According to critics, the election of Zhaparov as a president does not mean the settlement of the political crisis, which Kyrgyzstan has faced since last autumn.
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The victory of Sadyr Zhaparov who had been in prison just three and a half months ago serving his 10-year term, has not been a surprise. The figures published by the Central Election Commission, 82 per cent, were a surprise. This is the number of voters, according to preliminary data, who voted for this contradictory politician. This record was demonstrated by Kyrgyzstan back in 2005 – when Kurmanbek Bakiev came to power after popular unrest and won 88 per cent of votes. But five years later, he had to flee the country just like the first president Askar Akayev because of the widespread corruption, poverty and persecution of his critics.
Sadyr Zhaparov promised not to repeat the mistakes made by his predecessors, and firmly believes that we must return to the presidential government, which was ten years ago, in order to fight corruption, develop economy and contribute to overall development efficiently. At the referendum that was held on January 10 along with the presidential extraordinary election, 84 per cent voted for the presidential government.
It means that a new draft of the constitution with the presidential government will be proposed to the citizens of Kyrgyzstan in a few months and it will be obviously approved. Speaking on the Sunday press conference after the announcement of the first results of the election, Zhaparov said the authorities were going to hold both the referendum and parliamentary election before summer begins.
In early October, the authorities in Kyrgyzstan were changed after the unfair parliamentary election. The protesters who were dissatisfied with the election results seized the buildings of the parliament, government and presidential administration on the night of October 6, and also freed some politicians from prisons, including Sadyr Zhaparov, who was serving his 10-year term in prison since 2017 on a charge of organisation of mass disorders and hostage taking in 2013. Amid the political crisis, the new government headed by Sadyr Zhaparov was formed in October 2020, and a week later President Sooronbai Zheenbekov suddenly resigned office and Zhaparov became the acting president.
Zhaparov immediately declared the need to hold the constitutional reform and to return to the presidential government instead of the current parliamentary presidential system. He initiated the creation of the Constitutional council that drafted the new version of the constitution. The new draft of the constitution suggests the elimination of the post of a prime minister, a transfer of all executive powers to the president, the right of initiation of draft laws and restriction of the parliament’s supervising function. According to Zhaparov, this constitution will let the president carry out special reforms and be responsible for their outcomes.
His critics and opponents fear the restoration of the authoritarian regime, which was during the presidential rule of Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiev. Both fled the country after mass riots in 2005 and 2010, respectively. According to Zhaparov, there will be no authoritarianism in Kyrgyzstan and he will listen to his critics.
In October 2020, Sadyr Zhaparov came to power under controversial circumstances, and a range of key foreign political partners of Kyrgyzstan, including the United States, Russia and European Union, were in no hurry to admit he was legitimate. Now Zhaparov can feel relaxed – one of the first to congratulate him were the president of Russia Vladimir Putin, and leaders of neighbouring Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The embassy of the USA and the European Union issued a statement welcoming the election and the referendum results.
In general, the public of Kyrgyzstan, local and international observers have no doubt about the results of the election and referendum. At the same time, local and international observers noted the facts of intimidation of observers and voters at some polling stations in the regions, restriction of work of independent local observers at some polling stations, as well as the prejudiced position of the key state TV channel KTRK regarding the opponents of Sadyr Zhaparov.
Local and international observers have noted a low voter turnout at this election. Nearly 39 per cent of all voters came to polling stations. Almost 56 per cent of voters came to the parliamentary election held in autumn last year. According to the experts, it happened due to the elimination of the so-called form No. 2, which allowed internal migrants to vote at a place other than their registered address, as well as to the poor use of administrative resources and vote buying.
According to political analyst Emil Dzhuraev, low voter turnout can be explained by winter and tiredness of politics.
“After three months of active processes, the country feels some tiredness of politics,” the political analyst said to IWPR. “Also, we felt that the election results were predetermined. Those who were against Zhaparov and the presidential government did not attend the election.”
According to Dzhuraev, the majority of people who voted for Zhaparov also supported the presidential form of government. Now the hardest thing, according to him, is to make people accord and to consolidate public opinion.
Political analyst Chinara Esengul noted that the results of the past election is the result of low political culture and divided public opinions. Also, she said, the world, including Kyrgyzstan, sees a trending populism.
