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Kyrgyzstan Officially Launches Presidential Race

Legacy seen as key in contest that has already narrowed to two main contenders.
By Timur Toktonaliev
  • President Almazbek Atambaev meets the speaker of Kyrgyzstan's parliament and leaders of the five main parties. (Photo: Kyrgyz president's press service)
    President Almazbek Atambaev meets the speaker of Kyrgyzstan's parliament and leaders of the five main parties. (Photo: Kyrgyz president's press service)

As Kyrgyzstan prepares to go to the polls on October 15 to elect a new president, some analysts predict that incumbent Almazbek Atambaev is positioning himself to retain influence even after he leaves office.

Atambaev will step down December 1 after a six-year term, and is constitutionally barred from seeking another. But one of the leading candidates, former prime minister Sooronbai Zheenbekov of the SDPK presidential party, is widely viewed as Atambaev’s chosen successor.

Zheenbekov, considered a quiet and rather passive politician, had been serving for five years as an unremarkable official in the key southern region of Osh before being suddenly appointed prime minister in the spring of 2016.

Observers speculate that Atambaev’s team was considering Sooronbai as a future successor, and he served as premier for barely a year before stepping down in August to run for the presidency.

“No matter what post-election plan Atambaev has, he needs to have a loyal individual to implement these plans,” said Medet Tyulegenov, a political science lecturer at the American university of Central Asia. “For this, a person should be a moderately prominent politician, yet not an entirely independent and active politician. From this point of view, Zheenbekov is probably suitable.”

Revolutions in 2005 and 2010, the latter followed by massive constitutional changes in 2010, have made Kyrgyzstan Central Asia’s most progressive democracy.

But Sergey Masaulov, director of the Center for Perspective Studies, said that it was still important for any Central Asian president to ensure a secure future and a position of prestige after he or she stepped down.

Former president Roza Otunbaeva, who was the interim leader after the 2010 revolution, had failed to do this, Masaulov continued. Atambaev had publicly criticised her, failed to invite her to important events and made light of her achievements.

Although Atambaev said early on in his presidential term that he would not interfere in politics after he stepped down from power, in recent years he has made it clear that he would remain engaged in party activities.

He has also been criticised for his increasingly authoritarian tendencies, and issues such as widespread corruption remain of serious concern in Kyrgyzstan.

(See President's Lawsuits Intimidate Kyrgyz Media).

But Atambaev can also point to some successes as president. He presided over his country’s accession to the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and won favourable conditions for around a million Kyrgyz migrant workers in Russia. There have been major infrastructure projects funded by Chinese loans and Atambaev’s team recently presented a national development strategy running until 2040.

Zheenbekov has explicitly linked his programme to this scheme and promised his support even as he announced his candidature.

“We need to keep and increase whatever has been achieved by the president of our country,” Zheenbekov said. “We should go down the same path.”

Tyulegenov said that the success of this apparent strategy was by no means assured.

“The scenario with a mastermind who would pull the strings from behind is possible as well, but it depends on the post-election configuration,” he continued. “Suppose everything happens as they plan: Zheenbekov is the president, Isakov is the prime minister, this scenario could exist for some time. But this, of course, is a short-term scenario. It will depend on people’s loyalty, whether they will last for one year or less.”

CAMPAIGN SEASON

The other frontrunner out of the 13 candidates registered with the Central Election Committee (CEC) is businessman Omurbek Babanov, who leads the Respublika party.

Although Babanov lacks the organisational capital and loyal officials of the presidential SPDK party, he is one of the country’s richest people and has spent more than any other candidate on promotional materials.

“In my opinion, the fight is between money or administrative resources,” said Elmira Nogoibaeva, head of the analysis department of the Polis Asia think tank.

According to the CEC, Babanov has already spent more than 110 million soms (1.6 million USD) as compared to Sooronbai’s 36 million soms (500,000 USD).

Main roads and busy junctions across the capital have been plastered with Babanov’s posters.

Babanov’s Respublika faction has avoided confrontation with the ruling party and consistently supported its initiatives, including the recent appointment of Sapar Isakov as prime minister.

Speaking about the contest this summer, Atambaev was complementary about Babanov, even telling reporters that he would have voted for him had his own party not nominated Zheenbekov.

Nonetheless, Babanov’s team has complained that the ruling party’s candidate is being unfairly favoured.

They have already filed complaints about pressure allegedly put on university students and regional officials to campaign for Zheenbekov.

Analysts say that Babanov, 47, has the image of a politician who does not keep his promises. Pledges made by his party in previous years, including special loans for farmers and significant salary rises for teachers and doctors, never materialised.

There are also lingering suspicions that he would favour his own business interests over the public good. But he has nonetheless attracted people with his relative youth and dynamism, as compared to the 58-year-old Zheenbekov.

Both main candidates launched their campaigns in the densely populated south – Babanov in the Osh region, and Zheenbekov in the Jalal-Abad region.

Zheenbekov belongs to the same influential southern clan as other politicians including former parliament speaker Asilbek Zheenbekov as well as prominent diplomat Zhusupbek Sharipov, ambassador to Kuwait. After Kurmanbek Bakiev’s overthrow in 2010, the Zheenbekov clan helped to win SDPK votes in the south of the country and for Atambaev in the presidential election the following year.

A number of politicians from the southern regions had planned to club together to nominate a single candidate, but halted their efforts shortly before the campaign began.

One of them, Ata Zhurt Party co-chairman Kamchybek Tashiev, recently announced he would be supporting Zheenbekov, while the leader of the Onuguu Progress faction, Bakyt Torobaev, has thrown his support behind Babanov. Analysts said that possible compensation could be the post of Prime Minister.

Adakhan Madumarov, the leader of Butun Kyrgyzstan Party, was registered to run himself but is now in talks to also join forces with babanov.

Nogoibaeva said that the potential kingmakers had already used up all their political capital.

 “When they consolidated, they used to be a force, but I don’t see any significant influence for each individual,” she concluded.

Although the two front-runners are clear, another candidate might be the surprise winner of the competition. Former prime minister Temir Sariev is the only candidate to highlight judicial and law enforcement reforms. He has support from parts of the educated, urban middle class, but is believed to have too few financial or human resources to be a serious contender.

THE RUSSIAN FACTOR

Russia remains Kyrgyzstan’s key partner in the spheres of economy and security, and is believed to influence its domestic policy too.

In 2010, Russia played a prominent role in the transfer of power. Candidates held talks with senior Russian officials, their meetings broadcast on Kyrgyz television.

This time, according to analysts, Russia will be happy with either of the leading candidates.  

“As long as we don’t have any candidates who clearly oppose Russia, Russia will not now influence or support anyone. They will work with whoever is elected,” said political analyst Sergey Masaulov.

“Because [Russia] believes that any candidate who wins the presidential election will pursue a policy consistent with the logic of the country’s development, as long as he is reasonable. The source of Kyrgyzstan’s existence and development is primarily the interaction with Russia, so no one will change it,” Masaulov continued.

Masaulov predicted that the main candidates would not be able to get 50 per cent of votes in the first round and a run-off will have to be scheduled.

This would also have the benefit of reassuring the public about the validity of the result, he said, adding, “The second round is necessary for the safety of the country and to make sure the situation is alright… society will be confident.”

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