Race heats up for upcoming presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan

CIHANGIR YILDIRIM
ISTANBUL
Published 04.10.2017 19:37

Kyrgyzstanhopes to become the first Central Asian republic to transfer power between individuals peacefully and will head to the polls and elect Atambayev's successor on Oct. 15

Under the Kyrgyz constitution, a president can only serve one six-year term, so incumbent President Almazbek Atambayev, who won in the first round of voting in October 2011 with 63 percent of the vote, is constitutionally barred from seeking a second term. The former Soviet republic has some 3 million registered voters, but officially more than 600,000 are outside the country, working mainly in Russia. According to observers, most of these will not cast ballots.

In order to appear on the ballot each prospective candidate must collect at least 30,000 signatures of support from voters, pay a 1 million som (about $ 14,595) deposit and pass a Kyrgyz language test demonstrating above-average proficiency in the language.

As of Aug. 1, there were 59 candidates with 11 from political parties and 48 independents saying they would run for president. On Sept. 10, Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission announced there are 13 officially registered candidates for the presidential election. There are now 11 candidates left in the presidential race and there will probably be even fewer by Oct. 15, when the election is held. The list will be finalized by Oct. 12. On Sept. 10, election campaigning kicked off in the Muslim-majority republic, which will hold its presidential election on Oct. 15.

Observers would likely point to Sooronbaj Jeenbekov and Omurbek Babanov as the top candidates campaigning for a six-year term. Temir Sariev from the Ak-Shumkar (White Falcon) party and Bakyt Torobayev from the Onuguu-Progress party have less chances than other weaker candidates.

Jeenbekov, 58, recently resigned from his post as prime minister, which he has held since April 2016, in order to run for the presidency. Jeenbekov is running for the ruling Social Democratic Party affiliated with outgoing Atambayev, and is likely to benefit from its considerable influence over the state machine. Incumbent Atambayev also commented that he hoped Jeenbekov would carry on in his footsteps, finishing what he has begun.

Babanov, 47, Jeenbekov's, main rival is the leader of the Ata-Jurt/Respublika (Fatherland/Republic) opposition coalition and a former oil trader and reportedly one of the country's richest men who is promising reforms. Babanov served as prime minister from December 2011 to September 2012, during the first year of Atambayev's presidency.

Daily Sabah spoke to Alisher Khamidov, a writer based in Bishkek, regarding the oncoming presidential campaigns.

About the candidates' chances in the presidential election, Khamidov said both the two main favorite candidates have high chances of winning. "Both Omurbek Babanov and Sooronbai Jeenbekov have high chances of winning the vote. Babanov is young, dashing, and extremely wealthy. He is popular with urban dwellers, youth, and women who make up a sizable voting bloc. Jeenbekov, who is a representative of an older, Soviet-era generation, is popular with rural and older voters. What makes the two different is that Babanov is extremely eager to win the vote. Meanwhile, Jeenbekov appears to be rather reluctant and is being pushed by President Atambayev to run for president. The talk of the town in Bishkek is that Jeenbekov is Atambayev's frontman, and that Atambayev wants to continue to run the country through Jeenbekov after stepping down from the presidency. In this sense, some Bishkek-based observers are drawing parallels with Georgia whereby former President Ivanishvili continues to wield strong influence on the government even after he stepped down from power," he said.

Mentioning the possible changes in the post-Atambaev era, Khamdiov said a lot is at stake for Atambayev and his inner circle. "The election will have serious implications for the political economy of the country. If Babanov wins, many wealthy elites who gained power and wealth under Atambayev stand to lose their jobs and their sources of revenue. There are fears that Babanov's business conglomerate will swallow up the lucrative segments of the Kyrgyz economy. These fears are pushing these wealthy and influential elites to throw all their influence behind the candidacy of Jeenbekov. In sum, Babanov stands for drastic changes, particularly in the economic sphere. Jeenbekov is a status quo candidate," Khamidov said.

He touched on foreign states' role in the Kyrgyz presidential election, saying neighboring countries are following the election process "nervously."

"Kyrgyzstan's neighbors, particularly Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, are nervously watching the developments in Kyrgyzstan. There are fears that the standoff between a wealthy oligarch and a government-backed candidate can quickly get out of control and erupt into massive popular protests, which already occurred in Kyrgyzstan in 2010. There are also concerns, particularly in Uzbekistan, that the political standoff may have adverse impacts on ethnic Uzbeks who make up approximately 800,000 of Kyrgyzstan's 6 million population. Ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan are growing extremely concerned over the growing confrontation between Babanov and Jeenbekov. Uzbek community leaders usually back pro-government candidates [in this case Jeenbekov], but they are afraid that if Babanov secures a victory, he might punish them for disloyalty. Thus, they are in a quandary."

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