Zhibek Zhorokulova, a researcher from Kyrgyzstan, reveals the features of the 2021 early presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan and explains what challenges await the future head of state in her article written for CABAR.asia.
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Typing in the Google search engine “presidential elections”, the first line about the US elections comes out, however, the early elections of the president in the Kyrgyz Republic (KR), scheduled for January 10, 2021, are also interesting in many ways. The elections are taking place after the previous president Sooronbay Jeenbekov resigned after the October protests. At the same time, experts dispute the legitimacy of the frontrunner – Sadyr Japarov, who, after being illegally released from prison, managed to be prime minister and acting president of the country. Moreover, on January 10, the people of Kyrgyzstan will also vote for the draft of a new Constitution, which proposes to strengthen the president’s power, giving him the right to legislative initiative and giving him the opportunity to remain in power up to 10 years.
General requirements for presidential candidates
According to the current Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic, the president of the country is elected for a six-year term. A citizen of the Kyrgyz Republic who is not younger than 35 years old and not older than 70 years old, who speaks the state language and has lived in the republic for at least 15 years in aggregate, can participate and be elected. From the moment of applying to the Central Election Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic (CEC), a candidate does not have the right to hold state, political or municipal positions. Citizens with a criminal record cannot run for president. Among the presidential candidates there are former convicts and persons involved in criminal cases. However, 10 days after the illegal release, the Supreme Court of the Kyrgyz Republic acquitted Sadyr Japarov for absence of the event of a crime. Other candidates, Ravshan Jeenbekov and Kursan Asanov, are accused in criminal cases, but without a formal court verdict, the law allows them to participate in the elections.
Why are the elections considered as early?
On October 15, the already former president Sooronbay Jeenbekov resigned ahead of schedule after massive October protests against the results of the parliamentary elections. By virtue of the fact that six years have not passed since his election in 2017, the CEC is obliged to hold early elections within three months from the date of termination of the powers of the head of state. Since the country’s parliament, the Jogorku Kenesh, did not set the date for the elections within a week from the date of resignation, the elections are considered scheduled, that is, in any case, they must be held within three months after the president’s resignation. In this case, the CEC, in turn, only sets the date. Thus, early presidential elections were scheduled for January 10, 2021.
A bit of background information
On the morning of October 5, 2020, after the announcement of the results of the parliamentary elections, 12 out of 16 parties, disagreeing with the results, organized a peaceful rally in the capital city. Independent and party observers recorded numerous violations at polling stations, transportation and bribery of voters, use of administrative resources. Due to the difference between manual and automatic counting, many considered the results to be fake. The CEC claimed four parties have won, two of which are the pro-government Birimdik – the party of Asylbek Jeenbekov, brother of former President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, which belongs to the Matraimov clan, which featured in a large-scale international investigation on corruption at customs and the withdrawal of 700 million USD from the country. The Kyrgyzstan Party supported the policies of former President Jeenbekov. It is composed of the head of state enterprise “Uchkun” Dayir Kenekeev and the head of the Jogorku Kenesh executive office Almaz Sabyrbekov. The last was one of the oldest opposition parties in the Kyrgyz Republic “Butun Kyrgyzstan”, headed by three-times presidential candidate Adakhan Madumarov.
However, on the night of October 6, the White House and the building of the State Committee for National Security were seized by the protesters . The protesters demanded the cancellation of the election results, the resignation of President Jeenbekov, and the lustration of officials and politicians involved in corruption.
From a former prisoner to a frontrunner of the presidential race
On the same night, the protesters released political prisoners – former President Almazbek Atambayev, his associate Ravshan Jeenbekov, and former Prime Ministers Sapar Isakov and Jantoro Satybaldiev. In addition, Sadyr Japarov was also released, who used to be a deputy convicted of organizing a rally in Karakol in 2013 demanding the nationalization of the Kumtor gold mine and taking the governor of the Issyk-Kul region as a hostage.
