oDR: Analysis

Why Kyrgyzstan’s latest election bodes ill for new president

An abysmally low turnout makes clear that Sadyr Japarov is in a precarious position

Christopher Schwartz
13 April 2021, 11.14am
President Sadyr Japarov
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Image: President of Kyrgyzstan

This weekend, Kyrgyzstan’s voters filed into polling stations to vote simultaneously for local legislatures and in a referendum on proposed changes to the constitution. Despite an incredibly low threshold set by authorities – only 30% of eligible voters were required for the results to be valid – preliminary data points to a potentially serious crisis in legitimacy for Kyrgyzstan’s new president Sadyr Japarov.

As of Tuesday 13 April, the Central Election Committee was reporting abysmally low turnout figures - later confirmed at 37% of potential voters. For local legislatures, 30.89% of the electorate participated, in particular for city legislatures, including for the coveted capital, Bishkek, the seats of which were chosen by only 25.89% of those eligible to vote. On the constitutional changes, approximately 40% voted, of which roughly 80% were in favour of the proposed changes. For context, that would mean approximately 1.1 million people out of a nation of six million have opted to make Sadyr Japarov the most powerful president since Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Kyrgyzstan’s second and most infamous leader, who was ousted in an uprising almost 11 years ago to the day.

Parliamentary elections held last October erupted in yet another national uprising – Kyrgyzstan’s fifth since independence in 1991, including a failed revolt in August 2019 led by former president Almazbek Atambayev. In October, rioters succeeded in toppling the government of Sooronbai Jeenbekov, propelling Japarov from a prison cell – where he was serving a long sentence for kidnapping – to the presidency in the space of a few days. These events seemingly caught everyone by surprise, even Russia, Kyrgyzstan’s chief patron and, in the opinion of many people, puppeteer.

Today, one thing is clear: both supporters and opponents of the new president and constitution should fear these election results. Although turnout for Kyrgyzstan’s many elections has been steadily declining over the past decade, even dipping below 50% since the last constitutional referendum in 2016, this year has seen historic lows. A measly 39.12% of the electorate participated in polls held this past January, during which Japarov was elected president. At best, these figures signal disenchantment; at worst, they reveal enormous discontent.

No checks and balances

A varied assortment of parties vied for more than 8,000 legislative seats in 448 municipalities in this recent race. Under Kyrgyzstan’s forthcoming constitution, city mayors will be appointed by the president. Despite this general lack of autonomy, many parties have been hoping to ensconce themselves in local legislatures for long-term gain.

The fight over Bishkek, which is home to more than a million people, was particularly intense. According to political analyst Aidar Raev, the capital is “pivotal”. “In theory, whoever can control this city can influence the national government regardless of the constitutional design,” Raev said.

“This was the third election in less than six months. People were burned out and generally did not appreciate what was at stake”

Raev points to another round of parliamentary elections scheduled for October as an example. Whoever dominates Bishkek’s legislature will be able to influence “the facts on the ground”, he said, such as who sits in the supervisory boards of polling stations and which parties get to advertise in which districts.

Influence over real estate rights and zoning laws has also been at stake. Researcher Asel Doolotkeldieva notes that one clear victor of the elections in the capital has been Askar Salymbekov, the owner of Kyrgyzstan’s Dordoi bazaar, who has been seeking to expand his property empire. Located on Bishkek’s northeastern outskirts, Dordoi is a huge trades and sales complex, the largest in Central Asia and a key employer in the country. Salymbekov is also the founder of Emgek (Labour) party, which won approximately 13% of the seats in Bishkek. He is now positioned to be a key player in the continuing evolution of Bishkek’s cityscape. In January this year, plans to develop the city centre aroused enormous public outcry, and were subsequently withdrawn by the mayor’s office.

Presidential power

As so often in the past, these elections were no stranger to accusations of vote-buying and intimidation swirling on social media. Moreover, party platforms were also characteristically grandiose. Aida Musaeva, a doctoral researcher who was in the town of Kyzyl-Kia in the remote Batken region during the vote, told openDemocracy that all of the parties which eventually took the lead, such as Ata-Jurt Kyrgyzstan and Yiman-Nuru, vowed to make the former industrial center of 44,000 into a hub for technological innovation.

Noticeably missing from these elections was Mekenchil, the party most closely associated with president Japarov himself. While meeting with Kyrgyz migrant workers in Russia during a visit there, Japarov stated that with the party now effectively controlling Kyrgyzstan’s executive branch, the Mekenchil leadership wanted to avoid accusations of engaging in “administrative resources” – when public sector workers are compelled by their superiors to support a specific party. However, as researcher Colleen Wood has suggested, Mekenchil may instead exert its influence through Ata-Jurt Kyrgyzstan, whose roster is filled with many of its former members.

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Sadyr Japarov | Image: President of Kyrgyzstan

Wood believes that the country’s ideology-thin politics – in which the personalities of the politicians themselves, including their family, business and regional connections, play an outsized role over deeper questions about society and policy – have not changed. “The game of ‘musical chairs’ that plagues Kyrgyzstan’s politics is still afoot, only now on high speed,” Wood said.

Kyrgyzstan’s parties routinely share their memberships. For example, leading candidates from the National Democratic Party ran as pro-government Birimdik candidates in October. Many of Yntymak (Unity)’s candidates hail from Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (My Homeland Kyrgyzstan), the party closely associated with the notorious Rayimbek Matraimov, the former customs official who is at the heart of a major corruption scandal that stretches into neighboring China.

