules of governing the republic by giving more powers to the president.
The president responsible for everything
In practice, the proposed changes will not only mean a return to the presidential system known from the times of A. Akayev and K. Bakiyev, but bring it dangerously close to the format of the Tajik presidency of E. Rachmon.
The personification of responsibility for the consequences of political decisions in the person of the president may very quickly take revenge on the originator. For Kyrgyzstan is immersed in a crisis caused by the effects of the closure of borders by many countries, including the republic’s neighbors, and the blocking of labor migration to Russia. The consequence of this phenomenon is the collapse of the income of households whose main source of livelihood was working abroad, mainly in Russia and Kazakhstan. This, in turn, leads to a collapse of the state budget, as almost half of GDP was generated by workers’ remittances abroad.
In this situation, it is difficult to expect any ability on the part of the authorities to counteract the progressive pauperization of the already poorest society in the region. All of the social discontent will therefore focus on the president, and the Kyrgyz people have repeatedly demonstrated the strength of their frustration by sweeping two previous presidents off the political stage.
Translation: Karolina Piotrowska, Michelle Atallah
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