Kyrgyzstan’s 2017 elections and its democratic aspirations

Analytics | Lola Matmusaeva | 11-12-2017, 10:45

Kyrgyzstan’s 2017 elections and its democratic aspirationsOn October 15, 2017, the presidential elections took place in Kyrgyzstan and on November 24 the new President took office. For the first time the transfer of power and change of the president followed regular and peaceful proceedings unlike in 2005 and 2010 when the governments were ousted by revolutions. Former President, Almazbek Atambayev, after serving his six-year term, just left the post volitionally, as it is prescribed by constitution. Throughout political campaigns nobody was certain who would be the next occupant of the office. Some doubted that any candidate out of eleven would be able to secure an absolute majority in the first ballot and were speculating a run-off between two main candidates: Sooronbay Jeenbekov from the Social Democratic Party and Omurbek Babanov from the Respublika Party. These initial sentiments looked very plausible for consolidating democracy in Kyrgyzstan, and set this mountainous country occasionally referred to as the “Switzerland of Central Asia” apart from its neighbors ruled by long serving autocrats. “This will be the freest and fairest election in Central Asian history” asserted a senior Western diplomat stationed in the country. However, skepticism about Atambayev’s intentions endured in some Western media outlets and among concerned citizens.

The Diplomat claimed that there is a worry that Atambayev will retain his influence after the elections if his protégé, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, upholds the victory. Atambayev’s attempts to back his candidate were so strained that even led to Kyrgyz-Kazakh rift. Some citizens, like Gulnara from Bishkek, objected that “Atambayev misused his position and spent his energy on black PR (mudslinging), which isn’t fair. He used his free time on television to make sure we vote for his friend, Jeenbekov.” Also, Professor of Political Science at Stetson University in the United States, Eugene Huskey, offers an interesting insight from outside about the dynamics of the elections in his article. He claims that the constitutional design can only do so much to further democracy in the country. If there are no leaders who are ready to lose and state officials who apply laws impartially, elections on their own are not enough to ensure good governance. Though, he argues that even elections did not go without “violations of registration technicalities… threats against government workers if they didn’t vote for Zheenbekov to en masse voting by teachers and university students, organized by the heads of state-related schools and higher education institutions”.

Jeenbekov’s chief rival, Omurbek Babanov, while disgruntled with the elections claimed that “There is no fair election today… Law enforcement authorities are interfering with the election. Is this what they call a fair election?”. In addition, OSCE observes in Kyrgyzstan in their statement concluded that nevertheless the elections were competitive “cases of the misuse of public resources, pressure on voters and vote buying” could be detected, which raises concerns and poses challenges for Kyrgyzstan’s democratic aspirations.

Despite these shortcomings, Kyrgyzstan’s voting, in general, is considered to have been free and transparent. Head of the PACE Delegation, Doris Fiala affirmed: “This is a sign of the growing political maturity of Kyrgyz society.” Now as Kyrgyzstan is celebrating its progress as a democracy, the questions still remain if it is indeed devoted to pursuing the democratic path. "Kyrgyzstan has shown an example of holding open and clean elections. You have challenging tasks ahead of you in your responsible post and we are ready to support you in your striving to build and develop a democratic state. We are ready to continue to support the development of democracy and the economy of the country," expressed Federico Mogherini, the Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, at her first meeting with the newly elected president, Sooronbay Zheenbekov, who had secured 54,3 % of votes. In response to this supportive statement from the European Union (EU) representative, he stated to strengthen the parliamentary democracy and continue prosperous cooperation with the EU. However, if Zheenbekov continues the pro-Russia stance of his predecessor, little enhancement of relations with the West is expected.

Though when the Time news magazine interviewed Atambayev, he acknowledged the role of the West in consolidating Kyrgyz democracy. In the talk, he claimed: “if there were real assistance (from the United States) to Kyrgyzstan to build a democratic country, a fully-developed democracy, that would have been a great example for the Muslim world, for the whole Islamic world.” Still, Kyrgyzstan is not “a genuine democracy” as the Time magazine puts it. Therefore, progressive reforms should be implemented for a positive change towards democracy to ensue. Yet, the Kyrgyz population is not foreseeing these developments to transpire with Zheenbekov.

For instance, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty went to the streets of the capital, Bishkek, to ask citizens about their expectations from the new president. Based on answers, they are not anticipating dramatic changes but they want stability, and they realize the need for reforms, especially in the economy. Nevertheless, Kyrgyzstan did not experience any conflict under Atambayev’s administation, the government was unsuccessful in creating jobs for thousands of workers who leave for Russia and Kazakhstan as migrant laborers, making the country highly dependent on remittances. I believe these economic challenges are allowing for more conservative practices of Islam to grow in the country while making population more susceptible for recruitment into extremist groups. This in return raises security concerns in Kyrgyzstan, where detentions of people allegedly connected to terrorist organizations have grown especially after native Kyrgyz of Uzbek ethnicity had been accused for bombing the metro station in Saint Petersburg in April of 2017. These counter-terrorism measures can be dangerous for democracy as the government may assume greater powers and suspend civil liberties and human rights in the name of state security. 

Jeenbekov said: “My task is to preserve what has been achieved, to strengthen what has been started.” Status-quo is not of surprise and was expected with the election of Jeenbekov, but the question rises whether Atambayev’s policies were effective and if Kyrgyzstan can accomplish its democratic aspirations and desired economic growth with stagnant government policies in times of changing political, security and economic circumstances.


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Lola Matmusaeva

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