Broken Hopes, Power Struggles and Chaos in Kyrgyzstan

by Meerim Egemberdieva

On 4th of October 2020, Kyrgyzstan held parliamentary elections. 16 parties competed. Yet, only three status quo parties gained most of the votes. Protests broke out in the capital Bishkek. These protests focus on two of the winning parties which are linked with President Jeenbekov and former Customs’ official Raimbek Matraimov.

Elections in Kyrgyzstan, both parliamentary and presidential, are hampered by vote-buying and the use of administrative resources by those who are in power. Sadly, this is no news for the majority of the country’s population. Yet, according to Ryskeldi Mombekov, member of the opposition party Ata-Meken, parliamentary elections held on 4th of October 2020 had been “the dirtiest election” in the history of independent Kyrgyzstan. 

What had happened? A threshold of 7 percent is required nationwide, to obtain seats in parliament with 120 seats. Three of the pro-government parties gained most of the votes:

  • Birimdik (Unity), a party then-President Jeenebekovs’ brother Asylbek Jeenbekov belonges to – ideologically the party labeled itself as democratic socialist-Eurasian choice.
  • The other pro-government party is Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (My Homeland Kyrgyzstan) – the party is linked to the name of Matraimov, a powerful family who is accused of massive corruption in Kyrgyzstan’s Custom service. The party calls itself liberal.
  • ‘Kyrgyzstan’ is the third status quo-party – it mainly consists of rich business people and calls itself centralist.

Among the opposition parties:

  • Ata-Meken, a centre-left party, was expected to make it into parliament. Ata-Mekens’ leaders became leading figures in the protests.
  • Bir Bol (Be United) and Reforma (Reform) are considered as young, urban, progressive, liberal parties. 

None of these key-opposition parties made it into parliament, according to preliminary elections results. As a result, it was especially the young, urban population that started protests in the main square in Bishkek. How did the events unfold?

The Election Day

On election day, social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram were filled with videos from polling stations to which voters were brought in buses in order to vote for a certain party. How does this work? – In Kyrgyzstan, parties have ‘volunteers’, canvassers who work for them. Those volunteers, canvassers, will be asked to bring voters who agreed to elect this party for money to the polling station. It is also the volunteers’, canvassers’ job to check if these people voted for their party. Especially, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan and Birimdik are accused to practice vote-buying. Vote-buying started early during the election campaigns. Volunteers of pro-government parties knocked on the doors of houses and apartments in cities offering money if people voted for their party.

Moreover, pro-government party Birimdik has been accused of early placement of banners, vote-buying, and especially the use of its administrative power resources which manifested in requiring all civil servants to vote for them. As a matter of fact, the country’s biggest cities, Bishkek and Osh, have been full of advertisement of pro-government parties and only some from opposition parties.

The manual vote count led to the following results: Birimdik 26.38%, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan 24.94 %, Kyrgyzstan 9.10%, Butun Kyrgyzstan 7.73%, Mekenchil 7.37%, Respublika 5.26%, Ata-Meken 3,77 %. Preliminary results showed that five parties would get seats in parliament. Two parties Birimdik and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan got the majority votes in all regions of Kyrgyzstan even though these parties activated their work only prior to the parliamentary election.

Social media users were expressing anger regarding the mounting evidence of offenses against the idea of fair elections and in fact the law. The fact that, according to these results, no opposition party would enter the parliament raised the discontent of many and led to massive protests that caused major political turmoil in the country with potential long-term effects.

The Protests

Thousands of people, mostly the urban population, gathered on the main square in Bishkek, under the leadership of some of the opposition parties, especially Ata-Meken. The young progressive urban population had expected Ata-Meken to enter the parliament and represent their interests. Protesters expressed their disappointment and accused the pro-government parties Birimdik and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan of massive vote-buying. The victory of these two parties, according the protesters, would consolidate President Jeenbekovs’ ruling clan and would leave the corruption case of the Matraimov clan covered. Thus, it does not wonder that among the many slogans of the protest ‘getting rid of the old politicians and bring new people to the parliament’ became the most popular one.

The protesters also demanded for decisive action by the government against election fraud. Still, neither the President nor Members of Parliament appeared on the main square or reacted to the protest happening right next to the White House, how the presidential office building is called.

In the course of events, peaceful protests turned into violent clashes. Policemen, who formally follow the orders of the Ministry for Internal Affairs, came to the main square seeking to dissolve the demonstrations by using means like stun grenades, rubber bullets, and tear gas. According to eyewitnesses, the protesters turned against the police in response. At the same time, in this situation of turmoil, some police forces switched sides and joined the protesters. In the end, protesters reached the White House and entered it. What happened then remains unclear and facts are hard to gather. Some witnesses claim that it was a group of provocateurs who intentionally initiated the capture and looting of the White House, not the originally peaceful protesters on the main square.

Meanwhile, supporters of ex-president Almazbek Atambaev, former Prime Minister Sapar Isakov, and Sadyr Japarov whose imprisonment was led by political motives, took advantage of the turmoil and freed them.

