Following a familiar trajectory, Kyrgyzstan, which has been called an “island of democracy” in Central Asia, is experiencing another round of political turmoil after parliamentary elections on October 4 saw the apparent victory of the pro-Russia establishment.
In the capital Bishkek, the day after the election, Kyrgyz police dispersed demonstrators protesting the official preliminary results by using stun grenades, blasting water cannons, and firing rubber bullets and tear gas, while a group of protesters stormed the black wrought iron gates of the White House, the Kyrgyz presidential office building. Later, reports emerged that former President Almazbek Atambayev had been freed from prison by protesters.
The Kyrgyz nation is experiencing a “deja-vu” revolution. Angry crowds overthrew governments in 2005 and 2010, and it seems history may be repeating itself in 2020.
It is important to mention that Kyrgyzstan is the only country in Central Asia with a presidential-parliamentary form of government, one that it adopted after the 2010 revolution in part to diminish the power of the president over the government. The top three parties that appear to have cleared the 7 percent nationwide vote threshold necessary to gain seats in parliament were considered the “favorites” of the current government.
While many observers predicted their victory, it was a shock for the Kyrgyz people that none of the opposition parties (save one, barely) won enough votes to get into parliament.
According to the Central Election Commission (CEC), the Birimdik (Unity) party received the most votes, with 24.5 percent. The party is associated with President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, since his brother is on its party list. (Formally, the president does not support any party and officially does not belong to one).
On the list of the party that came in second, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (My Homeland is Kyrgyzstan) with 23.88 percent, is the brother of former deputy head of the Kyrgyz Customs Service Raimbek Matraimov who was implicated in a massive corruption scandal that broke last year following an investigation by OCCRP, RFE/RL and Kloop.
The Kyrgyzstan Party, which came in third in the preliminary results with 8.76 percent includes the former speaker of parliament Dastan Jumabekov, who resigned prior to the election.
The top three parties also each included deputies from the largest party in the previous parliament, the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), which did not contest the 2020 election. The rift between former President Almazbek Atamayev and current President Sooronbay Jeenbekov shattered the party and landed Atambayev in the jail from which he has apparently now been freed.
The country’s opposition parties have declared that they will not recognize the results of the poll. The leaders of Ata-Meken announced that they are ready to create an opposition bloc with other dissenting parties and challenge the election results. Meanwhile, the Social Democrats Party, often called the “reserve party” of Atambayev supporters, announced an indefinite rally and marched on Bishkek’s main square, along with others.
High-level corruption was one of the main complaints against the previous Atambayev regime. Sooronbay Jeenbekov promised to clean things up when he took office after 2017’s presidential election. He promised to not follow in the mistake-laden footprints of Kyrgyzstan’s two toppled presidents. He nevertheless went on to repeat all the mistakes of his predecessor: elections were rigged, the opposition was harassed and members of the president’s family became closely involved in politics and business.
The election campaign took place against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit Kyrgyzstan hard. At one stage, the country had one of the highest death rates per capita in the world, and the effects of the quarantine have decimated the economy. Even before the election, the regime had begun to look fragile given its weak response to the pandemic.
The parallels between 2020 and the events of 2005 and 2010 are stark. But the previous revolutions resulted in a weak state which generated space for criminals to play an influential role, from running protection and extortion rackets to engineering election wins for their political clients. For years, Kyrgyz leaders have been playing out a democratic charade that shows no signs of ending. The political surface may sometimes seem calm, but it is shadowed by a corrupt undercurrent that continues to flow strongly.
Aruuke Uran Kyzy currently works at TRT World Research Centre as a researcher and a journalist.