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Kyrgyzstan: Back To The Future With President-Elect Sadyr Japarov?

 A supporter of Kyrgyz presidential candidate Sadyr Japarov attends a January 11, 2021 rally on Ala-Too Square in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan.
A supporter of Kyrgyz presidential candidate Sadyr Japarov attends a January 11, 2021 rally on Ala-Too Square in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan.

Following Kyrgyzstan’s January 10 presidential vote and national referendum, Acting President Sadyr Japarov has set yet another fresh course for the Central Asian country – six years of his rule in a republic where power will hinge on the president.

While international observers deemed the vote largely free and fair, Japarov’s heavy domination of the campaign reinforced concerns about whether his preference for a presidential republic could mean the appearance of another regional government subservient to the whims and wishes of one person.

“If Kyrgyzstan is going to live up to the expectations of its people for a functioning democracy,” commented Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Special Coordinator Peter Juel-Jensen at a January 11 press-conference, “full, fair competition on a level playing field is critical.”

The official preliminary results showed that the 52-year-old Japarov, who also serves as prime minister, received slightly over 79 percent of the vote. His closest contender, Adakhan Madumarov, head of the nationalist Butun (United) Kyrgyzstan party, posted a result of just 6.7 percent.

Among the 17 presidential candidates, these two men were the only ones to receive over 5 percent of the vote. Madumarov and fellow candidate Abdil Segizbaev, a former chairman of the National Security Committee, do not recognize the official preliminary results.

The presidency was not Japarov’s only win, according to preliminary official data. In a referendum held jointly with the presidential election, over 81 percent of participating voters approved scrapping Kyrgyzstan’s current parliamentary republic for a presidential republic – a form of government favored by Japarov to protect “the state’s interests.”

The newly elected president expects a constitutional referendum on the necessary changes before June 2021. Fresh parliamentary elections are slotted for after the referendum.

But while these preliminary results might appear a ringing endorsement of Japarov’s pledge to root out corruption, revive the economy, and bring home the country’s army of migrant workers, the vote came with significant snags, some commentators note.

Just 40 percent of the country’s roughly 3.5 million registered voters took part in the presidential vote and referendum -- significantly lower than the 56.2 percent officially recorded for the disputed October 2020 parliamentary vote.

That puts in question how much public support actually exists for Japarov’s goal of transforming Kyrgyzstan into a presidential republic, noted one Kyrgyz political analyst.

“To conduct reforms in Kyrgyzstan, it’s necessary to have more support; in any case, more than 50 percent [of voters] …” political scientist Edil Osmonbetov commented during a January 10 Current Time TV special on Kyrgyzstan's elections.

Yet fellow political analyst Emil Dzhuraev called Japarov’s staggeringly large win a reflection of Kyrgyzstan’s reality. Since coming to power after the 2020 protests, the onetime parliamentary deputy and presidential aide’s success has suggested to many Kyrgyz that justice can triumph over injustice.

Japarov, a former anti-corruption agency official, became prime minister and acting president roughly a week after protesters freed him from prison, where he had been serving an 11 1/2 -year sentence on kidnapping charges since 2017. Japarov insists the charges were politically motivated.

While the war on corruption holds center stage among his campaign promises, considerable speculation persists over the origins of his financial backing. At $805, 427 in Kyrgyz som, Japarov’s campaign accounted for over half of all campaign spending, and received 99 percent of the paid election coverage on Kyrgyz media, according to the OSCE.

Some activists allege that the politician also benefited from the government’s administrative resources. Though Japarov resigned as acting president four days after the campaign’s December 10 start, reports of busing government employees to polling stations, requiring their attendance at Japarov rallies or pressuring them to vote for the acting president -- are widespread.

The independent online news outlet reported that, nationwide, election workers forbade its more than 1,700 observers to take photos in polling stations and sometimes physically ejected them from the sites.

The OSCE mission acknowledged hearing of such irregularities from other sources, but commented on January 11 that there was insufficient proof for many of the allegations. Overall, they could not have impacted the election’s outcome, it found.

Japarov’s dominance also impacted the referendum on his call for a return to a presidential republic – a form of government Kyrgyzstan has not had since 2010, following the ouster of Japarov’s patron, ex-President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

Although Japarov’s opponents lobbied for retaining a parliamentary republic, their presidential campaigns could make little headway against his own message, the OSCE noted.

No organized debate on the topic took place. The referendum simply asked voters to choose between a presidential republic, a parliamentary republic, or to reject both options. No additional information or explanations were provided.

“From a legal point of view, the [referendum’s] question is put very incorrectly,” commented constitutional law expert Saniya Toktogaziyeva. “We could even say ineptly.”

Inadequate analytical reporting by local media further restricted voters’ ability to make an informed decision, according to the OSCE monitors.

Dzhuraev questioned how thoroughly most Kyrgyz grasp the advantages and disadvantages of presidential and parliamentary republics, but cautioned that many do not consider the past decade’s parliamentary republic, which was riddled with corruption scandals, to have been a great success.

“[T]he generalized idea that we need one center of power as embodied in the president’s office was appealing and much clearer for the average voter,” he commented.

The consequences of the return to a presidential republic could be long-lasting.

Drafts for the new constitution have proposed reducing the size of parliament from 120 to 90 members. The amendments also would allow the president to rule by decree if, as is currently the case, Kyrgyzstan is left in limbo between an outgoing and incoming parliament.

A “supreme” advisory body, its members chosen by the president, could further weaken parliament’s political heft, some observers fear.

Defamation could become a criminal offense again, while media that do not espouse “traditional” Kyrgyz values could be deemed "anti-constitutional."

On the streets of Bishkek, however, interviewed voters did not refer to the proposed presidential republic. Some scoffed that the election would hardly change their lives for the better, but several simply emphasized the need for peace and stability.

The October uprising and change of government was the third such revolt since 2005.

By comparison, the calm of the January 10 presidential vote clearly pleased one older woman in a sleek fur hat and coat outside a Bishkek polling station.

“These elections remind me of Soviet times,” she said, referring to the days of one-party rule.
Other Kyrgyz likely hope that, in the years ahead under Japarov, that comparison will extend no further.