“For me, the election results are not surprising because most people who voted elected Zhaparov,” she said to IWPR.
A phenomenon of Sadyr Zhaparov
Before last October, the country did not take Sadyr Zhaparov as a republican-level politician. His political career started in 2005, when he was elected in his native district in the east of Issykkul region as a member of the national parliament under the single member constituency. In 2007 to 2010, he was an unremarkable mid-tier official during President Kurmanbek Bakiev.
After the regime of Bakiev was overthrown in autumn 2010, he returned to the parliament as a member of Ata Zhurt party, where he raised the question of nationalisation of the gold field Kumtor. He became known to the public in autumn 2012 when he was arrested together with his party fellows Kamchybek Tashiev and Talant Mamytov. After the rally at the central square regarding the Kumtor issue, he and the crowd got over the fence of the ‘White House’ where offices of the president and the parliament are located. A few months later, all three party fellows were released on bail.
In 2013, Sadyr Zhaparov again organised a rally for the nationalisation of Kumtor in Issykkul region, in the vicinity of the gold field. The rallies turned into mass disorders and the governor of the region was taken hostage for some time. The law enforcement bodies reported that Sadyr Zhaparov was the organiser of the riots but failed to arrest him as Zhaparov left the country. Until spring 2017, Zhaparov had lived at Cyprus, Poland and for a short time in Moscow. In March 2017, he decided to come back to the country to take part in the presidential election, but was immediately arrested and then sentenced to 11 years and 6 months in prison.
In his recent interview to the Russian newspaper ‘Kommersant’, Zhaparov explained his success by his active work on social media while being in exile and then under arrest and by delivering his ideas and views to the fellow countrymen.
According to the experts, Zhaparov is a typical populist and came to power by using all options of populism.
According to political analyst Chinara Esengul, the phenomenon of Zhaparov is that the people take him as a victim as he served time in prison. The Kyrgyzstanis follow the politics and make their choice based on their emotions, not cold math. Therefore, now the people want to trust the person who was suffering.
Political analyst Elmira Nogoibaeva said that people have high hopes for Zhaparov.
The people take Sadyr Zhaparov as a kind of a mythological hero who represents neither officials, nor former elite,” Elmira Nogoibaeva said. “Many people take him as their own, a victim of political repression and a martyr. Regional identity is also significant here. Although he was born in Issyk-Kul, he has many followers in the south of the country, plus he’s religious, moderate, has no political enthusiasm, and a big credit of trust.
People will wait for results
Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries in the world with the annual budget amounting to as low as 2.5 billion dollars. Out of 6 million people, one third are officially below the poverty line, and nearly 1.5 million citizens have left the country to earn money. Corruption and inefficient work of state bodies is one of acute problems. Kyrgyzstan has a large state debt for 5 billion dollars, the majority of which is owed to neighbouring China. Despite numerous requests, Beijing has refused to grant a grace period. Last year, coronavirus has aggravated the tough situation in the country and increased the debt amount by 150 billion dollars taken by the country from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
During the election campaign, Sadyr Zhaparov promised to eliminate the roots of disaster in the country and settle down to a course of steady development.
According to Elmira Nogoibaeva, Sadyr Zhaparov has many challenges to respond as he has come at a difficult period. Now the important issue is the budget deficit and the expected crisis – new sources of budget supply have to be found and the country’s foreign debt has to be repaid. The second, equally important aspect, according to the political analyst, is the regaining of public trust to the authorities.
“What’s important here is how he will form the team. Now most managers are unprofessional. It is also important how he will pursue foreign policy. It is a key issue for migrants,” she said.
“Now it’s time to work. In coronavirus times, when lockdown was announced since last March, the economy has been in recession. I want to wish luck to his team,” said political analyst Chinara Esengul.
According to Nogoibaeva, Zhaparov promoting the presidential government takes control of all powers and refuses from the parliamentarianism, i.e. legal delegation of power.
“I’m afraid his next steps will be taking control of powers. First of all, of security and economic agencies. This is the logic of fear. It is effective, but not in Kyrgyzstan,” said Elmira Nogoibaeva.
His victory does not mean stability, according to Chinara Esengul.
*IWPR-trained journalist contributed to this report.
This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project.