When Kyrgyzstan’s prime minister and presidential contender Sooronbai Jeenbekov was serving as governor of the southern Osh region from 2010 to 2015, he became an object of ridicule by some functionaries in the regional government, like Tologon Keldibayev.
“People would ask me: ‘What does the governor do?’” recalled Keldibayev, a former employee of the Osh regional administration who now heads a minor southern-based political party, Kyrgyz-Ata. “I would tell them he wasn’t really the governor at all. He was more like the security guard for the town square in Osh. His job was to look out of the window to see if there was a political rally. And if there wasn’t, his work for the day was done.”
Ignoring such attempts in character assassination, the governing Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, or SDPK, nominated Jeenbekov in May as its candidate for president. The party is the traditional power base of incumbent President Almazbek Atambayev, who is not running due to term limits. The election is scheduled for mid-October.
Keldibayev, the southern politician, may well be a man with an axe to grind. He headed the Consumer Rights Protection Bureau within the governor’s office before Jeenbekov closed it down. Keldibayev alleges that the shutdown occurred because he failed to show sufficient loyalty to his boss. Whether accurate or not, stories like Keldibayev’s offer a neat illustration of the challenge the SDPK is going to face in selling a relatively bland figure like Jeenbekov to a divided electorate.
The divergent perspectives of Kyrgyzstan’s northern and southern electoral constituencies have played a decisive role in Kyrgyzstan’s past elections. Atambayev’s presidential election win in 2011 — a year after a violent revolution led to the overthrew of southern native Kurmanbek Bakiyev, and inter-ethnic bloodletting in both Osh and the neighboring town of Jalal-Abad — was secured via overwhelming support from Kyrgyzstan’s four northern regions. In the three regions of the south, backing for the president-to-be was far more uneven.
The country’s regional divisions remain strong. And a significant segment of the population in the south, where Jeenbekov, as a southerner, should otherwise draw a certain amount of support by default, continues to view the SPDK with suspicion — as a party that facilitated the accumulation of a disproportionate amount of power by northerners on a national level.
For the upcoming presidential campaign, the race is more crowded than in the past, and with many proper contenders to boot. Two of them are northern former prime ministers — Temir Sariyev and Omurbek Babanov — who publicly backed Atambayev’s candidacy for a single six-year term in 2011.
“This will be Kyrgyzstan’s most competitive presidential election, there is no doubt about that,” said Azamat Adilov, director of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society.
Recent municipal elections in Jalal-Abad may have provided a foretaste of the competition and challenges that lie in store for the SDPK. After the previous council was disbanded amid political infighting, Jalal-Abad residents voted for new local representatives on May 28. The results handed a narrow victory to Onuguu Progress — a party led by Bakyt Torobayev, a Jalal-Abad native — over the SDPK. Torobayev is also in the running for president.
Onuguu Progress and the SDPK are now vying animatedly to form a coalition in a council that also includes two parties widely viewed as SDPK proxies, another established party headed by a prominent Jalal-Abad nationalist, and Babanov’s Respublika party.
“These elections had all the major political forces involved, and they showed that the electorate was very split,” said Adilov, whose organization sent a team of 15 monitors to observe the balloting.
Adilov and other observers fear the use of “administrative resources” — code for the deployment of the civil servants, medical workers, students and teachers to rally a strong turnout for a certain candidate — will play a big role in the upcoming national vote. “Traditionally, these levers are in the hands of the leading party,” he said. Nevertheless, other candidates who have held high office in the recent past, like Sariyev and Babanov, “can also tap into these resources,” he said.
For Emil Joroev, a professor of political science at the American University of Central Asia, 58-year-old Jeenbekov is a “logical choice” as a presidential candidate for the SDPK given the party’s lack of recognized northern politicians other than Atambayev. Jeenbekov additionally enjoys an advantage as the incumbent prime minister. “He also has been with the Social Democrats for a long time and is perhaps viewed as someone that Atambayev can place particular trust in as he prepares for retirement,” Joroev told EurasiaNet.org.
As in other ex-Soviet countries, a strong association with an incumbent president can count for a lot.
Atambayev’s time in office has yielded few worthwhile reforms, and the country’s external debt has ballooned during his tenure. All the same, a recent public opinion survey, conducted by consulting group Siar for the International Republican Institute’s Center for Insights in Survey Research, showed an 82 percent favorability rating for the outgoing president.
Pundits are expecting the electoral process will require a second round of voting this autumn before a winner is determined. Electoral geography could very well leave a leading southern contender like Jeenbekov facing off against a strong northern candidate, like the wealthy 47-year-old Babanov.
In order to prevent such a showdown, the SDPK may pursue “all out information warfare” against Babanov, seizing on “deep distrust regarding the sources of his wealth among the lay people,” Joroev said.
Still, Babanov’s Respublika party is “a significant political machine” with nodes across the country. The party has performed strongly in the south in the past, he said.
Keldibayev is unenthusiastic about the prospect of either man as president. His preferred candidate, Omurbek Tekebayev, is currently on trial in a graft case that he believes Atambayev engineered to remove him from the pre-election scrum.
Yet the Kyrgyz-Ata founder believes that the election is taking on an increasingly southern flavor. As such, the outcome could hinge on how members of the south’s large and long-suffering Uzbek community vote, as well as be influenced by more mundane material considerations. “I ask Uzbeks who they are voting for and many of them say Babanov. Some southern Kyrgyz say the same,” Keldibayev told EurasiaNet.org.