Already on October 10, the 6th convocation of the Jogorku Kenesh, under pressure from the supporters of Sadyr Japarov, elected him prime minister, ignoring other candidates from opposition parties. Allegedly fulfilling the will of the people, the new prime minister demanded Sooronbay Jeenbekov to resign from presidency. However, politicians and experts declared the illegitimacy of the appointment of Sadyr Japarov. Already in the evening of October 15, after the refusal of Kanat Isaev, the speaker of the parliament, to exercise the powers of the president, Sadyr Japarov declared himself as acting president. According to the Constitution, until the election of the president, his powers are performed by the Speaker of the Jogorku Kenesh. This appointment is also illegal – disputed by experts, since the Constitution does not have a clause allowing the speaker to relinquish the powers of the head of state.
In order to participate in the presidential elections, Sadyr Japarov resigned as acting president and prime minister. Another candidate, leader of the Reform Party and ex-judge of the Constitutional Chamber, Klara Sooronkulova, filed a lawsuit with the Bishkek Administrative Court alleging that the CEC made a violation while registering Sadyr Zhaparov as a presidential candidate. According to Article 68 of the Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic, acting president loses the right to be elected. Consequently, Sadyr Japarov cannot be a candidate for the 2021 early elections. However, on December 18, the court recognized the actions of the CEC as legal.
Despite the above-mentioned circumstances, Sadyr Japarov has strong support from the people, especially in the regions of the country and among labor migrants. People are impressed by the fact that he comes from a simple family, raised “popular” topics about the nationalization of Kumtor, and other populist questions about the decrease in the number of deputies in parliament and the change of the Constitution. Nevertheless, there is a fear that if he loses, Sadyr Japarov may use his resources and electorate to destabilize the situation and seize power. Earlier in an interview, he said that “if the presidential or parliamentary elections are not fair, there may be a fourth revolution”.Japarov at a meeting with voters in Talas. Photo: today.kg
Constitutional reform of the main candidate for the presidential election
17 candidates will compete in the election race, earlier 16 candidates withdrew their candidacy, and fourteen candidates were denied in registration. Among the candidates, there are representatives of business, politicians, government agencies, economists, and the former head of the State Committee for National Security. Klara Sooronkulova, the only woman candidate, leader of the Reform political party, previously worked as a judge of the Constitutional Chamber.
Sadyr Japarov is now a former prime minister and acting president is by far the frontrunner in the race. Japarov advocates constitutional reform in his electoral program. In his opinion, the presidential form of government “will increase the responsibility of those who run the state.” The president will have the right to initiate legislation and will be able to be elected for two terms of five years each.
Part of society is afraid that innovations will consolidate power in the hands of one person, lead to dictatorship and growth of corruption. The new draft Constitution also proposes to reduce the number of deputies from 120 to 90, and to create a People’s Kurultai (“council” in Kyrgyz), which will include representatives of the public sector, private sector, scientific and other civil communities. However, lawyers warn that this institution will weaken the work of parliament, duplicating its responsibilities and having the opportunity to hear its report.
Japarov was also accused of illegal campaigning, including the use of administrative resources. While working as prime minister and acting president, Japarov used his trips to the regions as a platform for campaigning for his future presidential program. He managed to appoint his supporters to key posts, who supported him in the regions and during the rally.
Sadyr Japarov held an economic amnesty calling for the return of illegally earned income to replenish the budget and pay off the external debt. In exchange for all who return the plunder, corrupt officials and businessmen who violated the law, he guaranteed confidentiality and exemption from punishment. In this regard, he made a deal with the ex-Deputy Chairman of the Customs Service Raimbek Matraimov, who was sent to house arrest under the article of corruption due to a criminal case on withdrawing 700 million USD from Kyrgyzstan. According to the deal, Matraimov returned 2 billion KGS to the treasury by the end of November, to date, 1.4 billion KGS have been received by the treasury, and he transferred the rest in the form of a shopping center and nine residential apartments.
Many people wonder how a former prisoner sponsors his campaign. Japarov has a record 51 million 461 thousand KGS (621 284 thousand USD) in his election fund , of which he managed to spend 50 million 439 thousand (608 946 thousand USD) on campaign materials. 15 million out of the list are designated as own funds. When he was asked about who is sponsoring his campaign, Japarov replied that the money is “from the people … pensioners donate their pensions.” The remaining 30.9 million came from two commercial companies and ten citizens. The sponsors were businessmen, former officials, and Japarov’s supporters.
The role of his ally and party member (Mekenchil party) Kamchybek Tashiev, now the chairman of the State Committee for National Security, a native of Suzak, is also important. During the presidential elections in 2011, Tashiev won 14.32% of the vote. Their tandem provides Japarov with significant support from the electorate in the south of the country.
