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Presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan: end of a parliamentary experiment?

The first round of Kyrgyzstan’s presidential elections will take place on 30 October, with the likely victor and the future of the political system far from certain. Asel Doolotkeldieva profiles the contenders, and wonders if the country can manage electoral conflict without it spilling over into political violence.

Asel Doolotkeldieva
31 August 2011
From the oDR Editors:

During recent years international attention has increasingly focused on politics in Kyrgyzstan.  In 2005 President Askar Akaev was ousted; in 2006 resolutions were passed to reduce the constitutional powers of his successor, Kurmanbek Bakiev. In April 2010 Bakiev himself was ousted after violent protests against government corruption. In July 2010 the interim government, led by Roza Otunbaeva, proposed a change to the constitution: 90% of referendum voters chose to establish parliament as the primary centre of power and Kyrgyzstan as Central Asia’s first parliamentary democracy. In October a parliamentary election was held, but the results were inconclusive and weeks of negotiation followed.  In December a coalition government was formed, consisting of the parties Ata Zhurt, Social Democrats and Respublika. 46% of the electorate did not vote at all and 19% voted for parties who failed to reach the 5% electoral threshold, so the five parties which now have seats in parliament represent only 35% of the total population and the coalition government's support base is consequently weak. 

It is late summer in Kyrgyzstan and the country’s presidential elections are little more than two months away. Last year, during the same period, Bishkek hotels were hosting numerous, almost daily, conferences on parliamentarism and constitutional reform. It was clear that the new system was very fragile and the risks of going back to presidential rule were high. Parliamentary models of government were not unfamiliar to opposition figures but the authors of the desired reforms were not in a position to impose them.  

Today, the politics of Kyrgyzstan are increasingly complex, diffuse and hidden from public view. Indeed, no party or individual is able to impose itself on the political scene due to the increasing fracture of the political landscape since the events of April 2010 and the ousting of the government of Kurmanbek Bakiev. The outcome of the election and the future of Kyrgyzstan’s political system remain up for grabs.

Bakiev-ousting-april-2010.jpg

In April 2010 President Bakiev was ousted from power by public uprisings in Bishkek and elsewhere in the country. (Photo: Demotix / RFE/RL)

Presidential contenders

The recent announcement that Omurbek Tekebaev – head of the oldest opposition party Ata-Meken and “father” of Kyrgyzstan’s recent constitutional reform – is putting himself forward as a candidate for the presidential elections undermined the little remaining hope that Kyrgyz politicians would embrace the legislature.

Nevertheless, the presence of 83 candidates for the presidency and the preference of many to move back to a stronger presidency doesn’t automatically mean the end of Kyrgyz experiments with democracy. Many of these 83 will run in the elections with the sole objective of bargaining for a position within the future government.

The real competition will unfold among three main candidates: Almazbek Atambaev, Acting Prime Minister and head of SDPK party, who officially confirmed his participation on 14 August; Kamchybek Tashiev, head of Ata-Zhurt party, another part of the ruling coalition; and Adahan Madumarov, head of the Butun Kyrgyzstan party, whose party was disqualified from the last legislative election under strange circumstances.

"The real competition will unfold between three main candidates: the head of the Social Democratic party, Almazbek Atambaev, the head of Ata Zhurt, Kamchybek Tashiev, and the head of Butan Kyrgyzstan, Adahan Madumarov"

A second tier of politicians such as Omurbek Tekebaev, Tursunbai Bakir Uulu (head of the Erk party who joined with Ar-Namys during the last legislative elections), Akylbek Japarov (former Minister of Finance under the ousted president Bakiev, current MP from Ar-Namys party) and Nariman Tuleev (former Mayor of Bishkek and a current MP from Ata-Zhurt) might have an impact on the election results by joining one of the first-tier candidates, but they lack both the financial resources and national support to affect the results on their own.

In fact, the desire of so many politicians to contest the presidential elections may signify that the will of the “April revolutionaries” to share power with other political forces has led to a more inclusive political system, but not to its proper functioning. The parliamentary reform has led to a dramatic segmentation of political-economic forces into a number of networks.

kyrgyz-parliament-refrl_0.jpg

Following the ousting of Bakiev and a referendum in July 2010, Kyrgyzstan's parliament has for a brief period been the centre of power in the country. However, a return to a stronger presidential system looks a possible outcome of the upcoming elections. (Photo: Demotix / RFE/RL)

Atambaev: from Prime Minister to President?

These networks have divided the national economy into pieces with the result that the system no longer functions as a unified whole. The purported “vertical line of power” has become ineffective for the Prime Minister since the chain no longer responds to one person, as before, but rather to different networks. Control over economic assets and administrative resources have become so complex that alliances frequently fracture and even break down. In particular, Atambaev is struggling to contain his former supporter Omurbek Babanov (current Vice-Prime Minister, head of the Respublica party and a businessman).