“If these elections were supposed to be a litmus test for a redo of parliamentary elections later this year, it’s not any clearer which parties have been able to build loyal followings or political salience,” Wood added.

What happened in October?

Debate continues to swirl over precisely how the events of October 2020 unfolded. The general consensus is that protests organised by a constellation of youth activists, nationalists, liberal reformers, and parties that had lost the parliamentary elections were swiftly overcome and replaced by organised crime hailing from Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul region. Bishkek’s streets suddenly filled with ‘sportsmen’ – a euphemism for gangs – whose chief demand was to return Kyrgyzstan’s constitution, which was reformed to a semi-parliamentary system in 2010, to a more stridently presidentialist system. The man they wanted for the top job was Japarov, a nationalist cause célèbre with an impressive, even suspicious, social media infrastructure promoting him as a saviour figure.

Video from 6 October 2020. Source: Kloop.kg

The proposed constitutional changes, however, were rushed through Parliament with neither debate nor public consultation, while both the new constitution’s supporters and opponents agree that it will usher in, on paper at any rate, a new era of super-presidentialism and illiberal democracy.

According to the changes, the Parliament will be shrunk from 120 deputies to 90, while a new consultative body called a “People’s Assembly” will be established, in order to be summoned on an ad hoc basis by the president. The presidency will now combine the functions of both the head of state and head of government, with the prime minister reduced to a chief of staff. The president also gains the power to introduce legislation, call referenda, and appoint and dismiss mayors, governors and other top public officials.

Professor Eugene Huskey feels that it is still too early to assess the true extent of presidentialism introduced with the new constitution, as too many details – particularly about the relationships between state institutions – remain vague. Still, he is concerned that “the new constitution has gutted many of the checks and balances that had served to constrain previous presidents,” he said over email. “It creates the framework for a very strong presidential system with few effective counterweights to presidential power.”

“Few if any presidential systems give so much power to a president for shaping local administration,” Huskey added, “whether through the hiring and firing of local heads of administration or the suspension of local elected assemblies.”

Choosing neighbourhood over nation?

Kyrgyzstan has flirted with unchecked presidentialism before, and it did not end well. The country’s first president Askar Akayev, as well as his successor Bakiyev, accrued enormous power to their offices during their rule – only to be brought down by violent uprisings. It is perplexing that Japarov, who started his political career serving in the Bakiyev regime, seems to be replaying these same moves from recent history.

More worrying still is that Japarov’s predecessors commanded genuine popular support – or at the very least, formal electoral mandates. Though plagued by electioneering, voting under Akayev and Bakiyev consistently crossed the 50% threshold, thereby giving the semblance of democracy. For Japarov, a president who wishes to portray himself as a nationalist saviour, the symbolism of Sunday’s electoral math is simply not what it needed to be.

What is clear is that Japarov is in a precarious position. He is assuming not only great power, but great responsibility amid multiple overlapping crises

Clearly, a certain degree of blame for the low turnout can be allotted to Kyrgyzstan’s voters and parties themselves. “This was the third election in less than six months. People were burned out and generally did not appreciate what was at stake,” Aidar Raev explained. “Parties also failed to convey the importance” of this vote.

Kyrgyzstan’s parties appear to have been content with low mobilisation, as it meant a more efficient use of their resources. They would also target voters who, in Raev’s estimation, had “no ideology and who valued the needs of their region, even their immediate neighbourhood, over the needs of the nation”.

Something to fear

What is also clear is that Japarov is in a precarious position. He is assuming not only great power, but great responsibility amid multiple overlapping crises – a deep economic recession and a shattered healthcare system due to the ongoing pandemic; the risk of a sovereign debt default to China combined with increasing anti-Chinese sentiment across Kyrgyzstan; and unresolved and possibly explosive border issues with neighbouring Tajikistan.

Moving forward, Japarov and his team have limited strategic options. Ideally, even with his vastly increased powers, he could still try to collaborate with Kyrgyzstan’s boisterous civil society while tempering the expectations of his nationalist base in rural areas and working-class neighbourhoods. After all, both factions have legitimate concerns and command different but equally vital political resources that he could use to stabilise the country.

Conversely, Japarov could follow the model of other illiberal leaders and try to pit these factions against each other, manipulating his nationalist base while casting civil society in the role of a fifth column. For the moment, there are worrying signs that this is the strategy he will undertake: the new constitution contains vague provisions to protect Kyrgyz traditional morality and exert monitoring over civil society organisations, while the Japarov-associated social media machinery has been demonising civil society as agents of a sinister western conspiracy bent on undermining Kyrgyz culture.

Worse yet, Kyrgyzstan’s government lacks the resources and know-how to protect its presidents from political violence – as Akayev, Bakiyev and Jeenbekov all learned the hard way. Competition between elites remains fierce and seemingly uncontrollable, an alarming fact given that intra-elite rivalry has facilitated previous uprisings. It is in light of this history that Sunday’s low turnout bodes ill, not only for the future course of Sadyr Japarov, but Kyrgyzstan itself.

Update 21 April 2021: the official turnout at Kyrgyzstan's referendum and local elections was updated after final results were reported.

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