Surprise Early Polls for Kyrgyzstan

Opposition leaders were pressing for presidential election this year rather than next, but July date changes all their calculations.

Surprise Early Polls for Kyrgyzstan

Opposition leaders were pressing for presidential election this year rather than next, but July date changes all their calculations.

A decision to call an early presidential election in Kyrgyzstan leaves opposition parties with little time to organise themselves and find suitable challengers to the incumbent, Kurmanbek Bakiev.

On March 20, the Kyrgyz parliament decided that the ballot should take place on July 23 this year. The announcement followed months in which it was far from clear whether the election should by law take place in 2009 or in 2010.

The uncertainty arose because an October 2007 referendum changed the wording of the country’s constitution to read that “the president is elected for five years.” The earlier version, in force at the time Bakiev was elected in July 2005, stipulated that presidents should serve a full four years and then continue in office until the October of their fifth year.

The change generated a debate on whether the new blanket five-year term applied to Bakiev retroactively, allowing him to stay until 2010, or whether the 2003 constitution still applied in this case and the election must take place in or before October 2009.

To resolve the matter, Kyrgyzstan’s Constitutional Court met on March 19 and issued a ruling that the terms of the earlier constitution were still in force and the election must therefore take place by October 25.

Bakiev had earlier appeared to favour the other, more generous interpretation. At a press conference in early February, he said, “As far as I know, the next presidential election should be held in 2010”, adding that he would respect any decision the Constitutional Court made on the matter.

After the court ruling was announced, Bakiev repeated his intention to abide by it in a statement on his website.

Last month’s press conference was the first time Bakiev he had stated unequivocally that he intended to seek a second term. (See our report Kyrgyz Leader Triggers Election Talk, RCA No. 567, 20-Feb-09)

At the time, the opposition, specifically the Social Democrats, appeared to believe the Bakiev administration was going to pull a fast one by prolonging the presidential term. It was Social Democrat member of parliament Asylbek Jeenbekov who formally asked the Constitutional Court to issue a clarification on the election date.

The decision to pull the poll date forward has prompted some opposition leaders to express concern that they will not have time to produce strong candidates.

“The Constitutional Court has made a political decision, not a legal one,” Social Democrat Bakyt Beshimov told IWPR.

As lawyer Bekbosun Borubashev explained, the July date means candidates need to have been nominated and approved by the electoral authorities by May 18 or 20, after which campaigning gets under way.

Other opposition groups are keen to avoid suggestions that they are not ready to fight an election.

Azimbek Beknazarov, who heads the United People’s Movement – a coalition bringing together the major opposition parties – describes the Constitutional Court ruling as “a small victory for the Kyrgyz opposition”.

Pro-government politicians, meanwhile, insist that Bakiev has made a major concession to the opposition by opting to cut his current term of office by four months.

“It was the president’s choice to curtail his time in office, and we should respect this choice. The opposition should be happy, as they still have four months in which to campaign,” said Ibragim Junusov of the Ak Jol party.

“In naming the election date, the parliamentary committee [for constitutional affairs, which put the matter to a general vote] was governed not by what would suit Bakiev, but by the need to follow all the required procedures.”

Avtandil Arabaev, who sits on Ak Jol’s ruling council, pointed out that “it was the opposition that initiated [the process for] the election taking place in 2009”.

“Ak Jol will nominate Bakiev,” said Arabaev. “And I am sure President Bakiev and our party Ak Jol will win the election.”

One factor that may have prompted Bakiev to go for an early date is a desire to get the election over with before the current economic downturn gets significantly worse.

For Kyrgyzstan’s already weak economy, the international financial meltdown has meant declining investment and the return of many migrant workers from the shrinking labour markets of Russia and Kazakstan, together with a contraction in the money they send to families back home.

Rising unemployment and declining living standards could allow opposition parties to mobilise new support against a government they accuse of mishandling the economy. The United People’s Movement has already announced that the first in a series of protest rallies will take place later this month.

“Bakiev wants to hold the election this year before the country slides deeper into economic crisis,” Topchubek Turgunaliev, director of the Institute for Human Rights and Liberties, told IWPR.

Beknazarov, however, expressed confidence that even at this point, there were already enough disgruntled voters to hand the opposition victory in July.

Political scientist Mars Sariyev says the opposition has won new supporters over the last month. The March 3 traffic accident in which Bakiev’s former chief-of-staff Medet Sadyrkulov is feared to have died has caused disquiet in opposition quarters, with some describing it as an assassination even though there is seems to be no evidence this was the case. (See Kyrgyz Politician’s Death Widens Opposition-Government Gulf, RCA No. 570, 16-Mar-09.)

Sariev predicted that some Ak Jol members who were close to Sadyrkulov might now switch to the opposition.

Opposition politicians suspect that another reason for bringing the ballot forward is that political activity in Kyrgyzstan more or less grinds to a halt over the summer months, so that Bakiev might win through sheer voter apathy.

Political analyst Marat Kazakpaev, however, does not agree that the precise timing gives Bakiev a particular edge over other candidates.

“A presidential election is not just a matter of one day,” he said. “The potential candidates have been preparing for this election since 2005, so the short run-up period will not be an obstacle for any of the current political forces.”

The question is now whether the often fractured opposition will come up with one candidate or many – with the risk that the latter option would split their share of the vote.

Green Party leader Erkin Bulekbaev, whose party is part of the UPM, told IWPR that there will be at least ten opposition candidates, whose names will be announced in early April.

Shairbek Jurayev, head of international and comparative politics at the American University of Central Asia, says the opposition’s best option is to pool its resources.

At the same time, he says, fielding one candidate to represent all the opposition group could have its downside in the event of victory, as the various parties would then have to be appeased or outmanoeuvred by the new leader.

Anara Yusupova and Mirgul Akimova are pseudonyms for journalists in Bishkek.

Support our journalists