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Opposition Leader May Play Crucial Role

As a potential crisis looms in Kyrgyzstan over disputed election results, many are wondering whether Omurbek Tekebaev will be able to turn it to his advantage.
By IWPR Central Asia
As Kyrgyzstan braces for a potential political showdown between the president and opposition over last weekend’s controversial election result in which the president’s party won a landslide, many eyes are turning in the direction of the principal opposition leader, Omurbek Tekebaev.

As leader of the Ata-Meken party, which came second to President Kurmanbek Bakiev’s Ak Jol in the December 16 poll, Tekebaev may be uniquely placed to influence events in the next few days, and to decide whether a dispute over the way the election was run can be overcome through negotiations, or will escalate into street protests.

So far, it is hard to tell which way he will turn. On the one hand, he has described protests as “the most decisive and effective way to influence decision-making”. On the other, he is keen to be seen “above all as a responsible citizen”.

Tekebaev is no political newcomer. At 49, he is, as political scientist Bakyt Orunbekov puts it, “a real survivor in the Kyrgyz parliament”.

His career in opposition began under the country’s previous president, Askar Akaev, when he was a regular organiser of the rallies that culminated in Akaev being ousted in March 2005.

After a short term as speaker of parliament under Akaev’s successor, Bakiev, he was edged out of the post in February 2006, and returned to organising rallies on the streets in support of constitutional and other reforms.

While everyone agrees on his stature as a veteran politician, there is less of a consensus about his qualities as a statesman.

Orunbekov sees him as a hardworking parliamentarian. “Within the last years he has grown into a truly prominent politician, not only in terms of Kyrgyzstan but in the Commonwealth of [former Soviet] Independent States,” he said.

Jangoroz Kanimetov, a senior official from Ak Jol, agrees, noting Tekebaev’s popularity over almost 20 years, 15 of which he spent in parliament. “He has done real work as a politician and parliamentarian, preparing many bills and contributing a good deal to law-making,” he said.

Businessman Omurbek Abdrakhmanov, a senior official with Ata Meken, speaks of the country’s “only politician”, the true father of multi-party politics. Abdrakhmanov says Tekebaev always knew Kyrgyzstan would adopt a multi-party system and lobbied early for its introduction.

But not everyone is so complimentary. Topchubek Turgunaliev, leader of another opposition party, Erkindik, offers a more damning assessment. “As speaker, he could have made the Jogorku Kenesh [parliament]… work, but he didn’t have the political will and simply started fighting for power,” he maintained.

Tekebaev himself seems ambiguous about his personal qualities, admitting his virtues can sometimes shade off into vices. “In my case, my positive qualities that can turn into negative ones are my straightforwardness and swift response; they serve me both as minuses and pluses,” he has said.

One question is how these personality traits will emerge in – and affect – the emerging political stalemate over the parliamentary election, where there is a danger that – as in spring 2005 – political strife will spill onto the streets.

Latest results from the Central Election Commission, CEC, on December 18 showed that with 95 per cent of polling station returns in, Ak Jol had nearly 49 per cent of the vote, Ata-Meken just under nine per cent, the Social Demorats four per cent, and the other nine parties contesting the election each got less than three per cent.

That leaves only the first two parties surpassing the five per cent national threshold, but it remains unclear whether Ata-Meken will get over an additional hurdle, which requires parties to get 0.5 per cent of the vote in each of the nine electoral regions.

A ruling issued by the CEC on November 19 interpreted this regional threshold as meaning that parties must win 0.5 per cent of the total electoral roll in each region, which works out at a fixed figure of 13,500 votes, even in thinly populated parts of the country where this represents well over ten per cent of the voting-age inhabitants, assuming they are not away working in Russia or too apathetic to go to a polling station.

There are fears that Ata-Meken has not won the requisite number of votes in Batken region in the south of Kyrgyzstan, which has an electorate of only 121, 000. Although the party won enough votes in all other provinces and cities, its apparent failure to cross the threshold in Batken means that it and all the other opposition parties will get no seats in parliament, based on the CEC’s ruling.

A product of constitutional and election-law changes rushed through in an October referendum, this is the first general election to be based entirely on proportional representation rather than the first-past-the-post constituency system.

The new system seems to have resulted in the end of parliamentary pluralism, leaving Ak Jol with all 90 seats in the legislature.

Several opposition parties have already announced a rally for December 20 in the capital, Bishkek to protest about the election results in general and the regional threshold in particular. Ata Meken activists have already announced a hunger strike.

Kyrgyz observers and politicians are watching and waiting to see how Tekebaev plays on the public mood.

Ak Jol’s Kanimetov noted that Tekebaev’s past weaknesses have included “populist moments” and recalled, “He has used mass protest actions involving his supporters to try to attract support from more people.”

Orunbekov made a similar judgement, saying, “His positive sides are that he is a straightforward and emotional person. At the same time, his emotionality is his weak point.”

He worries Tekebaev might say something in the heat of the moment, without thinking about the consequences.

A separate question many people ask about Tekebaev is what he would do with power in Kyrgyzstan if he ever acquired it.

Political scientist Karybek Baybosunov points to the fuzzy ideological credentials of a man who claims to be a socialist. “He simply repeats the same slogans that have been familiar since the days of the Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan in the early Nineties,” he said.

So, can Tekebaev expect to be president of Kyrgyzstan – either as a result of the current turmoil, or in the near future?

Abdrakhmanov – Tekebaev’s party colleague is, not surprisingly, convinced that regardless of how the party performs in this election, Ata Meken’s leader will remain a true symbol of hope for Kyrgyzstan.

He said that if Tekebaev were eventually to be elected president, he would preside over the creation of a truly parliamentary republic, meaning that for the first time, “the monopoly of power in the hands of one individual will be eliminated… and the country will embark on genuine development”.

Turgunaliev disagrees completely. “Tekebaev will never be able to become a government leader,” he said, drawing on an example from the early nineties, when the then president Akaev appointed Tekebaev deputy governor of the Jalalabad region. “Tekebaev could only stand it for a few months,” he said.

When Tekebaev was speaker of parliament in 2005, Turgunaliev said, “the only right move at that time was to work together with the president, but Tekebaev… chose the path of confrontation. So I don’t think he possesses the qualities of a prime minister – or of any other top official.”

Baybosunov is even more doubtful about Tekebaev’s potential leadership qualities, suggesting his natural tendencies are more dictatorial than democratic. He sees Tekebaev less as a cure for Kyrgyzstan’s ills than a symptom of its “developmental disease”.

Most people would probably not go that far. But on the streets, too, there are expressions of both support and caution about a man who seems to relish his role as a permanent opposition leader.

Businesswoman Anipa Patidinova well remembers Tekebaev’s performance as speaker and then opposition leader. “No one prevented him from working with Bakiev and draft sensible laws,” she said. “But he started endless protests, upsetting people.”

Tolkunbek Turdubaev reports for the BBC in Bishkek.

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