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New Political Landscape in Kyrgyzstan

As candidates fight for presidential office, they need to realise power has slipped away from central government.
By Pavel Dyatlenko
  • Kyrgyz president Roza Otunbaeva (centre) with Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev (left) and the speaker of parliament Ahmatbek Keldibekov, at celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of independence. Otunbaeva is not standing in the October 30 presidential election, but Atambaev is among twenty candidates. (Photo: Igor Kovalenko)
    Kyrgyz president Roza Otunbaeva (centre) with Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev (left) and the speaker of parliament Ahmatbek Keldibekov, at celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of independence. Otunbaeva is not standing in the October 30 presidential election, but Atambaev is among twenty candidates. (Photo: Igor Kovalenko)

When voters in Kyrgyzstan go to the polls on October 30 to elect a new president, they will do so in a radically changed environment in which the influence of central authority is greatly reduced and local politicians have much more say than before.

Two obvious factors make this election a landmark event – it will be the first time Kyrgyzstan has elected a leader since Kurmanbek Bakiev was forced out of presidential office in April 2010, an event that was followed by mass ethnic violence in June the same year. Secondly, thanks to an all-new constitution, the incoming president will be shorn of much of his or her powers, turning Kyrgyzstan into Central Asia’s only parliamentary democracy.

But behind the headlines, there has been a profound shift in the politics of Kyrgyzstan that will not only change voting patterns and require candidates to adjust their campaigns accordingly; it will also demand that the new president accommodate a whole range of interests in order to stay in control.

Effectively, political power in Kyrgyzstan has been substantially decentralised, not as a result of some deliberate policy of devolution, but as a spontaneous trend well beyond the control of national leaders. This is a major change from the situation under Bakiev and his predecessor Askar Akaev, when it was a given that local politicians played a strictly subordinate role in the hierarchy of power.

The shift away from a presidential system may have contributed to it, but the major reasons lie in the prolonged period of political turbulence, coupled with the country’s chronic economic problems.

This unplanned decentralisation plays out most vividly when regional leaderships ignore or reject decisions issued in Bishkek. Put simply, decision-makers in Bishkek are no longer able to command authority over regional players.

One extreme example of this is the position of Melisbek Myrzakmatov, the mayor of Kyrgyzstan’s “southern capital” Osh, who remains firmly ensconced in the job even though the central authorities are clearly unhappy with him.

A Bakiev-era appointee, Myrzakmatov remains openly critical of Bishkek and has survived efforts to unseat him, plus allegations that his administration failed to do enough to stop the June 2010 ethnic violence. Attempts to dismiss him have failed, and on one occasion a mere rumour that he was to be sacked drew a couple of thousand supporters onto the streets of central Osh.

Ultimately, he has survived because central government fears removing him could spark another wave of instability.

This presidential election has seen a record number of candidates putting their names forward – more than 30 have got through the initial nomination phase.

Only a handful really have much of a chance, of course. Most of these are high-profile politicians like the current prime minister, Almazbek Atambaev, who heads the Social Democratic Party; Ata Jurt party leader Kamchybek Tashiev, Butun Kyrgyzstan leader Adakhan Madumarov and Ata Meken’s Omurbek Tekebaev.

A definitive candidate list will be issued by September 25, the official start date for campaigning.

In the context of this election, the decentralisation of power could have some beneficial effects, not least by giving the edge to those candidates who can demonstrate good negotiating skills and a willingness to compromise when needed. Unlike in the Akaev and Bakiev eras, people are not going to put up with a one-man leadership holding a monopoly of power. Instead, the preference is for someone who is able to reach out beyond a particular powerbase or constituency, prevent political crises, and solve conflicts.

Both Bakiev and Akiev were able to avail themselves of what people in Kyrgyzstan call the “administrative resource” – using the state-run media, the police, local government, and election officers to assist with campaigning. This time, victory will not be a matter of having the most money and access to state resources.

The most appealing characteristic that a candidate can display is that of a consensus-builder with good negotiating skills, someone who can negotiate deals with most of the groupings that form the political elite.

Akaev and later Bakiev were overthrown because they allowed too much power to accumulate in the hands of their family members. This excluded other influential groups and alienated the general public. Recent opinion polls suggest people will no longer put up with this model.

That does not mean we should be anticipating a complete change in Kyrgyzstan’s politics, which basically consists of between 150 and 200 elite families that control much of the economy as well as dominating the political sphere. But what we can expect to see is a system that prevents power being as narrowly concentrated as before, and ensures there is scope for a range of groups to share in it.

It is more than likely that the next president will be a product of the current elite, which – apart from anything else – needs to guarantee its own survival and the preservation of its wealthy and business interests. The forthcoming election campaign is likely to see alliances forged between different elite groups, and weaker candidates lining up behind stronger ones in return for future favours.

The shift of power away from the centre to the regions has also led prospective candidates to do more to court the rural voters, who in any case account for at least 65 per cent of the electorate.

This growing awareness of the importance of local communities appears to explain a number of recent appointments at subnational level, as a preemptive move to bolster local political support. Since December 2010, the heads of two regions – Chui and Issykkul – and 17 major urban centres have been replaced.

As head of government, Prime Minister Atambaev, one of the presidential candidates, is responsible for making appointments of this kind. Members of his Social Democratic party were made governors of Chui region – Atambaev’s own powerbase – and Issykkul, also in northern Kyrgyzstan, as well as mayors of Jalalabad in the south and Kara-Balta, an industrial city in Chui region.

Other regional appointments are linked to the Ata Jurt party, whose leader is also standing in the election.

Some critics see this pattern of appointments as simply the application of the “administrative resource” in modified form. However, Irina Karamushkina, a Social Democratic member of parliament, rejects such criticisms, saying the pattern of appointments is a fair reflection of all the parties that have seats in the legislature.

As a general trend, decentralisation may be good for Kyrgyzstan, allowing local administrations to run their own affairs more freely and engaging a wider range of interest-groups in the decision-making process, which can only be good for stability. It can even be seen as a revival of the traditional Kyrgyz system of governance. Before Tsarist Russia took control in the second half of 19th century, the various Kyrgyz tribes did not have one supreme ruler. Each tribal grouping operated independently, and any issues of common concern were dealt with at gatherings at which each group would be represented.

Creeping devolution also has inherent dangers, however. If the balance of power tips too far away from the centre, the lack of a strong hand at the top could leave the country more vulnerable to anyone who wants to stir up trouble.

Furthermore, since regional power is associated with specifically Kyrgyz tribes and clans, its consolidation will inevitably strengthen the nationalist streak in politics, and leave non-Kyrgyz ethnic groups in a marginalised position, economically as well as politically.

Finally, the dispersal of authority across the country is liable to slow the process of consensus-building after the election, as the new president enters into lengthy negotiations with numerous centres of power.

We can only hope that the next president has the skills needed to minimise these risks and make the most of the new political realities.

Pavel Dyatlenko is a political analyst with Polis Asia, a think-tank in Bishkek.

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