Sunday’s presidential election in Kyrgyzstan serves as a reminder that constitutional engineering can only go so far in furthering democracy. To inoculate Kyrgyzstan against the kinds of hyper-presidential regimes found in neighboring countries in Central Asia—and in Kyrgyzstan itself under President Kurmanbek Bakiev (2005-2010)—the Constitution of 2010 transferred broad powers to the parliament and limited the president to a single six-year term. The first president directly elected under these new arrangements, Almazbek Atambaev, has in recent weeks congratulated himself on adhering to the provisions of the Constitution, boasting that he had the political support to change the rules on term limits if he had wanted. However, the legacy of President Atambaev will be tarnished by his insistence on forcing on the country a successor whose election in the first round could not have occurred without the massive mobilization of the state apparatus and without Atambaev’s own campaign of innuendo and half-truths about the leading candidate of the opposition.
Preliminary results from 99 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s precincts show that Atambaev’s hand-picked successor, Sooronbai Zheenbekov, received almost 55 percent of the vote, while the main opposition candidate, Omurbek Babanov, captured just under 34 percent of the vote. Of the remaining 9 contenders in the race, some of whom were heavyweights in Kyrgyzstani politics, no one received over 6.5 percent of the vote. Almost three-quarters of one percent of the electorate chose the “vote against all” option on the ballot.
When Sooronbai Zheenbekov emerged in the late spring as Atambaev’s pick to represent the President’s party—the Social Democrats—in the presidential election in October, he seemed in many respects an unlikely figure to contest the presidency. Although he served as Kyrgyzstan’s prime minister from the spring of 2016 to the summer of 2017, he had not previously been in the leading rank of Kyrgyzstani politicians. A 58-year old official from the southern city of Osh whose wooden manner betrayed an early stint in the Communist Party apparatus, Zheenbekov’s energy level and demeanor contrasted sharply with the higher-octane favorite in the field, Omurbek Babanov, the charismatic 47-year old former prime minister and leader of the Republican Party. Where Zheenbekov had the support of the President and the machinery of state, Babanov was able to tap into his vast personal wealth to run an efficient, modern campaign that smothered the country’s physical and virtual space with the candidate’s image and, in the final days before balloting, sent individually addressed letters to voters.
In a country where regional and kinship ties can turn elections, Zheenbekov enjoyed a structural advantage over Babanov. He hailed from the largest region in the country, the southern province of Osh, whereas Babanov’s home was in the northern territory of Talas, Kyrgyzstan’s smallest region, one-fifth the size of Osh. Not surprisingly, it was in these two regions where voter turnout was highest. Whereas the national turnout approached 56 percent—the lowest on record for a presidential election, and well below the 61 percent participation rate in the previous presidential contest—over 68 and 61 percent of the voters turned out in the Osh and Talas regions, respectively. In a development that will surely raise doubts in the Babanov camp about the fairness of the count, the turnout rate in Talas declined by more than 20 percent compared to the 2011 presidential contest, while the participation rate in the Osh region increased by more than 15 percent. Given the very large numbers of migrant workers from the traditionally poorer southern regions who work in Russia and neighboring Kazakhstan, a turnout rate approaching 70 percent in the Osh region is unusually high.
Whatever the role of regionalism in voter behavior, that factor alone is unable to explain the success of Zheenbekov in Sunday’s election. For one, although individuals may come from a particular district or region, they surround themselves with political allies who are broadly dispersed across the country. In the case of Babanov, not only has his party traditionally enjoyed deep support in both the North and the South, but he concluded a pact less than three weeks before the election with a prominent candidate from the Jalal-Abad region in the South, Bakyt Torobaev, the leader of a parliamentary faction. The two men entered into a “tandem” that called for Babanov to appoint Torobaev prime minister if he won the presidency.
