Kyrgyzstan voters will head to the polls and elect President Almazbek Atambayev's successor on Sunday in an election battle that will be fought between a protégé of the outgoing president and an opposition leader, testing the stability in the country.
As President Atambayev's term comes to an end he is backing Sooronbai Jeenbekov as his successor. Jeenbekov faces strong opposition from Omurbek Babanov, who heads Kyrgyzstan's biggest opposition party, Respublika-Ata Zhurt (Fatherland).
The most likely outcome is that neither Babanov nor Jeenbekov will win the majority of votes, leading to a second round run-off, according to a survey conducted by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute.
Jeenbekov, 58, recently resigned from his post as prime minister, which he had held since April 2016, in order to run for the presidency. Jeenbekov is running for the ruling Social Democratic Party (SDP), which is affiliated with the outgoing president, and is likely to benefit from its considerable influence over the state machine. Incumbent Atambayev also commented that he hopes Jeenbekov will carry on in his footsteps, finishing what he has begun.
Babanov, 47, the leader of the Ata-Jurt/Respublika (Fatherland/Republic) opposition coalition and a former oil trader who is reportedly one of the country's richest men, is promising reforms. Babanov served as prime minister from December 2011 to September 2012, during the first year of Atambayev's presidency.
Both candidates state that they will maintain strong ties to Moscow but differ in terms of their main points of policy regarding the secular state and close ties to Russia, as Moscow vies for influence with the U.S. and China.
"Both Omurbek Babanov and Sooronbai Jeenbekov have high chances of winning the vote. Babanov is young, dashing and extremely wealthy. He is popular with city dwellers, the youth and women, who make up a sizable voting bloc. Jeenbekov, represents the older, Soviet-era generation, and is popular among rural and older voters. Meanwhile, Jeenbekov appears to be rather reluctant and is being pushed by President Atambayev to run for president. If Babanov wins, many wealthy elites who gained power and wealth under Atambayev stand to lose their jobs and their sources of revenue," Bishkek-based writer Alisher Khamidov said, adding: "There are fears that Babanov's business conglomerate will swallow up the lucrative segments of the Kyrgyz economy. These fears are pushing the wealthy and influential elite to throw all their influence behind the candidacy of Jeenbekov. In sum, Babanov stands for drastic change, particularly in the economic sphere. Jeenbekov is a ‘status-quo' candidate."
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 more than 600,000 are officially living outside the country, working mainly in Russia.
In order to appear on the ballot, each prospective candidate must collect at least 30,000 signatures of support from voters, pay a deposit of 1 million som (about $14,595) and pass a Kyrgyz language test demonstrating above-average proficiency in the language. As of Aug. 1, there were 59 candidates, with 11 representing political parties and 48 independents indicating their plans to run for the Presidency. There are now 11 candidates left in the presidential race in the ex-Soviet country.