Clare Nuttall in Almaty -
Local elections are not usually a big deal in Kyrgyzstan, but as the population prepares to vote on October 5, the country has been engulfed in its greatest political scandal since the 2005 revolution.
When Klara Kabilova, the head of Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Committee, fled the country on September 26, she left behind a recorded statement in which she claimed to have received death threats from the Kyrgyz president's son Maxim Bakiyev. Kabilova, whose whereabouts is currently unknown, said that Maxim Bakiyev had put pressure on her to eliminate opposition candidates from the polls.
"If something like this is happening to somebody at my level, then I can imagine what is happening to simple Kyrgyz citizens," she said in the video, which is being circulated by opposition activists.
Kabilova was known as one of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's closest and most loyal political associates, and speculation about her flight is rife in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, which is plastered with posters from rival candidates. "People in Bishkek are talking about nothing else, it's almost impossible to work here," said one Bishkek-based aid worker. "There's a feeling it's possibly the most significant crisis in Kyrgyzstan since the revolution."
Maxim Bakiyev was questioned by the Prosecutor General's Office on September 30, and denied ever making contact with Kabilova. Damir Lisovsky, who has been appointed acting chief of the Central Election Commission, also disputed Kabilova's account. Lisovsky told reporters in Bishkek that she had already been dismissed by presidential decree, and accused her of unprofessional conduct and mishandling the commission's finances.
However, opponents of the government claim Bakiyev is trying to influence the election results to secure his grip on power in the country, as his rule grows increasingly unpopular.
At the start of the campaigning process, he issued a statement saying the elections should be based on individuals rather than party politics - perhaps because the Ak Zhol label is now seen as a hindrance rather than a help. Even so, candidates loyal to Ak Zhol are expected to take the majority of the 491 local government seats being contested.
Having a following in local government will, Bakiyev hopes, help his regime to survive the winter, in the face of growing discontent among the population as their standard of living deteriorates. Soaring food prices and power cuts, which were endurable in summer, will really start to bite once the cold weather arrives. "A major energy crisis, triggered by domestic factors, not world prices, is looming. Government handling of these issues has not been impressive," warns a report from Crisis Group. "Even more disturbing for the regime, perhaps, is growing speculation within society that it is not just mishandling the economy, but that corrupt members of the Bakiyev administration themselves contributed to the energy crisis."
"The current leadership's problems are greater than they appear on first sight", says Paul Quinn-Judge, Crisis Group's Central Asia project director. "Signs of dissension inside the ruling group could encourage its opponents, while disunity could prove even more problematic if the regime is confronted with the need to crush unrest."
For the most part, little has been done to tackle the roots of Kyrgyzstan's problems. Instead, Bakiyev and his government have concentrated on seeking international help for the country. Relations between Kyrgyzstan - once considered a beacon of democracy in Central Asia - and the West have cooled lately, as Bishkek has moved closer to Moscow. This is set to continue at the CIS meeting of heads of state, which will take place in Bishkek on October 9 and 10.
While Bakiyev himself appears to be in denial about the scale of the socio-economic crisis facing the Kyrgyz population, others including presidential advisers are concerned that pent-up popular anger might erupt into violence. The local elections are not in themselves significant, but Kulibeva's allegations are likely to increase popular dissatisfaction.
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