Now that Kyrgyzstan’s ruling party candidate Sooronbai Jeenbekov has his presidential election win safely in the bag, the pair who posed the biggest obstacle to his victory are finding their parliamentary power bases under siege.
The alliance struck between business magnate Omurbek Babanov and southern political heavyweight Bakyt Torobayev was thought to be the former’s best chance of taking the October 15 vote to a second round.
In the end, the deal, which saw Torobayev withdraw from the presidential race in exchange for a pledge from Babanov that he would become the next prime minister, failed to do the job.
Jeenbekov scored twice as many votes as Babanov in the Jalal-Abad region where Torobayev was born and where his Onuguu-Progress faction beat the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, or SDPK, in municipal elections earlier this year.
Jeenbekov, a loyal ally of outgoing President Almazbek Atambayev, secured over 54 percent of the national vote. Babanov, who was bashed relentlessly by pro-government media and heavily leaned on by the state security apparatus, garnered just over one-third of the ballots cast.
The result further extends the dominance of the SDPK, a party that Atambayev has de facto led for more than 18 years.
But Babanov and Torobayev’s so-called tandem could still prove a thorn in the side of the executive if they are able to keep their forces aligned in parliament. And that makes mumblings about apparent mutinies in both men’s parties all the more pertinent.
On October 26, three out of 13 Onuguu-Progress members of parliament were expelled from the party in an internal vote that followed press reports of a leadership challenge earlier in the week. Those MPs will now sit as independents, presumably opposing Torobayev’s every move.
Another set of media reports on October 25, carried by both pro-government and independent outlets, relayed unsourced rumors of an upcoming challenge against Babanov from within the ranks of his Respublika/Ata-Jurt faction. This showdown may be spearheaded by Interior Minister-turned-MP Zarylbek Rysaliyev.
The chatter about Rysaliyev may yet prove to be media pot-stirring. But if they are more than that, it would not be the first time Babanov’s support base in parliament has wilted at a difficult time.
In the previous — more lively — convocation of the Kyrgyz parliament (2010-15) Babanov’s group saw a number of desertions after he was forced out as prime minister amid tensions with Atambayev.
At least two of the turncoats later cropped up as prominent members in a newly minted and unimaginatively named party called simply Kyrgyzstan. The party surprised many by bagging a healthy crop of seats in the 2015 parliamentary elections. The Kyrgyzstan party, which always looked like a government-approved stalking horse, has been a loyal coalition partner for SDPK ever since.
But why would have Babanov’s allies have been so quick to turn on him? For possible answers, consider the fortunes of two wealthy and fickle Babanov ally MPs — Kanat Isayev and Sharshenbek Abdykerimov — whose defection came on the heels of reports that the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, was sniffing menacingly around their business activities.
Babanov, who was still premier at the time, clearly understood the implications of all this and tried to set up an anti-graft unit independent of the GKNB, which has traditionally served the interests of the president’s office. Before Babanov could get too far, however, he was forced out of office amid allegations of graft.
From there onward, none of the five other premiers that served under Atambayev would ever benefit from the same degree of autonomy enjoyed by Babanov. Parliament itself became a far less boisterous place, shorn of a cohesive, meaningful opposition and operating at the mercy of politicized anti-corruption investigations that almost never affected the ruling party.
The GKNB also placed its thumb on the scales during the presidential election. First, they arrested Isayev, the tergiversating MP who had by this time once again realigned with Babanov, on charges of plotting unrest. More ominously, it launched an investigation into remarks made on the campaign trail by Babanov in a mainly ethnic Uzbek neighborhood in the southern city of Osh on September 28. The GKNB noted in a supposed textual analysis of the speech that Babanov was inciting inter-ethnic discord, although transcripts of the address betrayed no such obvious intention.
Babanov spokesman Mirsuljan Namazaliyev said at the time that GKNB statements about their campaign were “worse than tabloid press”.
Speaking of gutter press, privately owned government mouthpiece Vecherny Bishkek has been decidedly gleeful about the difficulties facing Torobayev in parliament since the election.
“The miscalculations of the young, high-profile politician Bakyt Torobayev have left him facing something of a shipwreck. He could yet completely lose control over developments in his Onuguu-Progress faction in parliament,” the newspaper crowed. “Events have taken such a turn that almost nothing seems to depend on Torobayev himself. Irreversible processes have been put into motion that endanger not just the great ambitions of Babanov’s would-be prime minister, but his very political career too.”
In other news, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has a new speaker-elect. SDPK deputy Chynybai Tursunbekov, who many members of the ruling party championed as an alternative nominee to Jeenbekov, resigned on October 25 for reasons that are not fully clear. He has been replaced by Dastan Jumabekov, an MP from the Kyrgyzstan party.