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

Stability Wins In Kyrgyzstan

The country’s next president looks set follow in the footsteps of the incumbent.
By Timur Toktonaliev
  • Pro-government candidate Sooronbai Zheenbekov. (Photo: Office of S. Zheenbekov)
    Pro-government candidate Sooronbai Zheenbekov. (Photo: Office of S. Zheenbekov)
  • Opposition politician and billionaire businessman Omurbek Babanov. (Photo: Office of O. Babanov)
    Opposition politician and billionaire businessman Omurbek Babanov. (Photo: Office of O. Babanov)

Kyrgyzstan looks set for its first-ever peaceful transfer of power after pro-government candidate Sooronbai Zheenbekov won this week’s presidential election.

Zheenbekov, a 58-year-old former prime minister viewed as current president Altambek Atambaev’s chosen successor, won 54.28 per cent of the votes.

His main rival, opposition politician and billionaire businessman Omurbek Babanov, received 33.41 per cent of votes. A widely-anticipated second round will now not take place.

Zheenbekov had emphasised throughout his campaign that he was the continuity candidate and made it clear, following his victory, that he would continue down the path of his predecessor.

“My main task is to preserve everything that has been achieved, to strengthen, to finish everything that’s been started. And we still have many stages of reform ahead which we need to finish,” Zheenbekov told journalists.

Revolutions in 2005 and 2010 previously ousted incumbent presidents, and the Kyrgyz authorities had promised to ensure fair and fully transparent elections. However, the campaign was rife with accusations of institutional bias, an issue Babanov raised at own press conference.

(See Pressure Mounts on Kyrgyz Presidential Contender and Kyrgyz Media Accused of Bias).

 “During this election, all day and all night long, state TV stations were spreading ‘black PR’, administrative resources were engaged in full force,” Babanov said.

 “There have been obvious violations, and we will collect all the facts of violations, we will improve legislation and identify government interference in the election process,” he added.

Local observers noted a number of possible violations in Osh, the southern and largest region of the country. Complaints include violations of the secret ballots and the intimidation of journalists. The CEC has promised to investigate all alleged violations.

But despite his complaints of “black PR,” Babanov has tried to avoid direct confrontation with the president throughout the election campaign.

Babanov was guarded in his response to a question from IWPR about how vigorous an opposition he would present to the ruling party.

“My faction is in opposition, we will be in opposition, we have our own views, we will be using all legal methods,” he said. “We are the second [largest] party in the parliament; we will definitely put forward our vision.”

Although formally part of the opposition along with the Ata Meken faction, Babanov’s  Respublika-Ata Zhurt party has tended to be less outspoken in challenging the government. Analysts say that Babanov has been wary of provoking the wrath of the president and his team.

One outspoken critic of Atambaev is already in prison. Veteran politician and former Atambaev ally Omurbek Tekebaev was this summer sentenced to eight years in prison for fraud and corruption. Supporters of the Ata Meken party leader, however, assert that the charges were politically motivated.

In recent weeks, Atambaev has pointedly stated on several occasions that he intended to arrest anyone who tried to destabilise the republic.

Perhaps most significantly, lawmaker Kanat Isaev – a Babanov supporter - was recently arrested on suspicion of planning to foment violence.

“Regarding criminal cases, regarding all the statements [by Atambaev], I think time will show what will happen,” Babanov told IWPR.

Aida Alymbaeva, a lecturer in political science at the International University of Central Asia (IUCA), said that this caution was rational.

“[Babanov] has many things to lose,” Alymbaeva said. “There will be more presidential elections, there will be more parliamentary elections, so he will not join the [active] opposition because his life and business interests, I think, come first rather than this election.”

Further opportunities might arise for him in the future, she continued, with fewer risks.

“[Babanov] will continue to be just a member of parliament, but not join the active opposition because the president remains surrounded by the levers of pressure in the form of the Prosecutor General's Office, the State National Security Committee and the courts. A criminal case can be easily initiated in Kyrgyzstan, so these levers will deter [Babanov] from joining the opposition.”

Zheenbekov’s win has frustrated those who had hoped for some substantive changes in the country’s direction.

“Many people wanted a change of power because Sooronbai Zheenbekov was the government choice; many wanted to see people from other parties [get involved] who don’t belong to this circle of power,” Alymbaeva explained. “Therefore, they were disappointed - not because Babanov lost but because they wanted someone not connected with power. As many expect, the protégés of those already in power will not work for the good of the country but to strengthen and stabilise their power.”

Atambaev will formally leave his post in December, having served two terms and being constitutionally barred from seeking re-election. Many analysts believe he will retain significant influence even after he leaves office.

“Those who have been in power know it's like a drug, said Central Asian security expert Orozbek Moldaliev. “Only a strong person can give up power and leave when their time is up. We don’t have such a tradition.”

Moldaliev suggested that Atambaev intended to remain involved in the business of government so as to strengthen his political legacy.

“Atambayev wants to gradually establish… parliamentary democracy,” Moldaliev said. “After 2020, we will need to take a step toward parliamentary system, so that the president is elected not by the people but by the parliament, and this will already be a parliamentary republic.”