Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

After Brawls and Protests, Kyrgyzstan’s Campaigns Near Election Day

Despite a campaign marked by scandals and upheavals, the outcome of the October 4 election is refreshingly difficult to predict.

Catherine Putz
After Brawls and Protests, Kyrgyzstan’s Campaigns Near Election Day
Credit: Flickr / Dan Lundberg

Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary campaign season is entering its final days, with polls scheduled for October 4. The field is large — with 16 parties contesting for seats in the 120-member unicameral parliament — and Kyrgyzstan’s democracy at times raucous. 

The month-long campaign has featured a few brawls and protests, largely par for the Kyrgyz political course.

There was a “scuffle” between supporters of Mekenim Kyrgyzstan and the Birimdik party which left a dozen injured on September 20 in southern Kyrgyzstan. The parties reconciled a few days later, with Kyrgyz media outlet Kloop reporting that the alleged spark for the brawl was a Mekenim Kyrgyzstan candidate “slandering” a Birimdik candidate. As Bruce Pannier wrote from RFE/RL, “Shukurullo Fayzullaev of the Birimdik party and Ilhom Mananov of the Mekenim Kyrgyzstan party were both barred from further participation in connection [with the fight].”

Both parties are considered “pro-government” and associated, in the media and among the public, with notable figures on their party lists.

Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, for example, is running Iskender Matraimov  — of the notorious Matraimov family — as no. 10 in its party list. Iskender’s younger brother, Raimbek Matraimov, is a former customs official implicated last year in a massive corruption scheme uncovered by a joint investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) in partnership with RFE/RL and Kloop. The Matraimov family has denied the allegations against them, going so far as to sue the participating media outlets. The investigative journalists, however, have kept up the pressure, releasing new reports and trove of documents earlier this year to support the accusation that Raimbek funneled millions out of the country.

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Iskender is a member of the current parliament, in the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) faction. The SDPK, which supplied both current Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov and former, now jailed, President Almazbek Atambayev, is not contesting the 2020 election. Last November, after the OCCRP investigation landed, the Kyrgyz parliament set up a commission to look into the murder of Aierken Saimaiti — the confessed money launderer who was the main source for the investigation and who had been assassinated in Istanbul ahead of its release. Iskender withdrew from the commission, for obvious reasons.

Nevertheless, Iskender’s position high on the party list raises eyebrows and links the party firmly with the Matraimov family.

Birimdik has its own high-profile members, including Asylbek Jeenbekov who sits at no. 27 on the party list. Asylbek is the president’s brother and a sitting member of parliament. He was a member of the SDPK before his brother’s feud with Atambayev split the party

This past weekend, hundreds attended a protest in Bishkek from several parties — who after some tension agreed to put away their party flags and just wave Kyrgyz flags — in response to a leaked video of the leader of the Birimdik party, Marat Amankulov, apparently disparaging Kyrgyz independence at a roundtable event in Moscow in late February. As Eurasianet reported, in the video Amankulov appears to say, “Thirty years of life in independence have shown us that the time has come for us to rethink and return to the fold.”

At least nine parties were present at the protest, according to Kloop: Reforma, Chon Kazat, Ata-Meken, Bir Bol, Republika, Butun Kyrgyzstan, Ordo, Yiman Nuru, and the Social Democrats. 

Birimdik’s endorsement of Eurasianism is not exactly new. But the framing (or lack thereof) of Amankulov’s comments was damning, particularly his remark that on the territory of Eurasia there should exist a unified state. Kyrgyzstan is a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), along with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. A common allegation against the union is that it is an attempt to resurrect the Soviet Union, a criticism soundly dismissed by Moscow and the other members, but alluded to in Amankulov’s remarks.

After the video gained traction, Amankulov released a statement saying that his words were taken out of context and reiterated his party’s support for Kyrgyz sovereignty. 

Amid the field of 16 parties, there are a few better-known than others, and some considered pro-government rather than opposition, but none necessarily set up for a sweep. There are new parties aplenty, like Reforma, which Chris Rickleton profiled for Eurasianet this week. 

In order to gain entry into parliament a party must get at least 7 percent of the national vote, plus meet a regional threshold requirement of 0.7 percent of votes in each region. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is dispatching a limited observation mission, 2,032 candidates were registered to compete in the elections across the 16 parties. (That number has since declined as some parties have pulled out or been forced out). 

As of September 18, when the OSCE released an interim report, there were 3.5 million eligible voters in the latest preliminary voter lists who had passed biometric registration requirements. There is added complexity, as Pannier highlighted recently, regarding the use of “Form No. 2,” which is the document migrants fill out in order to be able to vote in a district which is not their home district. Pannier noted allegations that parties and candidates might be trying to game the system by shifting where individuals are registered using Form No. 2.

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There’s no shortage of issues for the Kyrgyz parliament to tackle, from evergreen matters like corruption to the unique features of 2020, namely the coronavirus pandemic. In a region known largel, for its autocratic leaders and pre-ordained election results, the October 4 election remains impossible to pre-judge.