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Akaev Scores Stunning Victory

Kyrgyzstan's voters confound observers, re-electing President Askar Akaev by a larger margin than ever
By Sultan Jumagulov

A stunning election victory for President Askar Akaev in Kyrgyzstan has disappointed Western diplomats hoping for movement towards genuine democracy in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.


Everybody expected Akaev to win but the size of his vote on Sunday - 75 per cent of the electorate - astonished even some of his own supporters. A proclamation by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, said the poll failed to meet international standards. There were widespread complaints of undue pressure on voters and stuffing of ballot boxes.


At the same time some Western diplomats said it could have been worse. They took heart from the fact that an election took place at all, and that opposition candidates secured 25 per cent of the vote. This was viewed as an improvement on the performance of other Central Asia republics whose democratic credentials appeared slim to non-existent.


The OSCE findings were were rejected by the chairman of Kyrgyzstan's Central Electoral Commission, Sulaiman Imanbaev, who said the OSCE was carrying out someone's political orders.


The five opponents of Askar Akaev understood perfectly well they would be faced with the full might of a state apparatus. Nevertheless two of the candidates, Omurbek Tekebaev and Almaz Atambaev, hoped to gain at least 30 percent of the vote and the remaining candidates hoped to receive support from at least five percent. Even in 1995, when Akaev enjoyed much greater popularity, only 71 percent of voters supported him.


Defeated candidates complained there had been widespread falsification of votes. Melis Eshimkanov said "I don't have the strength to make any comment. I'm so shocked by the shamelessness of the authorities."


Thousands of Omurbek Tekebaev's supporters protested by blocking off the Bishkek-Osh highway, the major transport artery between north and south Kyrgyzstan. But the protest was limited to people from Tekebaev's own district and had little impact. On voting day a main supporter of Tekebaev, Felix Kulov, had said that whatever the result he would not call for popular disturbances.


Politicians and analysts examining the size of Akaev's vote attributed it to two factors. First was the complicity of local governmental bodies in falsifying results. One driver from a large bus depot, Kubanychbek K., told this story:


"As soon as our shift was finished, the chief gathered several dozen drivers together and read us a lecture on the country's political situation. He made us understand that if the president were changed, a big shake-up would begin. We were told that the current authorities had already grown rich and satisfied but that if new people come to power another massive bout of dividing up property would start.


"At dusk, we were driven to a polling station and given new voting forms which we filled out in favour of Akaev and dropped into ballot boxes. After that, anyone who wanted one was given a drink."


Analysts believed a main factor in the result was that, despite current economic difficulties, voters feared a change of power could bring disturbances. Because of this voters supported Akaev, the analysts said.


None of Akaev's five opponents could convince a majority that they could bring the country to a path of normal, stable development and end its present woes that included a weak economy, flourishing corruption, and a hostile external situation.


In addition Akaev's opponents found themselves without effective means of publicising their policies. The president's team boomed out its powerful campaign through the state media and a cowed independent press.


International and local observers noted the high degree of pressure applied on voters by local bureaucrats. The deputy of the Legislative Assembly of the National Parliament, Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, said that on Sunday as in the parliamentary elections in spring, a decisive role was played by these officials.


"Akaev applied massive pressure quite apart from any ballot rigging," said Kadyrbekov "Being elected with 51 or 55 percent of the votes would have been enough and would have left the president with a clear conscience. I'm sure that the bureaucrats overdid it and ruthlessly distorted the will of the people."


However, the public view, over the past few years, has significantly changed and cannot be compared with the voting public of 1995. Voters are wary of bringing in a new President who might cause upheaval.


One of the presidential candidates, Tursunbai Bakir, had observed when he was still loyal to Akaev, that more than 100,000 state workers in Kyrgyzstan would be prepared to do almost anything in order to ensure the president's re-election.


"As the elections in other countries in Central Asia have shown," said Bakir, "it's extremely difficult to defeat an incumbent president. The fact is that if the bureaucrats - from the rural elders to the presidential administration - don't work to secure a repeat victory for the head of state, they will almost all have to give up their jobs and many of them will go to prison for bribery and corruption..."


As practice has shown, in the developing countries of the CIS, there are two categories of bureaucrat. The first, as a rule, contains major state workers who in one form or another took part in illegal privatizations and are prepared to do anything to protect their illegally earned wealth. Lower-level local bureaucrats seek at any cost to protect their small but relatively stable income against a threat of mass unemployment and poverty.


Akaev's entourage not surprisingly views the election result as a demonstration of the people's wisdom. Chairman Sulaiman Imanbaev of the Central Electoral Commission claimed that only very minor infringements of the Code on Elections were allowed. He has also denounced the evaluations of the OSCE as non-objective.


"This organisation," Imanbaev said, "is losing face. The game is a lot bigger here and the OSCE is complying with someone's political orders."


Apart from the wordy battles amongst political elites about the OSCE judgment and the protest actions of Tekevaev supporters it seemed Kyrgyzstan had quickly returned to normal. People appeared less concerned with the election result than with the forecasts of an impending harsh winter.


Sultan Jumagulov is a regular IWPR contributor


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