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

Landslide Win for New Kyrgyz Leader

Most observers believe the election was largely fair, although the losing candidates from the “new opposition” dispute Kurmanbek Bakiev's overwhelming victory.
By Leila Saralaeva

As first results were announced for Kyrgyzstan’s landmark presidential election, it was clear that the favourite Kurmanbek Bakiev had won a resounding victory.


Unusually, foreign and domestic observers concurred that the ballot had been largely fair.


The only dissenting voices were those of what’s being called the “new opposition” – those who are against an administration that itself consists of the former opponents of former president Askar Akaev.


Announcing preliminary results on July 11, the Central Election Commission, CEC, said that Bakiev, who has been acting president and prime minister since the March revolution that unseated Akaev, won 89 per cent of the vote. Trailing a distant second was human rights ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir uulu, who got about four per cent, and in third place Akbarali Aitikeev with slightly less. Of the remaining candidates, Jypar Jeksheev, Toktaim Umetalieva and Keneshbek Dushebaev each got less than one per cent of the vote.


There had been some pessimism that a mix of voter apathy, difficulties facing people trying to vote away from their permanent residence, and summer temperatures reaching 40 degrees in the shade, would lead to a poor turnout - possibly even so low as to jeopardise the legitimacy of the ballot. In the event turnout was reported at a massive 75 per cent.


In this regionally-divided country the turnout was higher in the southern half, ranging between 82 and 89 percent. The south was the scene of the largest demonstrations earlier this year, eventually snowballing into the mass movement that ejected Akaev from power. By the contrast, the north, which was traditionally seen as more politically aware and supplied most of the country’s rulers, showed lower turnout figures of between 57 and 67 per cent.


In Kyrgyzstan and its Central Asian neighbours, high turnout figures and even higher percentages won by winning candidates are generally a sure sign that the election has been fixed. International election monitors duly record their horror at the scale of the ballot-rigging, while observers sent by the country’s former Soviet allies counter that they saw nothing amiss.


Coming as a direct result of Kyrgyzstan’s “tulip revolution”, this election was supposed to break the mould of undemocratic practices. Judging by the fairly unanimous approval it has received from foreign observers, it may have succeeded.


The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, of which Kyrgyzstan is one of the easternmost members, spoke of “tangible progress towards meeting…. international commitments for democratic elections”. OSCE observers did note “a small number of serious irregularities” including some ballot-stuffing and “problematic” counting.


The delegation sent by the International Republican Institute, a United States political foundation, similarly saw “notable progress in development of democracy” and a “considerable increase in the level of transparency and fairness”.


Observers from a very different security grouping, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation - which brings Russia and China with four Central Asian states - gave a press conference to describe the vote as “free, open, transparent and legitimate”.


CEC chairman Tuygunaali Abdraimov said gave his assurance that “the election was transparent and fair. There were minor infringements, but these are inevitable in a major campaign such as a presidential election.”


The optimism was shared by many domestic observers. The NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, which had 3,000 monitors in place at three-quarters of all polling stations in the country, issued a statement noting “significant improvements in the administration of the election in comparison with past votes”.


“The election was far from ideal,” commented Edil Baisalov, who heads the non-government Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society. But he said “the officially-announced result coincides with the real will of the people. We can confirm there were violations, but the scale they were on does not distort the actual result of the vote.”


These positive views of the way the election went were sharply disputed by some of the losing candidates, at least three of whom have aligned themselves with what some are calling the “new opposition”.


"It's a huge slap in the face for the Kyrgyz people, given the state of euphoria they’ve been in since the revolution,” said Jeksheev, “It’s a massive deceit that outdoes even those perpetrated by Akaev…. I wouldn’t recommend that people in Kyrgyzstan harbour illusions about some radiant future under a president who’s come to power by fixing the election.”


As examples of what he called “mass fraud”, Jeksheev alleged that students in the southern city of Osh had been allowed to vote more than once, that election officials in Talas stuffed the ballot boxes. Other abuses cited by him and other candidates included the provision of free transport and meals as a means of winning votes.


Aitikeev, another losing candidate, said, “the stage magician David Copperfield pales into insignificance compared with the Bakiev team, which managed to rig the election result in the most skilled manner. But this conjuring trick will cost the people of Kyrgyzstan dear.”


Jeksheev, Aitikeev and a third candidate, Umetalieva say they will now oppose the new Bakiev administration.


“My observers noted a mass of violations. The rights of voters have been trampled underfoot once again,” said Umetalieva, who heads an association of non-government groups that was largely uncritical of Akaev’s government when he was in power. “But I’m sure there’s no point in going to court. So I see the one way of fighting injustice as being to become an active opponent of the new authorities.”


The new president’s allies seem unconcerned at the emerging opposition. “The reaction from losing candidates is more of an emotional than an objective response to what’s happened,” said Ishengul Boljurova, who serves as active deputy prime minister in the transitional cabinet. “They are making up the the most incredible things; it’s negative PR on the part of some of the presidential candidates.


“We’re not afraid of an opposition, but it has to be constructive and objective.”


President elect Bakiev himself told IWPR he would work “constructively” with the new opposition, the existence of which he regards as part of a “normal process”.


With the exception of his disgruntled rivals, Bakiev appears to have been granted a breathing space by the international community as well as his own electorate. But it’s an opportunity he will need to capitalise on quickly – and show he can deliver by tackling the huge problems, above all economic, facing his country.


In the words of one foreign observer who asked to remain anonymous, “The people of Kyrgyzstan and the international community have given Bakiev a huge chance. Within a short space of time it will become clear whether he is able to hold onto power, behave democratically, and build a dialogue with the opposition.


“But today he’d have a right to be drinking champagne.”


Leila Saralieva is an independent journalist in Bishkek.