Crossroads Asia

Will Kyrgyz Democracy Pass Its Next Test?

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Crossroads Asia

Will Kyrgyz Democracy Pass Its Next Test?

The outcome of this weekend’s election usher in an unprecedented transfer of power between elected presidents.

Will Kyrgyz Democracy Pass Its Next Test?

A Kyrgyz woman casts her ballot at a polling station in the Lenin School in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan, during the presidential elections on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011. Almazbak Atambayev was the winner.

Credit: AP Photo/Nicolas Tanner

On October 15 presidential elections will be held in Kyrgyzstan. The outcome should usher in the first regular change of president in the country’s 26 years of independence.

Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Kyrgyzstan’s first two post-Soviet presidents, were forced out of office in revolutions of 2005 and 2010. Now, after only one six-year term, current president Almazbek Atambayev will leave his post of his own volition.

Two main candidates are in the running to be Kyrgyzstan’s next president: Sooronbay Jeenbekov, a former prime minister and member of the Social Democratic Party (SDPK); and Omurbek Babanov, the leader of the Respublika party.

The crucial question is whether this unprecedented transition of power will bring newfound stability. The alternative is a fresh political crisis and continued stagnation.

Different parts of the Kyrgyz political elite are backing different candidates. Crucially, perhaps, Atambayev and SDPK have put forward Jeenbekov and said Sapar Isakov would be his prime minister.

Atambayev is trying to secure a coalition with figures from both the south and north of the country. It gives Jeenbekov, Atambayev’s protégé, an advantage; though it remains to be seen if the strong presidential model of power will continue.

Informal decision-making practices and bodies, such as the council of elders, are traditional in Kyrgyz society and have been the basis for the stability of Atambayev’s six years in office. Like his four Central Asian counterparts, he has been skillful at balancing and forming coalitions, but unlike his neighbors, Atambayev has collaborated with opposition politicians.

However, the future configuration of power proposed by the current president would most likely be unstable. The tandem of Jeenbekov and Isakov means that Kyrgyzstan will have at least two centers of power, creating potential for competition and conflict. They may be unable to hold the complex system of government together. More worryingly still, Atambayev will not relinquish all his influence when he steps out of the presidency. Indeed, he could create a third center of power.

Meanwhile, the opposition is trying to seize the initiative. Its main leader, Omurbek Babanov (who is also said to be Kyrgyzstan’s richest man), represents a threat to the established order as he has also been working to create a coalition. Should the election be reasonably clean, he stands a chance to win. Notably, he also has won what appears to be the endorsement from of Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Atambayev’s government was enraged when Babanov met with Nazarbayev, considering it an attempt by Astana to interfere in the internal political process.

In the event of Babanov’s victory, Atambayev’s entire configuration of power would be destroyed and the republic could sink into a serious political crisis. SDPK holds the most parliamentary seats and is the decicing factor in building a coalition there. Without a majority in the parliament, the presidential position in Kyrgyzstan is more nominal than powerful. In such circumstances, Babanov would have to reset the current configuration with the SDPK’s leadership in the Kyrgyz parliament in order to exercise full power as president.

Most other countries – notably China – have kept silent. Uzbekistan’s relatively new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, came to Bishkek in early September and met all sides. This may be an attempt to reset relations between these often fractious rivals. This could signal a genuine breakthrough after years of “deep freeze.” Just two weeks after the visit, Atambayev flew to Tashkent. The presidents signed more than 10 agreements including the significant “Declaration on strategic partnership, strengthening of trust, good-neighbourliness between the Kyrgyz Republic and the Republic of Uzbekistan.”

Russia, of course, normally has a strong view on such things as who the president of a post-Soviet country should be. Both candidates have looked to Moscow for support. However, since there is no incumbent to support, as is normally the case, Moscow’s choice is harder. In their official bilateral meetings at least, Vladimir Putin has assiduously avoided any overt statement of support for either side.

This should not be mistaken for Russian disinterest, however. Three bilateral presidential meetings, several more in wider formats, and many more visits of senior Russian officials to Bishkek reveal Moscow’s attention, if not its intention. But as the main candidates are on an equal footing, the Russian government seems not to be placing a bet this time.

Not that Atambayev hasn’t asked Russia directly for support. A last-minute September meeting between Russian and Kyrgyz presidents and Gazprom’s subsequent announcement that it would invest 100 billion rubles into the republic’s economy have been read by many analysts as informal support for Atambayev’s choice, Jeenbekov.

Nonetheless, for the first time in Central Asian history (and almost unprecedented in the wider post-Soviet space) it is still uncertain who the next Kyrgyz president will be after this weekend’s election.

Stanislav Pritchin is an analyst with the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House