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

Kyrgyz Protestors Challenge Election Defeat

Once dubbed an "island of democracy in Central Asia", Kyrgyzstan is facing widespread unrest in the wake of this month's disputed parliamentary elections.
By Tolkunbek Turdybaev

Hundreds of frustrated voters have taken to the streets across Kyrgyzstan to protest against the defeat of leading opposition candidates in the parliamentary elections.

The protests first broke out in Kara-Buura, in the south-west, where former Security Minister Feliks Kulov lost a run-off ballot on March 12. The unrest rapidly spread to Jalal-Abad, in the south of the republic, before reaching the capital, Bishkek.

Supporters of the Kyrgyz opposition say the authorities rigged the voting in favour of the pro-government candidate, Alymbai Sultanov, head of the Talas oblast administration for internal affairs.

A joint statement from the republic's non-governmental organisations agreed that there had been serious infringements of electoral law while Mark Stevens, chief observer for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said the authorities had missed their chance to hold fair and honest elections based on democratic principles.

Leader of the Ar-Namys opposition party and a favourite for the upcoming presidential elections, Kulov scored a resounding victory in the first round of voting on February 20.

He believes that this early win prompted the authorities to take urgent counter measures. Three days prior to the second round on March 12, the head of Kulov's election campaign, Emil Aliev, was arrested on charges of fraud, based on an investigation dating from 1995.

Meanwhile, another opposition candidate, Daniar Usenov, was excluded from the electoral race on the grounds that he had failed to declare personal assets (an apartment). The High Court rejected Usenov's appeal to review the case.

Protestors have pointed to numerous examples of electoral malpractice in Kara-Buura. Asel Otorbayeva, a journalist from the Vecherny Bishkek newspaper, said that 2,900 voters were allowed to visit the polling stations before the official day.

According to one Delo No newspaper correspondent, residents of the Kok-Sai village said government agents had attempted to buy their votes with promises of free seed and diesel.

Other voters reported that they had been approached by young men who offered them 100 som ($2.5) if they voted for the pro-government candidate.

The opposition supporters held emergency meetings in Kara-Buura on the night of March 12, as soon as the votes had been counted. On the following day, over 500 people stormed the headquarters of the regional administration, demanding a new round of voting.

The crowd then broke down the door and took two hostages - security department head Bakyt Kozubaev and police chief Mansur Abaskanov, who were later released.

Local police surrounded the building, supported by elite interior ministry troops flown in from Bishkek. The crowd dispersed after a volley of warning shots was fired into the air.

Sulaiman Imanbaev, chairman of the central electoral commission, promptly announced that the elections had been conducted in strict accordance with the law, but his assurances fell on deaf ears. On March 15, a mass demonstration marched through the streets of Bishkek, before holding a meeting outside the Ministry of Agriculture and Water.

The protests sent shockwaves through Kyrgyz society which has grown accustomed to a leadership that is eager to protect its democratic image. Nevertheless, the authorities reacted to the events with lightning speed, arresting several dozen people in the wake of the demonstration and launching immediate court proceedings against the alleged organisers.

However, the opposition has proved that it is also prepared to counter any attempt by the authorities to interfere with the democratic process. The Bishkek government may find it much harder to deal with the outraged masses than with isolated political rivals.

Tolkunbek Turdybaev is a freelance journalist in Bishkek.