Close ties between Kyrgyzstan's newly formed opposition movement and President Askar Akayev are fueling fears that the opposition's attempt to break Akayev's 14-year hold on power may be compromised. Local observers say that Akayev's inner circle is behind the push to shape the Union for Fair Elections into a device for retaining their own power once Akayev steps down from office. At the same time, a pro-presidential movement has begun to step up its efforts to to sweep next year's parliamentary polls.
President Akayev has repeatedly asserted that he will not run for re-election in 2005, telling Chris Patten, the European Union commissioner for external affairs, in March that he wanted to make Kyrgyzstan a model for regional democratic development.
If so, an established opposition is a must. On May 20, after years of false starts, Kyrgyzstan's opposition formed the Union for Fair Elections (UFE), its first relatively cohesive organization, to promote transparency in presidential elections scheduled for October 2005 and parliamentary elections scheduled for February 2005.
At least publicly, UFE's goals are in line with the president's much-publicized desire for a fair and democratic ballot. By contrast, the 2000 presidential poll was widely condemned by international observers as rigged.
But some observers say that the UFE is itself already compromised by associations with the presidential administration. The appointment of former national security council chief Misir Ashirkulov as head of the UFE has prompted many to conclude that the presidential administration sees itself as part of any opposition campaign strategy. Though Ashirkulov was fired from the council upon announcing his decision to join the UFE, a source close to the presidential administration told EurasiaNet that the long-time Akayev associate remains a close ally of the 59-year-old president.
Those parallels are already garnering public criticism. In a statement published in the newspaper Respublika on May 24, Edil Baissalov, president of the Coalition of Non-Governmental Organizations, noted that Ashirkulov had played a pivotal role in past parliamentary and presidential elections that were marred by electoral fraud and intimidation of opposition members. Baissalof further suggested that the administration may try to use the UFE to discredit opposition parties ahead of the 2005 parliamentary elections.
The extent to which the UFE could play such a role remains doubtful, but already Ashirkulov has expressed his desire to paper over differences between the government and opposition.
At a May 26 press conference, the former official stated that he hoped to act as a bridge between the administration and other political forces and to work closely with regional governors and administration heads.
Already that statement has alarmed some local observers who fear that the UFE will build informal alliances between the incumbent president and the influential regional groupings upon which political power in Kyrgyzstan still depends.
Power-sharing pacts among regional groupings have long played a critical role in determining Kyrgyzstan's leadership. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Since the Stalin era, patronage networks from the North have provided most Kyrgyz leaders, including Akayev. These networks' support for Akayev was a critical factor in his ability to take command of the Kyrgyz Communist Party in 1990. According to some observers, Akaev forged informal power-sharing arrangements with such groups in the 1995 and 2000 presidential elections as well.
If the administration manages to again forge pacts with regional patronage networks, particularly from the South, the opposition could find itself sidelined in upcoming elections.
According to a recent report on the online news site Centrasia.ru, these players may have already decided to give the nod for Kyrgyzstan's presidency to Kasymov Topchubekov, chief of Akayev's administration. Previously the governor of Chui province, Kyrgyzstan's largest province, Topchubekov is also reportedly a relative of Akayev's wife, Mairam. In recent months, Toichubekov has received an enormous amount of favorable press coverage from government-controlled media outlets.
Already a campaign is building for Kyrgyz voters to back the presidential status quo.
The pro-presidential organization "Alga, Kyrgyzstan!" ("Forward, Kyrgyzstan!") lies at the center of that campaign. Like neighboring Kazakhstan's pro-presidential party Asar, Alga is trying to build a grassroots initiative that presents support for the president as a broad-based expression of the country's political will. The group was formed in September 2003 when the political parties Jany Zaman, Manas El, Party of Cooperators, and the New Movement joined forces to prepare for the 2005 elections.
In recent months, Alga has formed youth mobilization groups and actively recruited smaller pro-presidential political parties and groups to join the movement. Alga, like Asar, also relies on a touch of celebrity dash to sell its message. Bermet Akaeva, President Akaev's eldest daughter, has provided crucial support for the Alga bloc.
But behind Alga's populist appeal lies a carefully crafted electoral strategy.
In a controversial move, Alga representatives have called for changes in the electoral code that would impose a 35-seat quota for political parties hoping to gain representation in Kyrgyzstan's unicameral parliament. Under the plan, the number of available seats would increase from 75 to 110. At the same time, provisions that appear to limit the ability of political parties to form election blocs would be scuttled. Alga has called for a referendum to be held in October this year to amend the electoral code.
The plan has already provoked bitter criticism from Kyrgyzstan's outnumbered opposition members. On May 24, the opposition bloc Za Vlast' Naroda (For the People's Power) distributed a statement that lambasted Alga's push for electoral reform as a cover for the "narrow interests of the current administration." An editorial that day in the pro-opposition weekly "Respublika" suggested that members of Akaev's family may themselves run for seats in parliament in the February 2005 elections.
Alisher Khamidov is a PhD Candidate at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C.