Bakiyev expected to retain presidency in Kyrgyzstan elections

By bne IntelliNews July 23, 2009

Clare Nuttall in Almaty -

Kyrgyzstan's presidential elections on Thursday, July 22 are expected to return sitting President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to office. His popularity has grown recently as the economy has stabilised and he has pulled off diplomatic successes with Russia and the US, while the opposition candidates have failed to capture popular support.

In the last 12 months, Bakiyev has survived the toughest tests of his four-year-old presidency. Anti-crisis measures have put the economy back on track, with Kyrgyzstan achieving small but positive GDP growth (0.3% according to the national statistics office) in the first half of 2009. More importantly, he has played off Russia and the US, taking advantage of their desire for a military foothold in the geo-strategically important country to secure financial commitments from both.

In February, Bakiyev announced that Kyrgyzstan would receive a $2bn loan from Russia, and a further $150m in non-repayable aid. Moscow and Bishkek also signed an agreement to work together on the construction of the Kambarata hydropower plant. Almost simultaneously, plans to close the Manas military airbase, which is used to support US and coalition forces in Afghanistan, were announced. However, in late June the Kyrgyz government announced that Manas would be staying open. The US had agreed to more than triple the rent it pays to use the base, as well as promising to increase its cooperation with Kyrgyzstan.

His campaign has focused mainly on the economic progress during this presidency. He has also sought to highlight the importance of stability, and recent efforts to fight terrorist groups in southern Kyrgyzstan have been widely reported.

Bakiyev also has benefited from his opponents' failure to make political capital out of the problems Kyrgyzstan still faces, in particular corruption. (Kyrgyzstan is ranked 166th out of 180 states on Transparency International's corruption perception index, although there have been improvements lately.) In a bid to unseat the president, the main opposition parties selected a single candidate, Social Democratic Party leader and former PM Almazbek Atambayev. However, he and the other opposition candidates are not expected to gain a large share of the vote.

Different times

The situation today is very different from that in late 2008, when Kyrgyzstan was struggling to handle the effects of the crisis as its main trading partners - Russia and Kazakhstan - saw their economies slow. Heat and electricity supplies were frequently cut off in much of the country. The population was also discontented with Bakiyev's rule, which had become increasingly authoritarian.

There were serious concerns that the local elections in October 2008 could be followed by violent protests similar to those in the March 2005 Tulip Revolution, which ended former president Askar Akayev's rule and brought Bakiyev to office.

Now, as Kyrgyzstan's electorate prepare to go to the polls, a violent reaction to the result seems less likely. One election observer stationed in Bishkek, said the mood in the city was calm. "We are hopeful that the elections will be carried out peacefully," he told bne.

The Kyrgyz government has also sought to ensure peace is preserved. Speaking to Radmila Sekerinska, who is heading the OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) mission in Kyrgyzstan, Bakiyev said preparations were in place. "Organizational flaws detected during preparations for the election have been dealt with. I am certain the elections will be held in a calm atmosphere," Interfax quotes the president as saying. He added a warning that, "Any attempts to stage riots will be clamped down on within the law, we will not allow any destabilization in the country."

An interim report from the OSCE notes that there have been some complaints made by opposition candidates during the campaign process. It also reports that television broadcasts have focused on Bakiyev. "Media regularly failed to distinguish between Mr Bakiev's role as candidate and as President, even on occasions that were clearly campaign events," adds the report. Local NGOs also say that government employees are being put under pressure to support Bakiyev, and there have been a number of attacks on independent journalists in the run-up to the election.

Opposition leaders have criticised the way the election process is being conducted, with Atambayev already saying the result will be illegitimate. "No aspect of the Central Election Commission, government or local authorities' work goes without violations of the election process," his campaign manager Bakyt Beshimov told a press conference on July 21. "Voters' lists are inaccurate, regional and district election commission were formed inconsistently and the candidates are in inequitable positions."

However, barring a violent reaction against the expected Bakiyev win - which seems less likely now that conditions have improved - he seems set to retain his post and serve another term in power.

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