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Kyrgyzstan rejects authoritarian trend in Central Asia

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People vote at a polling station during the presidential election in the village of Kyzyl-Birdik, Kyrgyzstan, 15 October 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Vladimir Pirogov).

In Brief

On 15 October 2017, Kyrgyzstan held presidential elections that marked a milestone for the country and may have significant regional implications. For the first time since independence in 1991, power changed hands in Kyrgyzstan peacefully and through regular electioneering.


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The Social Democratic Party (SDPK) candidate, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, won 54.3 per cent of the vote beating second placed Omurbek Babanov from the Respublika–Ata Jurt party, who won 33.4 per cent. Despite complaining about voting irregularities, Babanov conceded defeat. Jeenbekov is set to be inaugurated on 24 November 2017, replacing the incumbent head of state, Almazbek Atambayev, who will step down after serving a single six-year term in accordance with the country’s constitution.

This process would look fairly routine everywhere but Central Asia, where authoritarianism and unconditional presidential authority are deeply entrenched.

Kyrgyzstan experienced two ‘revolutionary’ overthrows of government in 2005 and 2010, which were accompanied by considerable violence. Atambayev’s decision not to seek an extension of his tenure through a referendum set a historical precedent in Central Asia where being president for life has become a norm. The vote itself received praise from international observers. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded that despite many shortcomings, the election was competitive, reasonably free and fair, and in general ‘contributed to the strengthening of democratic institutions’ in Kyrgyzstan.

Jeenbekov had the full support of Atambayev, a fellow SDPK member, yet the outcome of the election was not known until the very end. The two main contenders waged US-style campaigns featuring televised debates, populist pork-barrelling, lavish political advertising and a torrent of mudslinging and character assassination.

In a memorable exchange on live television, Jeenbekov announced that he knew ‘all corrupt officials in the country by name’ and if elected, he would start his cleansing campaign with Babanov, a multi-millionaire who had served as the vice-premier and premier under two previous presidents. Such open and robust politicking attracted a lot of attention in neighbouring Central Asian republics. Commentators in Kazakhstan who normally look down upon poor and parochial Kyrgyzstan suddenly discovered that Kyrgyz citizens were capable of not just rebelling against the government but also of ‘independently deciding their fate in a civilised manner, like in Washington DC’.

If formal political programs are to be used to explain voter behavior in Kyrgyzstan, then populism, statism and moderate nationalism won the day. Contenders campaigning under the slogans of Western liberal democracy got nowhere.

Babanov positioned himself as an economic reformer pushing for government deregulation, tax breaks for big business and faster integration within the Eurasian Economic Union — a free trade and common market bloc comprising Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Belarus and Russia. He called Russian President Putin his role model and secured endorsement from Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The latter move precipitated a major diplomatic crisis between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan: Atambayev accused Nazarbayev of meddling in Kyrgyzstan’s domestic affairs to which Kazakhstan responded by imposing a de facto trade blockade.

The scandal helped Jeenbekov, whose platform advocated deepening Atambayev’s policy of ‘national renaissance’, which put a premium on patriotism and sovereignty. Jeenbekov’s economic program contained classic centre-left rhetoric about the welfare state, investment in regional and infrastructure development and subsidies to farmers. He also championed ‘resource nationalism’, which is Kyrgyzstan’s entitlement to a greater share of proceeds from its mining sector dominated by international companies. Both Babanov and Jeenbekov made entirely unrealistic promises of doubling family incomes within five years.

Informal politics is also important in understanding Jeenbekov’s victory. He is well-positioned to maintain the balance of interests between sub-ethnic patrimonial groups or ‘clans’ across the north–south divide, which is indispensable to keeping civic peace. As a southerner from the most populous region of Osh, he has a proven track record of working harmoniously with members of the political elite from the north including Atambayev. And the President-elect’s well-known Islamic piety contributes to his reputation as an honest broker.

Meanwhile, faithfulness to the terms of an implicit political bargain is not necessarily one of Babanov’s strengths. As a northerner he has switched sides often in the past, earning opprobrium from Atambayev who apparently trusted him like a brother until several months ago.

Equally important is Jeenbekov’s ability to manage tensions between the Kyrgyz population and the Uzbek minority in the south where deadly ethnic clashes occurred in 1990 and 2010. Jeenbekov served as the regional governor there between 2010 and 2015 doing a lot to repair communal relations. While campaigning in Osh, Babanov addressed the local Uzbeks in a speech that the government and many Kyrgyz voters found inflammatory and provocative. Babanov insisted that his words, which included ‘better to die standing than to live on your knees’ and ‘if any policeman touches an Uzbek, he will be fired’, were taken out of context by his opponent’s public relations teams, but the damage was done.

While not fully conforming to the Jeffersonian ideals of democracy, the recent election in Kyrgyzstan bucked the authoritarian trend in Central Asia. But whether this breakthrough can be consolidated is the big question. If President-elect Jeenbekov manages to serve his term without arbitrary interruption, uphold the formal and informal rules of the political game to ensure stability and step aside in due course to pave the way for fresh competitive elections, the portents are quite good.

Kirill Nourzhanov is Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, The Australian National University.

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