Campaigning officially kicked off this week in Kyrgyzstan, which will hold its presidential elections on October 15. The polls are positioned to represent the first normal transfer of power in the country’s 26-year history.
Incumbent President Almazbek Atambayev, who was elected in 2011 following the post-revolution interim presidency of Roza Otunbayeva, is constitutionally barred from seeking a second term. In 2011, Atambayev won in the first round of voting in October 2011 with 63.2 percent, a paltry amount by Central Asian standards, but a landslide in typical, open, democratic terms.
The current field of contenders has narrowed to 13 from 59 who filed to run. The field includes eight self-nominated independents and five party candidates, most with storied histories in Kyrgyz politics and policy. Only one woman is competing in the electing 24.kg succinctly (and alphabetically) profiled the bakers dozen who hope to take over from Atambayev: Arstanbek Abdyldaev, Omurbek Babanov, Azimbek Beknazarov, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, Ernis Zarlykov, Ulukbek Kochkorov, Adakhan Madumarov, Arslanbek Maliyev, Taalatbek Masadykov, Temir Sariev, Kamchybek Tashiev, Bakyt Torobayev, Toktaiym Umetalieva.
Watchers of Kyrgyz politics would likely point to Omurbek Babanov, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, Temir Sariev, and Bakyt Torobayev as the top candidates. Each is well-known, has an established personal following, and has extensive experience in and around the top tiers of Kyrgyzstan’s politics.
With only a month to campaign, name-recognition and preexisting public awareness will play an important part in pushing the frontrunners ahead.
Omurbek Babanov, 47, served as prime minister from December 2011 to September 2012 during the first year of Atambayev’s presidency. In 2014 he merged is Respublika party with Ata-Jurt, and at present heads the combined party’s parliamentary faction, holding 28 seats. The joint party has since fallen apart — underscoring the nascent nature of the country’s party system — but Babanov is no worse for wear. Indeed, a spring 2017 public opinion survey pointed to Babanov as one of Kyrgyzstan’s most trusted politicians. And because it’s important to Kyrgyz politics, it’s worth mentioning that Babanov hails from the Talas region in the county’s northern half.
Sooronbai Jeenbekov, 58, recently resigned from his post as prime minister which he’s held since April 2016, in order to run for the presidency. Jeenbekov, a native of the Osh region in the south, was described by 24.kg as a close friend of Atambayev. While the Kyrgyz president technically leaves whatever political party he (or she) is affiliated with when assuming office, SDPK — which nominated Jeenbekov and Atambayev before him — is the presidential party. Jeenbekov served as governor of Osh from 2010 to 2015, when he became director of the state personnel service. In March 2016 he moved up to first deputy of the presidential administration and shortly thereafter into the prime minister’s seat.
Temir Sariev, 54, was nominated by his own party, Ak-Shumkar (White Falcon), which has yet to break into the country’s parliament. No matter, Sariev served as prime minister from May 2015 to April 2016, when he resigned amid a cloud of corruption allegations. He also previously served as finance minister. Sariev is from a village in the Chuy region, in a district west of the country’s capital, Bishkek.
Bakyt Torobayev, 44, is head of the Onuguu-Progress party and has been a figure in the country’s parliament since 2007, when he was elected as a member of then-president Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s Ak Zhol party. After Bakiyev’s downfall, Torobayev joined Babanov’s Respublika but the two never quite got along and Torobayev split to found Onuguu-Progress in 2012. Torobayev fails from the Jalal-Abad region in the south.
It will be a wild month in Kyrgyzstan as posters go up, rallies are held, and politics finds its way into everyday conversations. There are considerable concerns about the election and Kyrgyzstan’s general political climate, with many pointing to Atambayev’s harsh commentary about the press and those who would disturb public order. Atambayev, frustrated with criticism of his backing of Jeenbekov, lashed out in typical style, saying on August 30: “Let’s not forget that until December 1, I will be this country’s president and I will have sufficient time to severely punish all of those who plan disturbances in our country.”
“Do not play with fire, you will burn your hands — and not only hands,” he went on to say.
Atambayev also commented that he hoped Jeenbekov, and recently appointed Prime Minister Sapar Isakov, would carry on in his footsteps, finishing what he’s begun.
To some, such comments are a red flag, a warning that Atambayev may be overly invested in a potential Jeenbekov victory. Atambayev perhaps has good reason to be concerned about what happens to him after he becomes an ex-president, as I’ve noted before, the Kyrgyz political climate has not been kind to past presidents. There hasn’t been much of an opportunity to set precedent for the role past presidents play in the country’s politics.
The Kyrgyz campaigns will be short, but hot; and next month there could very well be a new president-elect.