By David Trilling
On a macro level, Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election marks a historic break with the past. But up close, the results might be described as ‘same-old, same-old.’
Almazbek Atambayev, previously Kyrgyzstan’s prime minister, claimed victory in the October 30 vote. His pending assumption of the presidency will be the first time in Central Asia’s post-Soviet history that change at the pinnacle of political power is occurring via the ballot box. Unfortunately, Atambayev is likely to face a legitimacy crisis arising out of election irregularities — a hang-up that has marred every presidential election in Central Asia for the past two decades. The hotbed of election-related discontent is southern Kyrgyzstan. Atambayev’s two top rivals, both southerners, allege the results were rigged and are demanding a new election. By the afternoon of October 31, their supporters were protesting in southern cities, where some shop owners, fearing a repeat of last year’s ethnic violence, stayed closed.
Preliminary results from the Central Elections Commission, with 99.78 percent of votes counted, gave Atambayev just over 63 percent of the vote. His nearest rivals – nationalists Adahan Madumarov and Kamchybek Tashiev – received approximately 15 percent each. As many predicted, voting patterns broke down along regional lines, with Atambayev drawing his strongest support in the Russified north, and Madumarov and Tashiev splitting the southern vote. Atambayev, who enjoys Moscow’s backing, also appealed to members of southern minority groups, including Uzbeks. By clearing the 50-percent threshold, Atambayev avoided having to enter into a run-off against the next highest vote-getter. Turnout was modest at 60 percent of eligible voters.
Although it praised the election process as peaceful, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s election monitoring mission found “significant irregularities on election day.” A “considerable number of voters” were absent from the lists, the OSCE said in a statement, noting cases of ballot stuffing and people voting multiple times.
Allegations that candidates abused their offices to affect the vote plagued the campaign and election day. But at a news conference, OSCE officials did not reject the results, perhaps out of a desire to avoid stoking tension.
Madumarov slammed the appraisal, accusing the OSCE of “lying.” “Instead of working, you stay in Bishkek and drink coffee and then say how brilliantly elections were held,” he said, in comments carried by local news agencies.
By afternoon on October 31, small groups of protestors in the southern towns of Jalal-Abad and Osh were demanding a do-over election. Outside of Jalal-Abad, news agencies reported, 200 protestors blocked the main highway connecting the south with Bishkek, some 575 kilometers away. In Osh, approximately 50 Tashiev supporters gathered late in the afternoon and promised to keep rallying until Atambayev consented to fresh elections. Some, without apparent evidence, complained that minority Uzbeks somehow influenced the outcome. Osh was the epicenter of ethnic violence last year between ethnic Kyrgyz and the minority, which left over 400 dead.
“Atambayev paid people off and they [authorities] counted every Uzbek vote twice,” charged teacher Daria Shabdanova, 43, who said she worked for Taza Shailoo (“Clean Elections”), an observer mission that had certified the elections as relatively fair and transparent.
Compounding the disappointment of supporters of Madumarov and Tashiev was a widespread perception that Atambayev’s election would raise tension levels in the south. “Tashiev wants to stop the violence while Atambayev only wants to make it worse,” said Gulbubu Jamilova, 40, who used a pejorative term to describe Uzbeks.
In Bishkek, a monitor for Tashiev, Anara Kasmalieva, said she had seen no violations during the vote, but contended that “administrative resources played a big role” in the campaign. People working and studying at state-run organizations “were openly told to vote for Atambayev,” said the 47-year-old physical education teacher. Nevertheless, she suspected Atambayev would have won in a clean election. “The older generation supports Atambayev and that’s a majority.”
While some Bishkek-based political observers were concerned by reports from the south, others categorized the complaints, as well as the demonstrations, as simple negotiating tactics. Atambayev’s margin of victory and the onset of cold weather should keep protests small, said Fredrik Sjoberg, a visiting research scholar at New York University who has written extensively on Kyrgyz elections.
“It’s in the interest of Tashiev and Madumarov to create commotion, but also to make sure they don’t overplay their hand. I don’t think they ever hoped to win against Atambayev. For Atambayev it’s now a question of what he can give two strong southern actors to keep them in line. We will definitely see some interesting negotiations in the coming days,” Sjoberg said, speaking by phone from Osh. “Atambayev can’t rule only with the support of Uzbeks in the south, clearly, and he knows that.”
Under the 2010 constitution, which was written after Kurmanbek Bakiyev was overthrown in a bloody uprising that April, Kyrgyzstan’s president is elected to a six-year term, without the right to run again. The president manages foreign policy and security, appointing the defense minister and head of the national security committee. When a single party does not hold an absolute majority in parliament, the president also appoints the prime minister.
Given the current political alignment, many experts in Bishkek expect Atambayev to appoint Tashiev as prime minister. Meanwhile, Atambayev has hinted Madumarov could be governor of Batken, the poorest and most isolated province in Kyrgyzstan.
During the campaign, Tashiev and Madumarov had said they would restore powers to the president, which were diluted in the new constitution. Atambayev is seen as more likely to uphold the new “mixed” parliamentary-presidential system.
He may not have a choice.
“The new constitution has not been tested,” said Sjoberg. “I think Atambayev will try to interpret the constitution in his favor, but he will have to fight that out with parliament. So I think this mixed presidential-parliamentary system is here to say.”
David Trilling is EurasiaNet’s Central Asia editor. Nicolas Tanner contributed reporting from Osh.