Opposition candidates against Sadyr Japarov
The CEC has appointed the first round of candidate debates for December 28-30, dividing the candidates into three groups of six. The second round will run from January 6-8, 2021. On the second day of the debate, the media and social networks noted the absence of Sadyr Japarov and Rashid Tagayev, who refused to participate in the elections the next day. The controversy on the first day of the debate was based mainly on criticism of the frontrunner of the race – Sadyr Japarov. On December 29, candidates Klara Sooronkulova, Adakhan Madumarov, Kanat Isaev and Kanybek Imanaliev signed a memorandum on cooperation and filed a joint lawsuit with the administrative court of Bishkek in connection with the illegal registration of Sadyr Japarov as a presidential candidate. All four candidates are in favor of a parliamentary form of government. Under the memorandum, in the event of a second round, they will nominate a single candidate. Some experts argue that a second round is unlikely, as Sadyr Japarov will gain more than 50% of the vote. Research by the Central Asian Barometer Institute confirms this opinion. So, according to their poll, about 64% of those polled would vote for Sadyr Japarov, and 3% for Adakhan Madumarov.
Klara Sooronkulova, the only female candidate, opposes constitutional reform. She promises to improve the work of parliament and strengthen parliamentarism in the country. After Sooronkulova is elected, she will first of all dissolve the current convocation of parliament, whose term expired in October. She also wants to devote 2021 to fighting domestic violence.
Her main electorate is made up of the urban intelligentsia, mostly living in the capital. Sooronkulova’s political party Reform, won just over one percent of the vote in the October 2020 elections. The party was able to collect 5 million KGS of collateral through crowdfunding.
In 2015, parliament removed Sooronkulova from her position as a judge of the Constitutional Chamber over her disagreement with the law on compulsory biometric registration, which she called “anti-constitutional.” Among the candidates, she has the smallest electoral fund of 1 million KGS. In her page, she actively criticizes the current convocation of parliament, the CEC and is suing for the exclusion of Sadyr Japarov from the presidential race.
Adakhan Madumarov is running for president for the third time, previously he was a deputy and speaker of parliament. He headed the Butun Kyrgyzstan party in 2010. The party has existed since 2006 and is one of the oldest known opposition parties. He opposes constitutional reform. His electorate also includes the southern region and labor migrants in Russia.
However, Sadyr Japarov took part of his electorate, which could shake Madumarov’s position. He can be rehabilitated if he unites with other oppositionists who do not support Japarov’s candidacy or get the support of foreign partners. Experts believe that Madumarov will compete with Japarov in the election race.
Kanat Isaev, the former speaker of the current convocation of parliament, is nominated for the presidency from the Kyrgyzstan party. During the debate, he clarified that he had resigned from the position of acting president to participate in elections. He was elected speaker of parliament on October 13 following the resignations of two previous speakers, Dastan Zhumabekov and Myktybek Abdyldaev, following the October rallies. In 2008, he was appointed as a Mayor of Tokmok City. In 2017, he already nominated himself for the presidency, but the CEC did not register him due to the invalid signatures in support of the candidate. He featured in several criminal cases, which were closed due to the expiration of the statute of limitations and the Supreme Court acquitted him. During the October protests, he supported Sooronbai Jeenbekov, and after his resignation, Isaev said that “Jeenbekov will remain in memory as a president-creator.”
Kanybek Imanaliev was a member of the VI convocation of parliament from the Ata Meken party. He supports the idea of a constitutional reform, but believes that it should be carried out after the presidential and parliamentary elections, since today these institutions are illegitimate. In November, at a press conference of presidential candidates, he said that “if Sadyr Japarov becomes president, we will become the second Afghanistan.” In 2019, Imanaliev was featured in a land misappropriation scandal in the center of Bishkek.
Abdil Segizbayev is one more candidate who opposes Sadyr Japarov. He is the former head of the State National Security Committee under Atambayev. Segizbayev mentioned in a televised debate on December 30 that Sadyr Japarov may be linked to the family of fugitive President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. It is not the first time that Abdil Segizbayev has spoken about possible connections between presidential candidate Sadyr Japarov and the family of fugitive president Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
How will the presidential elections take place?
