With its presidential election on October 30, Kyrgyzstan will make history as the first post-Soviet Central Asian nation to experience a transfer of power via the ballot box. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the process will be peaceful.
Kyrgyz are bracing for a possible north-south clash triggered by disputes over the election results. A leading candidate has threatened to bring “millions” of supporters onto the streets, if he perceives any funny business surrounding the balloting. Meanwhile, voters are wondering whether behind-the-scenes horse-trading will be able to keep regional rivalries at bay.
As in past elections, the campaign has been driven by personalities, not platforms. Though little reliable polling data exists, the leading candidate is widely presumed to be Almazbek Atambayev, who stepped down as prime minister in September to make a presidential run. An ally of President Roza Otunbayeva – who became the country’s provisional leader following violent street protests that ousted Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010 – Atambayev draws his support from the Russified north, as well as southern minorities. His two leading rivals are Kyrgyz nationalists from the poorer, isolated south: Adahan Madumarov, and Kamchybek Tashiev, head of the Ata-Jurt (“Fatherland”) party. All three are erstwhile Bakiyev allies.
The question now is not if 55-year-old Atambayev will win, but when. He must garner 50 percent of votes, which seems improbable in a first round. A second round would likely pit Atambayev against a lone southerner, a development that could easily exacerbate a north-south rift that has widened since the fall of Bakiyev, himself a southerner.
Of the 83 candidates who initially registered to run, 16 are still contending. Some last-minute withdrawals mean that Central Election Commission representatives will have to manually cross out names on roughly 3 million ballots.
Allegations that Atambayev has abused “administrative resources” – such as forcing students to attend his rallies – are widespread, although international monitors have found few certifiable examples of misdeeds, and have characterized the campaign environment as relatively free and fair. Nonetheless, local and foreign observers alike worry that losing candidates will attempt to declare any results invalid and bring protestors into the streets.
At a news conference on October 28, former Emergencies Minister Tashiev – who physically assaulted at least one fellow MP earlier this year – promised to foment another revolution if his voters find Atambayev has conducted a “dirty” election. People will “sweep away the authorities,” the Regnum news agency quoted him as saying. “Not tens, not hundreds of thousands, but millions of citizens will come out in protest.” Afterward, demonstrating he can muster support in the north, Tashiev packed a Bishkek sports venue with several thousand supporters.
In the south, Tashiev, 43, has appealed to anti-Uzbek fervor that has grown since ethnic violence last June left at least 470 Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks dead. As the southern candidate with the strongest backing in parliament – his Ata-Jurt Party holds the most seats – he could negotiate with Atambayev for the coveted position of prime minister.
In an October 24 report, the elections observation mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said it had heard of “behind-the-scenes negotiations between candidates for the purpose of trading withdrawal and support of stronger candidates for promised future positions.”
“Now is the time to come to an agreement,” argued Ainoura Sagynbaeva, director of SIAR, a polling agency in Bishkek. “Outside forces, like Russia, could help make an agreement a few days before the election. After the election it will be very hard to compromise.”
Atambayev clearly enjoys Moscow’s support: he has traveled repeatedly to Russia for photo ops with Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin’s paramount leader. Since naming a mountain after Putin in January, Atambayev has pushed Kyrgyzstan closer to Russia.
“The guy Russia supports will be supported by ethnic minorities. They see Russia as a protector,” said Joomart Saparbayev, a member of the parliamentary opposition who describes himself as a reluctant supporter of Atambayev.
Under Kyrgyzstan’s post-Bakiyev 2010 constitution, the president can serve for only one six-year term. Parliament is designed to check presidential power. For the 46-year-old Madumarov, whose Butun Kyrgyzstan (“United Kyrgyzstan”) party narrowly failed to secure seats in last fall’s parliamentary vote, negotiating for the premiership is not an option, said Saparbayev, because he cannot count on parliamentary support. Madumarov and Tashiev have both argued for a stronger presidency.
Though some say a second round of voting would force Atambayev to share power with a southern prime minister, potentially defusing regional rivalries, Sagynbaeva, the pollster, fears it would raise tensions. “The worst scenario is if we have a second round. Each party that didn’t get – from their point of view – the right number of votes will complain that it was not a fair election, that administrative resources were used. And they will use protests to contest the results, especially in the south,” she said. “I think it will be easier to control the protests after a first round.”
In addition, the Uzbek vote in southern Kyrgyzstan could turn out to be an electoral wild card.
An ethnic Uzbek in Osh who said he would vote for Atambayev because “he doesn’t seem to be a nationalist like the other two,” said most of his Uzbek neighbors support Atambayev, but will not vote. Uzbeks in Osh told EurasiaNet.org their communities fear that when individual polling station results are published, they could become targets for retribution. Uzbeks suffered disproportionately from last year’s violence, and they have suffered most of the reprisals.
“After the events last year, Uzbek people are very afraid. You can just go to an elder and say, ‘Uzbeks should not vote.’ And that’s enough,” said Sagynbaeva, who expects low Uzbek turnout.
In any case, nearly everyone expects a poll sharply divided along regional lines.
“Unfortunately it is our mentality that southerners only vote for a southerner; northerners only for a northerner,” said Saparbayev, the member of parliament.
David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.