Bishkek has breathed a sigh of relief. After a few nerve-wracking days, post-election protests in the country’s restive south have come to a halt. Hundreds of voters, disenchanted with last week’s results, held rallies in Jalal-Abad and Osh—a stark reminder of Kyrgyzstan’s treacherous north-south divide and the capital’s weak hold over the country’s more densely populated half.
Publicly, President-Elect Almazbek Atambayev, a northerner, had little to offer his disgruntled citizens, lying low during the protests. Perhaps, he was negotiating behind closed doors with southern strongman Kamchybek Tashiev, who placed third in the October 30 ballot and personally called off the protests by his supporters, on November 4, just in time for a long holiday weekend. Tashiev denied rumors of a deal, but said he would not endorse violence, or the seizure of government buildings—a tactic used by southern protesters in support of native son and ex-president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, following his bloody ouster last year.
Though the election was relatively clean by Central Asian standards, it was marred by “significant irregularities,” according to the OSCE’s monitoring team. Voters were turned away from polling stations and observers saw ballot-box stuffing, busing of voters and all matter of foul play. Predictably, the results were hotly contested.
The map above graphically illustrates Kyrgyzstan’s north-south fault line, both geographically and electorally: the darker the red, the more votes for Atambayev. The diagonal dividing line between crimson and pink coincides with the mountains that slice the country in half—not cleanly left to right, but obliquely, separating the northeast (called “the north”) from the southwest (called “the south”). Only one major road, over the formidable passes of the Tien Shan range, connects the two.
Last year’s deadly ethnic violence in the south, stoked by a power vacuum after Bakiyev’s overthrow, gives a hint of what could happen if Kyrgyzstan’s two halves continue to live separate lives. And the recent presidential election shows there’s much work to be done: In the north, where Atambayev seems to have swept the polls, there is little grumbling; in the south, site of the angry protests, he lost by a landslide, with most votes going for Tashiev and another southern nationalist, second-place Adahan Madumarov. If Bishkek wants to hold any sway in the land over the mountains, Atambayev will have to engage with his erstwhile rivals. “How?” is a different question.
Last week’s poll -- in which, officially, Atambayev got about 63 percent of the vote -- and the way it was held have made some experts skeptical about the future. It’s likely, writes Lincoln Mitchell, “that this election, instead of representing a landmark on the road to democracy, is simply the new status quo in Kyrgyzstan and that issues of the weakness of the state, widespread corruption and ethnic and geographical divisions will limit the extent to which democracy, and elections, can improve there.”
NB: The map was produced by Dr. Fredrik M. Sjoberg, a visiting scholar at New York University, and created with data from Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Commission. “N” stands for number of districts in each color group. For more on Sjoberg's work, see his recently published book “Competitive Elections in Authoritarian States,” available electronically here.