The Babanov-Torobaev “tandem” was but one of a number of pacts concluded in recent months that led to the withdrawal from the presidential race of prominent contenders for the presidency. This winnowing of the field through behind-the-scenes deal-making has become a standard feature of presidential races in Kyrgyzstan, and in this case it may well have helped Zheenbekov to win the contest in the first round. A larger field of veteran politicians, each with his or her own geographic and kinship networks, would have made it far more difficult for President Atambaev’s hand-picked successor to have achieved a first-round majority. As in previous contests, disqualifications based on the selective prosecution of prospective candidates and alleged violations of registration technicalities also narrowed the field of candidates considerably.
Assuming that the vote totals are accurate—and one official protocol from a southern precinct showing all 1369 votes for Zheenbekov raises serious doubts about that premise—the most compelling explanations for Zheenbekov’s first-round victory appear to lie in the campaign itself. State officials sympathetic to President Atambaev pursued a range of initiatives designed to tilt the scales in favor of Zheenbekov, from threats against government workers if they didn’t vote for Zheenbekov to en masse voting by teachers and university students, organized by the heads of state-related schools and higher education institutions. In a trip to the Batken region in the country’s South, a deputy prime minister in charge of overseeing the election was caught on tape telling local government personnel to vote for Zheenbekov or else. You mustn’t spit in the well you drink from, he warned them. For their part, leaders of the police and security services sought to convince the public that Babanov or those in his entourage were plotting to engage in violence to steal the election, accusations contained in leaked information from what should have been confidential interrogations. On election eve and election day, in several locations around the country the police brought in for questioning members of Babanov’s campaign team, which in some cases kept them from their duties as precinct observers.
In what may have been the most damaging blow to Babanov’s prospects, the Central Election Commission (CEC) heard a complaint in the final days of the campaign about a speech Babanov had given in the South to a group of Kyrgyzstani citizens of Uzbek ethnicity. The CEC concluded that Babanov’s comments violated campaign rules by “stirring up inter-ethnic enmity.” His offense: he told the ethnic Uzbeks that under his presidency, “if a policeman messes with (tronet) Uzbeks, he will be fired.” Although this complaint resulted in CEC’s third warning to Babanov, which could have disqualified him, it was the broad dissemination of portions of the speech, not just by the CEC but the Procuracy, which may well have undermined Babanov’s electoral prospects. In this case, President Atambaev’s team was engaging in what are called “dog whistles” in the United States, that is coded messages directed at nationalist voters among the ethnic Kyrgyz who have no interest in the state assuring equal treatment for ethnic Uzbeks.
President Atambaev and his political allies also exploited a meeting of Babanov with President Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan to raise further questions about the candidate’s loyalty to the Kyrgyz nation. In a stunning reaction to the unexpected meeting of Nazarbaev and Babanov in Kazakhstan, Atambaev launched the harshest attack ever directed against a neighboring president by a Kyrgyzstani leader. The tirade enjoyed considerable popularity on social media in Kazakhstan, a country that is not used to seeing its long-serving leader subjected to criticism.
We started this post by observing that a country’s institutional design is not a sufficient condition for democracy. Without leaders who are willing to lose and state officials who are willing to apply the laws dispassionately, elections will not ensure the accountability of a government to its people. But if there is a modicum of hope to be taken from Sunday’s presidential election in Kyrgyzstan, it is that the stakes of this election for the nation were not as high as in some earlier contests. The paring of the powers of the presidency—accomplished through the 2010 Constitution and amendments pushed through by Atambaev last year—mean that the prime minister’s office may at last emerge as the core executive institution in Kyrgyzstan’s peculiar and ever-changing form of semi-presidentialism. Other elements of the country’s institutional design encourage a multi-party system and coalition governments, which tend to create the kind of messy and inefficient governance that works against the consolidation of power in the hands of a single individual.
To what extent the departing president will remain in the political game as a force behind Zheenbekov and the prime minister will become clear when Atambaev leaves the presidency in December. When Zheenbekov resigned the post of premier to run for the presidency two months ago, Atambaev installed his 40-year old former chief-of-staff, Sapar Isakov, as the new prime minister, and Isakov then surrounded himself with youthful technocrats rather than politicians. This combination of a less than forceful President-Elect and an inexperienced prime minister would seem to prepare the ground for the continued involvement of ex-President Almazbek Atambaev at the apex of Kyrgyzstani politics.