A third heavyweight has entered the running in Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election, setting the stage for what could become Central Asia’s most eagerly ever contested democratic battle.
The parliamentary faction of the Respublika-Ata Jurt party tandem on February 14 unanimously nominated wealthy businessman and former prime minister Omurbek Babanov to stand in October’s vote.
Babanov has been active in politics since 2005 and proven a canny and cynical operator ever since. Early on, he was a member of the now-ruling Social Democratic Party (SDPK) and accordingly a leading figure among the opposition to former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s rule before he was successfully co-opted and named deputy prime minister in January 2009.
That stint under Bakiyev did not last very long, however, and Babanov was duly released from his duties in October 2009. Babanov was adamant at the time that “there is no talk of my return to the opposition.” The timing of the departure from government was fortuitous since Bakiyev was overthrown in a bloody revolt in April 2010.
Despite his sniffy stance toward his erstwhile SDPK allies in the latter days of the Bakiyev regime, Babanov was named prime minister in 2011 only to be forced out of the job in 2012 by a scandal involving the suspicious gift of an English-bred horse.
Babanov has remained an ever-present if relatively low-key presence on the political scene, occasionally criticizing the government but largely refraining from the type of flamboyant antics favored by the nationalist Ata-Jurt component of his political current.
The kompromat file on Babanov is mainly centered on his history as a Kazakhstani citizen — an issue with shades of the Barack Obama birth certificate scandal. In December 2007, Kazakhstan’s Justice Ministry revealed that Babanov was indeed at some point a Kazakhstani citizen, despite adamant claims to the contrary from SDPK, of which the businessman was a member at the time.
The issue appears to have arisen because of a problem experienced by many former Soviet citizens seeking to update their paperwork. As Babanov explained at the time, the confusion dated back to the mid-1990s, when he was living in the southern Kazakhstan city of Taraz.
“I was told that I had to change my old passport for a new format passport,” he told reporters. “I did it because I had run into trouble with my old document. But nobody explained to me that this would automatically lead to me becoming a citizen of Kazakhstan and that I would lose my Kyrgyz citizenship. Nobody asked for my consent.”
Babanov said he set things straight in 1998.
Another two prominent politicians — former prime minister Temir Sariyev and the leader of the Onuguu-Progress party, Bakyt Torobayev — have already stated in previous days that they will be running in the election.
And yet none of these figures comes with the official stamp of approval from the administration of President Almazbek Atambayev, who will have to step down this year at the end of his single constitutionally permitted term.
There was some confusion on this front this week when several media outlets reported that Atambayev’s SDPK had put forward the name of Kubanychbek Kulmatov, who is the head of the Russian-Kyrgyz Development Fund. Kulmatov might be little-known, but that combination of strong pro-Russian credentials and the backing of the sitting president would have quickly propelled him in the front of the pack.
But hours after that news broke, SDPK suddenly announced that they had not, in fact, yet decided on a presidential candidate.
“New about the party putting forward the candidacy of Kubanychbek Kulmatov was a lie,” the party told AKIpress news agency.
The least promising candidate to announce his intention to run so far is nationalist former speaker of parliament, Adahan Madumarov, a Bakiyev-era law-and-order hardliner who says he is pinning his hopes on support from Kyrgyz labor migrants.
Madumarov was one of more than a dozen dinosaurs of Kyrgyz politics that gathered in a Bishkek hotel this week for a talking shop devoted in large part to discussions on how to derail what government critics have dubbed “Operation Successor” — which describes the expectation that Atambayev will shoehorn one of his own appointees into the top job.
Such plotting is not being taken too seriously for now. Indeed, slavishly pro-government newspaper Vecherny Bishkek dismissively described the event as a meeting of “political losers.”