Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyz Opposition Fights On

As protests continue across the country, some observers say the show of solidarity comes too late.
By IWPR Central Asia

Participants arrive for the Jalalabad "kurultai"
"Kyrgyzstan is fed up with Akaev", says a banner carried by demonstrators in Jalalabad
Protestors occupying the Jalabad regional government

The administration of President Askar Akayev may have won a resounding victory in the second-round parliamentary election, but it has failed to quell the wave of grassroots hostility to the way the ballot was run.


Some observers are now criticising the opposition for failing to consolidate beforehand so as to present voters with a united and coherent option at the polls.


But instead of resigning themselves to defeat, opposition groups convened a congress to galvanise support for the protests. Participants said they had won a moral victory in the general election despite their numerical losses.


The second round held on March 13 was critical because voting on February 27 had left more than half of constituency seats unfilled. Seventy-one of the 75 seats have now been decided, with re-runs ordered for three of the remaining places and a fresh election required in the Tong constituency, where most of the ballots were counted as invalid because voters had written “against all of them” on the candidate listing.


Three pro-presidential parties took a quarter of the seats: Alga Kyrgyzstan got 19, Adilet four, and one went to the Democratic Party of Women and Youth.


Many of the non-affiliated independents are likely to support them, giving President Akaev an absolute majority since only five of the successful candidates have clear opposition links. The latter include Azimbek Beknazarov of the People’s Movement of Kyrgyzstan, Dooronbek Sadyrbaev and Adakhan Madumarov of the Atajurt movement, Communist Party leader Iskhak Masaliev and Omurbek Tekebaev from the Ata Meken party.


The independents include Akaev’s son Aidar and daughter Bermet.


While the new parliament represents continuity in its majority support for the Akaev administration, its membership will look very different as three out of four are newly-elected. Of the newcomers, about half are former businessmen and the rest come from various national and local government posts.


As things stand, the new parliament has 13 members from ethnic minorities – slightly more than the old, larger parliament had in percentage terms – but only three women, an even smaller percentage than before.


Apparently undaunted, the opposition on March 15 launched a “kurultay” or congress in the southern city of Jalalabad, where protesters have been in control of the provincial government building for the last two weeks. Thousands of people – estimates vary between 5,000 and 15,000 – attended the meeting, which passed a resolution articulating the maximalist demand that Akaev step down and a fresh election be held, without waiting for the scheduled presidential ballot in October.


“Everything is only just starting - it is too early to talk of defeat,” said Beknazarov.


The opposition congress established a regional branch of the Coordinating Council of People’s Unity, a nationwide body set up on March 10 to make the protest actions across Kyrgyzstan more coherent. Another kurultai, this time a national one, is expected at the end of March.


By March 15, the situation in Jalalabad remained tense. Demonstrators formed an informal militia to keep order.


The president’s press secretary Abdil Segizbaev said protests in the city were being “radicalised”.


“The country’s leadership views attempts to elect a [regional] governor of their own, and the calls that have been made for Jalalabad region to secede from the rest of the country, as a sign of extremism and separatism,” said Segizbaev. “The president is not blaming the ordinary people participating in the demonstrations and rallies, but he is calling on organisers to stop such illegal actions, otherwise they will be held accountable.”


In the rest of Kyrgyzstan, protests by supporters of losing candidates continued. In one case, at least, they had some success: opposition politician Madumarov owes his seat to a recount that was ordered only after a demonstration by 15,000-20,000 people in his Kurshab constituency, some of whom seized a local government building in the town of Uzgen. Election officials had earlier announced that Madumarov had lost.


In the Osh region in the south of the country, supporters of another candidate also succeeded in getting the election outcome overturned in his favour.


As in many of the election protests seen in the last two weeks, the candidate, Marat Sultanov, was not an opposition figure. Instead, as a former finance minister and most recently a member of the outgoing parliament, he was seen as a supporter of President Akaev. But the authorities had been pushing their own favourite in the Alai constituency, former parliamentary speaker Abdygani Erkebaev, and initial results from the second round showed that this candidate had won by a small margin.


Election officials were forced to do a partial recount and revise the numbers on March 15 after pro-Sultanov demonstrators set up roadblocks in the area.


In the Talas region of central Kyrgyzstan, thousands of supporters of Ravshan Jeenbekov, who also lost in the second round, kept up the pressure by seizing the regional government offices and blocking a main highway.


In Osh, next door to Jalalabad province, hundreds of people representing various candidates kept up a protest meeting outside the regional government building, demanding that election results be annulled.


As the opposition geared up for continuing protests, it came under fire for allowing itself to be defeated so comprehensively. Political analysts blamed flawed strategies, lack of unity and a failure to do the kind of groundwork that would have been needed to take on a “party of power” that had all those things in place.


“The opposition was unable to unite and coordinate its actions so that [its] representatives… could get into parliament,” said Muratbek Imanaliev, whose position as head of the Jany Bagyt movement makes him an opposition leader himself. “The problem is not only one of fragmentation, there were also divergent interests. The leaders… were not prepared for the reality of fighting to get into parliament.”


Political scientist Ermek Kozubekov said the parties failed to achieve the mass politicisation of the public that is “a first precondition” for election victory. “The opposition did not offer an alternative idea,” he said. “The authorities represent stability while the opposition had a revolutionary attitude. People couldn’t understand why they should go to attend demonstrations instead of doing the spring work in the fields, or why they should vote for a revolutionary instead of a local businessman.”


Analyst Elmira Nogoibaeva spoke of a “diffuse and unconsolidated” force that “failed to create its own space, but played within the bounds created by the authorities”.


The result, said Arkady Dubnov, a Central Asia expert with the Moscow newspaper Vremya Novostey, is that instead of capitalising on high levels of public discontent with the Akaev government, “the opposition was not ready to offer people anything constructive or serious to take its place”.


Opposition leaders, however, insisted the election did not amount to a defeat for the opposition. Some even blamed the result on the electorate.


Emil Aliev, the deputy head of the opposition Arnamys party, added, “The opposition did not lose because what took place was not an election, but rather the direct appointment of deputies in some cases, and in other cases there was bribery, falsification, violence and intimidation.”


“The opposition has rocked the authorities over a two-week and you are saying that it lost,” added Ishengul Boljurova, deputy head of the People’s Movement of Kyrgyzstan. “There was no defeat. We are going to learn the lessons. The opposition has done things in one month that had proved impossible to achieve over a period of years. Simply resisting the mighty steam-roller of the administration is not a bad achievement.


“We don’t regard ourselves as the losers: it’s the people of Kyrgyzstan who lost, because they elected a venal parliament.”


Duyshenkul Chotonov, deputy chair of the Ata Meken party, said, “The rulers deserve these people, and the people deserve these rulers.”


A high-ranking government official interviewed by IWPR was less convinced that Kyrgyz voters are such a walkover.


“The opposition certainly lost. But we are disturbed by a population that is ready to block roads and take over government buildings for any reason,” said the official, who did not want to be named. “With such an unpredictable people, we will have a hard time during the presidential elections.”


Leila Saralaeva is an independent journalist in Bishkek.
Bakyt Orunbekov is editor-in-chief of the Fergana newspaper.
Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC correspondent in Bishkek.
Ainagul Abdrakhmanova is IWPR programme coordinator in Bishkek.


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