By Chris Rickleton
Kyrgyzstan, the closest thing Central Asia has to a working democracy, just held municipal elections. The results are generating tension within the national governing coalition, fueling complaints that new voices are being stifled and causing some observers to raise the specter of a possible repeat of recent history.
Voters in five key municipalities in Kyrgyzstan – Bishkek, Batken, Jalal-Abad, Naryn and Talas – cast ballots November 25 to select new city councils, which choose mayors and make decisions on municipal spending.
President Almazbek Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party (SDPK) claimed seats on all five city councils, and registered a clear victory in strategically important Bishkek. It is unsurprising, then, that the SDPK’s rivals are crying foul about the alleged use of “administrative resources” – underhanded techniques designed to inflate the vote count on behalf of incumbent authorities and to quash political rivals.
The chief executive’s ability in Kyrgyzstan to manipulate the system to preserve his (or her) authority is far more limited today than it was in the past, thanks to the 2010 Constitution, which shifted considerable powers to parliament. Even so, the president wields considerable influence over the justice and national security apparatus via his ability to appoint the prosecutor general, the head of the Interior Ministry and the head of the secret police. Moreover, in September, Atambayev appointed an old ally from the SDPK as premier.
Some presidential critics, citing the municipal elections, say that Atambayev is abusing his authority to give the SDPK a boost. One of those critics, Omurbek Suvanaliyev – a candidate for Bishkek mayor from the Ar-Namys Party, who did not win a seat on the council – alleged that the local votes were rigged. Whenever “one party – the SDPK – effectively controls all branches of government,” elections are unlikely to be clean, he told EurasiaNet.org.
On November 27, the head of Suvanaliyev’s party, MP Felix Kulov, accused officials in the Bishkek Mayor’s Office of orchestrating irregularities to protect the SDPK’s Isa Omurkulov, the incumbent mayor, and to prevent other parties from clearing the 7 percent threshold required to take seats. Kulov subsequently quit as the ceremonial head of parliament’s ruling coalition, casting the future of the three-month-old cabinet into doubt.
Meanwhile, hopes that new faces could enter the municipal fray were squashed this summer, when parliament passed legislation prohibiting new parties from contesting the local elections. “In order to preserve their power, the major stakeholders are blocking new players from entering the political arena,” Cholpon Jakupova, a regular political commentator and director of the legal clinic Adilet, told EurasiaNet.org.
Prosecutors employed other means to weed out Atambayev’s rivals. One familiar face forbidden from competing in the Bishkek municipal contest was the capital’s former mayor, Nariman Tyuleyev, a member of the nationalist opposition party Ata-Jurt and a long-time Atambayev rival. Charged in June with corruption during his tenure as mayor back in 2008, Tyuleyev was due to be transferred to house arrest on November 15. But a city court ruled to prolong his detention, a move that Atambayev’s detractors interpreted as evidence of his influence over the judiciary. They say Atambayev is simply rounding up critics, rather than engaging in a concerted effort to root out corruption. Tyuleyev claims the charges against him were politically motivated.
Opposition parties are “subjected to pressure” under the current leadership, just as they were under past presidents, says Marat Kazakpayev, an analyst at the Bishkek-based think tank Polis-Asia. Kazakpayev says that the November 25 vote, in which the SDPK topped the ballot in Bishkek and Naryn, but did not win three other city councils, was cleaner than it would have been under former presidents Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev. But Kazakpayev asserted that Atambayev would have done more to massage the results had he possessed sufficient resources.
“Under the current system, the president and his party face limits, and that is a good thing,” Kazakpayev told EurasiaNet.org. “We have now what we have always had: The president trying to extend his personal power.”
Tensions appear set to rise in Bishkek. Respublika, a party headed by Atambayev’s protégé-turned-rival Omurbek Babanov, has complained of “numerous violations” in the balloting. Respublika’s criticism is significant, given that it was the only other party apart from the SDPK to gain seats in all five city councils. Also significant is the fact that Respublika is currently under investigation by the Prosecutor General’s Office for voter fraud. The investigation is based on a film that depicted a Respublika member training “carousel voters” on how to cast multiple ballots. Respublika representatives claim the film is a setup designed to discredit the party.
Surrounded by legitimacy concerns and sore losers ever since he won the presidency in late 2011, Atambayev’s best option, independent analysts say, would be to pursue a conciliatory political course. But Kyrgyzstan’s winner-takes-all political culture makes that unlikely, says Suvanaliyev, Ar-Namys’ candidate for mayor. “The president and his party are making the exact same mistakes as Akayev and Bakiyev before them. They simply never learn,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist.