The people of Kyrgyzstan headed to the polls today to elect a new president in what was undoubtedly among the Central Asian region’s few competitive elections. Despite 13 candidates running for the country’s highest office, only two became true frontrunners: Sooronbai Jeenbekov, until recently prime minister, and opposition hopeful Omurbek Babanov.
As the chosen successor of incumbent Almazbek Atambayev, Jeenbekov has enjoyed the support of the entire state apparatus and the ruling Social Democratic Party. But Babanov — who represents the opposition Respublika-Ata Jurt party — has also proven a strong candidate. A businessman and former prime minister himself, Babanov has given the current administration’s “favored son” a run for his money.
In a Skype interview, Bektour Iskender, co-founder of Kyrgyzstan’s independent Kloop.kg news agency, broke down the biggest questions and issues surrounding Kyrgyzstan’s 2017 presidential elections for Hromadske.
Campaign season has been dramatic, he says, and not just because the election has true competition. After Babanov met with neighboring Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, last month, Kyrgyz President Atambayev lashed out at the Kazakh leader, prompting Kazakhstan to temporarily close a border-crossing with Kyrgyzstan.
Supporters of Jeenbekov also appear to have used social media spread selective excerpts from one of Babanov’s speeches in the southern city of Osh and stoke ethnic tensions between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks — a dangerous move in a city which saw bloody, multi-day intercommunal rioting in 2010.
Furthermore, there have been other issues, Iskender told Hromadske. Students appeared to have been sent by their state universities to vote for Jeenbekov, who enjoys particular institutional support in the country’s south. “Sportsmen” — aggressive toughs from local sports clubs — have been spotted near polling places. The authorities and unidentified individuals have at times prevented journalists from reporting from polling places.
Additionally, neither candidate particularly stands out for his policies. Until recently, it appeared that Babanov would have been the outgoing Atambayev’s second choice if Jeenbekov did not win.
Still, for all the election’s flaws, the competition is real and very intense. In fact, there is a distinct possibility that, for the first time, the neither candidate will receive 50 percent of the vote, forcing Kyrgyzstan to hold a second round of the election.
“I think the biggest win for Kyrgyzstan would be just the fact of the second round,” Iskender said. “It would be a sign of us learning how to actually hold pretty much fair elections, despite whatever issues [there] were today.”
According to preliminary results, that is unlikely. Jeenbekov appears to have over 50% of the vote. But that could change as the ballots are counted.
/By Matthew Kupfer