On July 2, Kyrgyz President Soroonbay Jeenbekov signed a decree scheduling the next parliamentary election on October 4, 2020. The decree assigns responsibility to the government to issue the necessary financial resources, assist the Central Election Commission (CEC), and provide for security, including the cybersecurity and the protection of public health.According to the decree, the Prosecutor General’s office must ensure that the relevant laws and the Kyrgyz constitution are adhered to. The regional governments, mayors, and local officials are tasked with clarifying voter lists and assisting with technical and organizational matters.
The presidential decree sparked discussion on whether Kyrgyzstan should hold the election or not. Some officials and activists voiced concern about the decision to conduct the election, given that the country is barely managing the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Another proposal put forth by several activists calls to postpone the election until COVID-19 is controlled and to redirect financial resources set aside for the election to the health care system. The proposal also calls on the government to resign and for the prosecution of officials responsible for the worsening situation in the country.
On July 13, eight activists were detained after a protest in front of the Jogorku Kenesh, the Kyrgyz parliament, as reported by Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz branch of the U.S.-funded RFE/RL.
Some parliamentary deputies also called for postponing the election. Kyrgyz media outlet Kloop reported that some deputies criticized the scale of estimated expenses — 732 million soms ($9.5 million). As a result, the CEC decided on July 17 to significantly reduce the election budget to 446 million soms.
Some deputies from the Respublika party have pushed further, announcing that their party would stop its election campaign until the situation with COVID-19 improves, according to a 24.kg report. Ruslan Kazakbaev, a current MP and former foreign minister, and party leader Mirlan Zheenchoroev have criticized the president’s decree. Zheenchoroev also expressed his support for postponing the election. Electoral matters are a sensitive issue for the opposition party. Respublika’s former leader, Omurbek Babanov, left Kyrgyzstan after losing to Jeenbekov during the presidential election in 2017, when several criminal cases were levied against him. He finally returned to the country in 2019, stepping down as the party’s chairman and positioning Zheenchoroev as its new head.
A couple of deputies now associated with Ata-Meken, another opposition party, who had declared they were leaving their previous party, the ruling Social Democratic Party (SDPK), Janar Akaev and Mombekov Ryskeldi, have also called to postpone the upcoming election.
Most arguments calling to postpone the election are rooted in the government’s failure to manage the coronavirus pandemic effectively and the catastrophic consequences and risks the unfolding disaster presents. This caused widespread criticism of nearly all officials. As Kyrgyz media outlet Kaktus.kg reports, citizens and activists argue that the election’s financial resources must be directed to building new hospitals, providing medical equipment and drugs, which are reportedly scarce these days. Citizens are also proposing the election funds be used to pay medical staff and volunteers who are struggling to save lives.
According to the Ministry of Health Care, as of July 30, Kyrgyzstan has recorded 35,413 cases of COVID-19. More than half that number are coded as cases without a test confirmation, underscoring the difficulties Kyrgyzstan’s health care system faces. More than 1,300 people have died. Kyrgyzstan’s case and death numbers began to spike in July.
After the decree, the CEC set July 8 as the date for parties to submit an application voicing their intention to participate, and within ten days to send representatives on administrative and financial issues to finalize registration. By August 20, parties must submit candidate lists with a pledge of 5 million Kyrgyz soms. According to 24.kg, CEC’s deputy-head announced that the typical massive gatherings or concerts held during campaigns are not allowed due to COVID-19 restrictions, leaving TV, radio, and internet sources as the only campaigning instruments.
In an interview with Birinchi radio on July 18, Jeenbekov rejected the possibility of postponing the election, claiming that deputies who are calling to postpone the election are being populists — they are calling for a postponement while also registering with the CEC to contest the election. The Kyrgyz president has said he recognizes that the present situation is difficult with the coronavirus, but he has pointed out the political obligation to hold an election according to the law, while stressing that health concerns during the election will be a prime focus.
The Kyrgyz government may be looking to countries that have held successful elections amid the pandemic. Analysts note that South Korea successfully conducted elections in May and its government was able to manage the whole process quite efficiently.
Some legal experts also argued that this election is particularly important for the current president’s team, as its result will pave the way to the next presidential elections. Indeed, the election in October may serve as a timely bridge in the run-up to the next presidential election in 2023. Constitutionally, Jeenbekov cannot run for a second term and is likely searching for a safe successor.
In the Kyrgyz context, a “safe” successor is of utmost importance. Jeenbekov’s predecessor, Almazbek Atambayev, is in jail at present, sitting through a second trial after being given an 11-year sentence in a first trial — the connotation is clear in everyone’s mind.
Consequently, the president needs a parliament dominated by parties and deputies loyal to him to enforce his initiatives. Kyrgyzstan is a parliamentary democracy; the parliament forms the government. A loyal parliament means easier implementation of presidential initiatives and a simpler search for a loyal candidate to succeed Jeenbekov in the 2023 election — unless the constitution is changed once more to allow for a second presidential term. This option would, of course, also necessitate a loyal parliament to bring such amendments through.
Ultimately, the Kyrgyz government is set on holding the election as scheduled. The people, and some parliamentarians, are less than thrilled.
Ilgiz Kambarov is a Ph.D. student at Kyrgyz Economic University in Bishkek.