The Social Democratic Party (SDP) candidate, Sooranbai Jeenbekov secured 54.3% of the vote in the October 15 presidential election in Kyrgyzstan, making him the outright winner of the election with no need for a second round. His victory was confirmed after an announcement from his popular opponent Omurbek Babanov who accepted the official results of the election despite misgivings.
A precedent for political stability
“Elections were held, one candidate got more votes than anyone else and that means he won,” Babanov said at his campaign headquarters, urging his supporters “not to succumb to provocations” and to “unite under” the new president “regardless of whom they supported.”
“Kyrgyzstan has demonstrated a generally positive example for holding competitive elections and a peaceful transfer of power,” Azay Guliyev, leader of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) election observation mission, which had deployed 40 international observers, said in a statement October 16.
For some experts, the election primarily represented a test of Kyrgyzstan’s ability to hold another election focused around transferring power from one president to another without the ex-Soviet country sinking into a third revolution, following the uprisings of 2005 and 2010, in which the nation toppled the autocratic governments of Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev, respectively. The election is seen as proving that the country will not move on to a road that will lead to a failed state.
Regardless of his encouragement for the peaceful transfer of power, Babanov nevertheless had his doubts about the fairness of the election and so did the OSCE.
"State television channels were used to pour dirt on us. There was a black PR [campaign] against us. Our campaign activists were abused; they did not know whom to turn to as law enforcement was also one-sided," Babanov said.
The OSCE also noted in its October 16 report that the election featured “cases of the misuse of public resources, pressure on voters and vote buying [which] remain a concern”.
Babanov won only 33.4% of the vote, the results showed. Such an outcome was in contrast to widespread expectations that neither Jeenbekov nor Babanov would break the 40% threshold required to win the election within the first round, something which would have led to a guaranteed a victory for Babanov in a second round. At the same time, a win in the first round of the elections was seen as the only chance Jeenbekov had of victory.
The authorities led by an SDP-controlled majority coalition in parliament as well as current Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev, who is also an SDP member, led a dramatic campaign to discredit Babanov in a bid to get Jeenbekov elected in the first round. The Central Election Commission issued three consecutive warnings that Babanov could be removed from the ballot for alleged violations by his campaign; Kyrgyzstan’s state security service (GKNB) detained Babanov’s ally, Kanatbek Isayev, ahead of the election for allegedly planning riots and a violent coup; and the authorities cited Babanov’s meeting with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev as evidence of Kazakhstan’s “meddling” in Kyrgyz elections, possibly implying that Babanov would rule as a foreign puppet if victorious. Election day itself was filled with negative PR and arrests, which, if amounting to substantial voter repression, might have impacted the outcome of the vote.
Atambayev’s “shadow rule” and beginnings of a dominant-party system
Jeenbekov, who received public backing from Atambayev, is seen by some as Atambayev’s stooge in the president's bid to continue ruling from the shadows.
“[Atambayev’s] endgame - his vision - is to become someone akin to a mix of Deng Xiaoping and [Georgia’s] Bidzina Ivanishvili, or Moldova's Vladimir Plahotniuc,” Kyrgyz political activist Edil Baisalov told bne IntelliNews in November 2016. “In other words, he wants to lurk in the shadows, but maintain control over the entire situation, whether it be politics, business or law enforcement - a shadow king of sorts. That way he will retain his power and influence, but officially he won’t have any power.”
Atambayev managed to push for a referendum in December 2016 which weakened the presidency in favour of the prime minister. Having his loyal SDP party control the parliamentary majority and, therefore, having the power to appoint the prime minister, and, now, having successfully got the SDP candidate elected, Atambayev might end up having sufficient leverage over Kyrgyz politics beyond his presidency. This need for sustained influence could lead to a further consolidation of power under the SDP, which has already helped suppress certain forms of dissent thanks to recently set restrictions on the freedom of assembly, the copying of Russia’s “foreign agent” law, the banning of foreign media ownership and the blocking of “extremist” websites.
If cemented further, SDP’s power as a dominant party could weaken Kyrgyzstan’s multi-party system by imposing more regulations on freedom of speech and, thus, securing future victories for the party. That would eventually lead to a situation mirroring the environment in Russia where “United Russia” is the dominant party. Babanov’s victory could have at least partially disrupted the emerging one-party framework. But now it will be up to future elections to challenge the SDP’s rule before its power can grow out of proportion.
Once called an “island of democracy”, the landlocked post-Soviet state has stirred fears that it is straying from its democratic path, leading Freedom House’s Nations in Transit 2017 report to classify the country as a consolidated authoritarian regime.
The European Union on October 9 gave a mandate to the European Commission and its foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to negotiate a new political deal between the bloc and Kyrgyzstan after the election is over and done with. The new Brussels-Bishkek "partnership" is to be based on Kyrgyzstan's "commitment to undertake reforms to strengthen democracy, fundamental freedoms, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, and to promote sustainable economic development.”
“National legislation on media freedoms appeared to be at odds with international commitments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ,” said Laima Andrikienė, Head of the European Parliament delegation under the OSCE observation mission. “This issue has to be addressed, both within the framework of standing EU trade preferences, and in order to move forward quickly with the negotiations of a new and ambitious EU-Kyrgyzstan agreement.”
Kyrgyzstan's democratic experiment does not end with the October 15 presidential vote. The next parliamentary election scheduled for 2020 is likely to be just as important to the country’s democratic future, if not more so.