Both insiders and outsiders wish to change this segmented system and re-centralise political power by changing the constitution in favour of presidential rule. On the other hand, a number of power brokers (politician-businessmen) are interested in safeguarding the status quo because it allows them to seize control of and exploit a given enterprise or business without risking accountability and responsibility. Recent examples of divided economic networks include the fight within political parties over the national gas and oil enterprise in Jalal-Abad town.

Being dependent on their participation in the coalition, the Prime Minister must accept these illegal actions and the malfunctioning coalition itself, which he sees as a tool to reach the presidency. Such an outcome of the parliamentary experiment might have been avoided if two or three large parties are able to create a more coherent coalition thus achieving control over economy and accountability to the government.

Thus, the “Atambaev-Babanov” partnership no longer represents an alliance but a hazard for rival business networks. Moreover, Babanov can offer his support for elections to any politico-economic group which will offer him a better deal. However, even within his party there is a fracture and thus a division of power. Babanov’s faction is presently less influential then before because its “southern” wing changed loyalty to Kamchy Tashiev, Ata-Zhurt party’s leader. This internal divide within Respublica leaves Babanov without his southern base, which was what cemented his alliance with the northerner Atambaev.

However, Atambaev retains the advantage of being the Prime Minister. He has been using his position during this year to appoint his people in many southern districts. Furthermore, he deploys ‘administrative resources’ and has exploited the political opportunities presented by the aftermath of the ethnic violence of July 2010 to compensate for his lack of a southern support base.

Pushed to the extreme, ethnic Uzbeks are ready to vote for any candidate other than the “nationalists” Tashiev and Madumarov. The fear of nationalists is not merely ideological but also economic. Competition over the Kara-Suu market, where many Uzbeks are employed, is ongoing.  They fear the continuing expropriation of their property and business and the risk of being completely expelled from the market if the “nationalists” win.

Yet, an Atambaev victory doesn’t necessarily mean that the Uzbek’s fate will be better. It is a trap of the same kind that Felix Kulov (head of Ar-Namys party) set up last year during legislative elections. He positioned him-self as a national minorities’ defender and thus gained popularity among the Uzbek community but later was ready to unite with the “nationalist” Ata-Zhurt party.

Atambaev’s rivals

The Ata-Zhurt party also suffers from an internal divide into three blocs: those who are loyal to Kamchybek Tashiev, to Ahmatbek Keldibekov (present Speaker of the Parliament, allegedly close to Atambaev) and to Marat Sultanov (former head of National Bank, former Speaker of the Parliament and former Minister of finance). Nevertheless, Tashiev has managed to attract politicians from other parties to compensate for the lack of unity within his own. Some southern MPs from Respublika and MPs from Ar-Namys have transferred their loyalties to Ata-Zhurt’s leader. His chances to win the elections are multiplied by the opportunity to capitalize on their popularity in rural areas.

atambaev-tashiev_0_0.jpg

It looks likely that the country will be divided geographically and a run-off may be contested by Atambaev (left) whose support lies in the north and Tashiev (right) who is strong in the south. But will this divide result in partnership or violence?
(Photo: Demotix / RFE/RL)

In addition, Tashiev’s persona as a “politician who hears and listens to others” helps him win credit amongst other politicians. In fact, the return to the presidential model doesn’t enamor all parliamentarians because they fear losing newly enlarged powers and status. Tashiev’s vague responses to concrete constitutional changes leave some hope that parliament might safeguard important prerogatives even under enforced presidential rule.

He has, however, an important obstacle to victory – the northern electorate. Rumors say that some major northern cadres from Ata-Meken might endorse him to gain credit in Bishkek.

Atambaev’s second main competitor, Adahan Madumarov, is also a popular southerner and might severely divide Tashiev’s potential electorate. Most probably they will weaken one another during the first round of elections with only one passing to the second round, and thus increasing Atambaev’s chances off capturing the presidency.

Even though Madumarov’s popularity is very high in southern districts such as Toktogul, Uzgen and Osh, he is an outsider to the governing coalition and unable to access precious ‘administrative resources’. In addition, as previous legislative elections have shown, even popular candidates might lose in their districts if a large vote buying is used against them.

If this is the case, in the second round Atambaev will confront Tashiev in a  clash of “north” against “south”. With the candidates well matched in terms of respective power bases, and because Atambaev is in the position to potentially use “administrative resources”, the two will contest the election results.

Can violence be avoided?

Unresolved problems related to the lack of justice for the victims of the April and June violence, to widespread corruption and inflation leave the population unhappy with the parliamentary reform. Protest feelings are high both in the north and in the south.

In such circumstances it is quite possible that candidates might fall back on the traditional service of “sportsmen” [heavies - ed.] and tactics of intimidation. The ultimate competition between Tashiev and Atambaev might unfold into a post-electoral violence further exacerbating the political and cultural divide of “north vs south". 

This concerning development could be avoided if the rivals decide to work together and operate in tandem. However, while might allow violence to be avoided in the short term, it will not bring stability in the long run. 

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