One of the current trends in elections is active campaigning in social networks. For example, more than 50 groups have been created in support of Sadyr Japarov on Facebook, Telegram and Instagram. Many promoted groups and pages were redesigned as platforms for Japarov’s campaigning. Videos about Japarov and his family, as well as documentaries, are being distributed on YouTube. Fake pages, accounts and “trolls” campaigning for some candidates have been activated and are being created. Japarov and Madumarov have the largest number of publics on social networks. Media literacy experts argue that social media influences the opinion of the electorate, and candidates who skillfully use this tool have a significant advantage.Screenshots of numerous pages and groups on the Internet in support of Sadyr Japarov.
In November, the Jogorku Kenesh signed amendments to the electoral legislation. They cancel the use of Form No. 2 on the territory of the Kyrgyz Republic, now only citizens abroad can use this document. Form No. 2 allows you to change the polling station at the place of residence if the citizen cannot vote at the place of registration. The largest number of voters on this form are registered in Bishkek. Internal migrants and visitors will not be able to vote without registration in the capital. Consequently, one should expect a low voter turnout in the elections, and disgruntled citizens who did not get the opportunity to express their will. As of December 18, the number of voters reached 3,556,864.
A referendum on the adoption of a new draft Constitution will also be held on the same day with the elections. The society has been divided into two parts: those who consider parliamentarism incapable in the realities of Kyrgyzstan, and those who believe that the form of government will not change anything, since Kyrgyzstan has always been a semi-presidential republic. Japarov himself also believes that “the parliamentary system of government has turned into a business.” Another part of society calls the new project “Hanstitution”. Under the guise of a referendum, the current government is trying to usurp power, weaken parliament, and impose restrictions on freedom of speech and association. Over 30 years of sovereignty in Kyrgyzstan, the government has changed 32 times, for the 11th time they will change the constitution, but the life of citizens has not improved, and the world community still does not recognize us as an equal partner. It is not about laws or the Constitution, but about the lack of observance of these laws by the government itself and citizens, opponents of constitutional reform believe.
What challenges will the new president face?
The pandemic and the political crisis in the country have led to a budget deficit of 7 billion KGS in 2021. Many are outraged because the CEC will spend 137 million KGS on the presidential elections , and the referendum will cost the treasury 40 million KGS. Consequently, such expenses and hopes of the people should be justified with the arrival of a legitimate president. The people expect not only political stability from the new president, but also guarantees that such an economic and social collapse will not happen again if the situation with the pandemic does not improve. The introduction of restrictive measures must be confirmed by a clear plan of action so as not to drive people into a dead end.
In the long term, the new president should fix the work of large enterprises and industries that were affected during the quarantine. Due to the deficit, the president will have to negotiate with foreign partners and donors. For this, the new president must also prove to the world community that he is the legitimate elect.
Moreover, Kyrgyzstan’s external debt will amount to more than $ 4 billion by the end of the year. The frontrunner of the race, Sadyr Japarov, does not arouse sympathy among the country’s strategic partners. The US and European Union are skeptical about the referendum and Sadyr Japarov’s controversial past. Moreover, the United States added Raimbek Matraimov to the Magnitsky sanctions list , which includes large corrupt officials and criminals. Russia and China need stability in the region; however, they are in no hurry to finance Kyrgyzstan.
China refused to renew its debt payment obligations, which is why Sadyr Japarov offered to transfer raw materials from the Jetim-Too deposit in Naryn to China. This deposit is the largest in terms of reserves of ferrous and non-ferrous metals and is tentatively estimated at 80-100 billion USD.
In Russia, they also prefer the presidential form of government, since it is more convenient to talk with one president than with the whole parliament. To get out of the crisis, the new president needs to find a balance between partners and make concessions.
Nevertheless, both citizens of Kyrgyzstan and international partners want to see a legitimate elect come to power who can stabilize the situation in the country and bring it out of the crisis. The new president should also understand that if the new draft of the Constitution is adopted, he will bear great responsibility for the decisions made. The people will more clearly track the decision-making process, and instead of a faceless parliament they will see one person. This is also due to the fact that the October protests, which led to the re-election of the president, were initiated by ordinary citizens who do not want to allow the mistakes of the previous government to be repeated.
This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.