Something Unusual in Central Asia: An Unpredictable Election

  • Voters in Kyrgyzstan to elect new president on Sunday
  • Election may mark region’s first democratic transfer of power

In a region dominated by dictators, Kyrgyzstan is doing something new. The central Asian republic is holding presidential elections that may be a genuine contest for power.

Thirteen candidates are competing in Sunday’s vote to succeed President Almazbek Atambayev, who can’t seek a second six-year term, in a country of 6.1 million people that’s been plagued by violent upheaval in the past. Atambayev canceled a trip to Russia this week, citing concerns about possible unrest.

Almazbek Atambayev

Photographer: Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP via Getty Images

While incumbents in neighboring states have stayed in office until they die, “Kyrgyzstan is on course to become the first central Asian country to hand over power democratically,” Kate Mallinson, a partner at Prism Political Risk Management Ltd., said by email from London. The challenge “is to ensure that this transfer takes place peacefully.”

Rich in gold and other minerals, and host to a strategic Russian military base, Kyrgyzstan has had a turbulent history since independence in 1992 after the Soviet Union’s collapse. While autocrats in nearby Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan ruled for decades, the first Kyrgyz president, Askar Akayev, was overthrown in the 2005 “Tulip Revolution.” His successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, fled into exile in 2010 when rioters stormed the presidential palace amid corruption allegations.

Roza Otunbayeva became central Asia’s first female head of state when she led an interim administration that drew up a new constitution limiting presidents to a single term, before stepping down ahead of 2011 elections won by Atambayev. He took Kyrgyzstan into the Russian-led Eurasian Union in 2015, a year after closing a U.S. military base used to support operations in Afghanistan since 2001.

Leading Contenders

Analysts say former Prime Minister Sooronbay Jeenbekov, who’s backed by Atambayev’s Social Democratic party, and wealthy businessman Omurbek Babanov, who heads the opposition Respublika party, are the leading candidates in the election that will go to a run-off if nobody wins more than 50 percent of the vote.

Babanov and Jeenbekov have run the “most visible” campaigns and only a few candidates have been active nationally, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe wrote in a Sept. 29 report.

Atambayev canceled his visit to the Eurasian Union summit in Russia’s Sochi this week to counter possible “preparations for mass disturbances on election day by some politicians,” who are receiving “financial support” from abroad, according to the presidential website.

He accused Kazakhstan last week of trying to “impose” its preferred candidate on Kyrgyzstan, the Interfax news service reported, after Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev met Babanov in September. Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry rejected the criticism and pointed out that Nazarbayev met Jeenbekov in August.

Power Shift

The election comes after Kyrgyzstan voted in a referendum last year to change its constitution and shift powers from the president to the prime minister and government, which is dominated by Atambayev’s party. He’s denied opposition accusations that he plans to continue ruling the country as prime minister when his term ends.

Jeenbekov would “probably govern under the tutelage of his predecessor,” while a Babanov victory would show “the political system’s competitiveness,” Anna Walker, associate director at Control Risks, said by email from London. “The lack of predictability of the result is anathema to the tightly controlled, powerful presidential systems that dominate elsewhere.”

The contest contrasts with events in Uzbekistan following the death last year of President Islam Karimov, who’d ruled since 1989. Lawmakers named Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoev acting leader “to maintain stability” and he got 89 percent of votes in presidential elections three months later. Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who’s held power since 2006, won another seven-year term with 98 percent of votes in February.

Amid speculation over potential successors to Nazarbayev, 77, and Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon, who’s 65, a “seemingly competitive election” in Kyrgyzstan may “generate confidence that its neighbors Kazakhstan and Tajikistan could also have a smooth transition of power,” according to Livia Paggi, an analyst at London-based GPW & Co.

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