Omurbek Babanov, leader of Kyrgyzstan’s nascent Respublika Party, used a knack for dealmaking during the early post-Soviet era to turn himself into one of Kyrgyzstan’s richest citizens. Now, he is trying to apply his savvy touch to politics. One of his highest profile moves of late has been signing up kickboxing champion Alene Ofoyo as a candidate on his party’s slate in the October 10 parliamentary elections.
Unlike other parties whose campaign strategies tend to feature nationalist-oriented images of ethnic Kyrgyz, Respublika is embracing the country’s ethnic diversity. Highlighting this approach, a party campaign billboard featuring Ofoyo, an African-Kyrgyz man, is prominently displayed at one of the capital’s main intersections.
Born in a Bishkek suburb in 1982 to an ethnic Russian mother and a Congolese father, Ofoyo is a hero in Kyrgyzstan’s kickboxing community. In 2008, fighting under ring name ‘the Black Kyrgyz,’ he defeated Belarusian fighter Zamin Guseinov to become middleweight champion of the WBKF – a Russian kickboxing league.
He still holds that title. Violent sports are popular in former Soviet countries. Martial arts, including hybrid disciplines like kickboxing, began gaining an audience during the late Soviet era. At present, the nation’s bazaars are flooded with pirated DVDs showing footage from “no-holds-barred” cage fights in Russia.
Ofoyo’s fans and political allies tout him as something of a national treasure. “Alene Ofoyo is our champion,” former minister of labor Roza Aknazarova, the 12th candidate on Respublika’s 120-member party list, told EurasiaNet.org. “He is someone our youth can admire. He is in good moral and physical health; a born winner but also humble in character.” In an attempt to reinforce Respublika’s message of inclusiveness, Aknazarova appears beside Ofoyo on the Respublika Party billboard campaign advertisement.
In addition to stressing its diversity, Respublika is making no secret of its desire to capture the youth vote. Of the top 10 candidates on its party list, the 40-year old Babanov is the second oldest. The youngest is only 25. Having officially come into being only in June, Respublika’s well-funded campaign has attracted criticism from opponents. Perhaps bearing that in mind, party leaders would not let Ofoyo speak to EurasiaNet.org for this article.
The number of candidates on any given party’s list to enter parliament will be determined by the percentage of the vote that each party receives in the parliamentary election. There are 29 parties vying to divide 120 seats in the legislature. As the new constitution guarantees no party can win more than 65 seats, Ofoyo’s position in the 110th slot on Respublika’s 120-name list gives him no shot of becoming an MP. His candidacy, then, can be considered something of a publicity stunt – but an effective one at that.
In the October elections, Respublika is going up against more established political parties, including Ata-Meken and the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan – both of which claim credit for leading the protests that toppled former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s administration in April.
Few experts expect Respublika can outpoll its more established rivals, but the party could become a major factor in future legislative elections, given the considerable financial resources of the Talas-born Babanov, who served briefly as a deputy prime minister under Bakiyev.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that Respublika’s campaign tactics may garner the party some extra votes in October.
At a gym not far from Ofoyo’s billboard, 19-year-old Akzholtoy Ibrayev aims roundhouse kicks at a body-length bag suspended by a metal chain. He says he isn’t interested in politics, but would vote for any party Ofoyo supports. “If Alene put his name to it, it means it [the party] must be honest,” he says. “He [Ofoyo] is a gentleman who fights with the Kyrgyz spirit.”
Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.