Who is Sadyr Japarov?

One of the released prisoner is Sadyr Japarov, who now became Prime Minister and acting President, as events in Kyrgyzstan unfolded. He previously held several political positions and was imprisoned in 2017 on charges of organizing a rally in Karakol (in the northern part of the country) in 2013. He was convicted under Article 227 “Hostage-taking”. Since 6th of October 2020, when he first spoke to the crowds of protesters, he got wide range of support from all regions. In fact, Japarov effectively used a power vacuum left by the absence of opposition leaders Janar Akaev, Elvira Surabaldieva, and Tilek Toktogaziev who got injured during the protests to his benefit.

New Interests and Ambitions

The power struggle in Kyrgyzstan continues. Several groups seem to be entrenched in the struggles for power. The first group consists of Sadyr Japarov and his supporters from different regions of country (and who have alleged links to organized criminal groups). Another group consists of supporters of ex-president Almazbek Atambaev. They gathered in front of the Media Forum building on the 9th of October and continued protests. The third group consists of members of civil society and young people under the leadership of opposition parties.

It’s hard to entangle the group’s motivations and demands. For instance, Sadyr Japarovs’ supporters demanded his appointment as Prime Minister and the impeachment of President Sooronbay Jeenbekov. On the other side, the group led by some of the opposition leaders protested against organized criminal groups in Kyrgyzstan, who allegedly seek to keep their criminal works covered by supporting Sadyr Japarov’s strive for power.

Moreover, the fact that ex-President Almazbek Atambaev appeared on the main square with some opposition leaders joining together, raised new anger amongst the protesters. The opposition party Reform wrote on its Facebook page that they didn’t expect to see Almazbek Atambaev with Omurbek Babanov, whom four opposition parties nominated for the post of Prime Minister. Opposition parties’ joining with the old political elite raised new anger among young protesters. Violence broke out when supporters of Sadyr Japarov started to attack people, injuring opposition leader Tilek Toktogaziev.

What is the current situation? – The majority of Parliament voted in favor of Sadyr Japarov for the post of Prime Minister on 14th October 2020. The appointment of Japarov was criticized by lawyers in Kyrgyzstan and many people continue to express their concerns about his ties with criminal groups. On 21st October 2020, the country’s Central Election Commission announced the rerun of the parliamentary elections on 20th December.

Summary and Outlook

The elections and recent events revealed several challenges for Kyrgyzstan: first, despite some sort of political competition during the election campaign, the use of administrative resources and vote buying by those in power play decisive roles for the outcome of elections in the country. Moreover, the protests reveal the fragmentation of Kyrgyz society. On a positive note: Young people increasingly demand political changes and decisive actions against corrupted members of the old power elite. Yet, drawing on the divides of the society old politicians and criminal groups mobilize the rural population in order to achieve their goals and hold on to power. Against this background we can expect that Kyrgyzstan will face continued political crisis.

Sources

Doolotkeldieva, A. (2020, September 29). Асель Доолоткельдиева о выборах в КР: политическое многообразие и авторитарные тенденции. (Asel Doolotkeldieva on the elections in the Kyrgyz Republic: political diversity and authoritarian tendencies) Central Asia Analytical Network. https://caa-network.org/archives/20587

Erkebaeva, A. (2020, October 6). «Они стреляли прямо в людей». Протестующие и журналист рассказывают о захвате Белого дома и столкновениях в Бишкеке. („They were shooting right at people.“ Protesters and a journalist talk about the takeover of the White House and clashes in Bishkek. Mediazone Central Asia.) Медиазона Центральная Азия. https://mediazona.ca/article/2020/10/06/oni-strelyali

Korotkova, E. (2020, September 30). Расследование по возможному подкупу со стороны кандидата «Биримдик» в Нарыне не завершено — МВД. KLOOP.KG – Новости Кыргызстана (Investigation into possible bribery by Birimdik candidate in Naryn not completed – Ministry of Internal Affairs. KLOOP.KG – News from Kyrgyzstan). https://kloop.kg/blog/2020/09/30/rassledovanie-po-vozmozhnomu-podkupu-so-storony-kandidata-birimdik-v-naryne-ne-zaversheno-mvd/

Выборы-2020: предварительные результаты (обновляется). (Elections 2020: preliminary results (updated). (2020, October 6). KLOOP.KG – Новости Кыргызстана. https://kloop.kg/blog/2020/10/04/pre-results-elections-kg/

Рыскелди Момбеков: „Бул шайлоо тарыхындагы эң ыпылас шайлоо болду. (Ryskeldi Mombekov: („This was the dirties election in the history of Kyrgyzstan») (2020, October 4). ELGEZIT. https://elgezit.kg/ky/2020/10/05/ryskeldi-mombekov-bul-shajloo-taryhyndagy-e-ypylas-shajloo-boldu/


About the author:
Meerim Egemberdieva studied at Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University, faculty of International Relations. She is currently doing her master’s degree in Politics and Security at OSCE Academy in Bishkek. Her research interests include China, Governance, and Gender studies. 

Featured image: Protests outside the White House on 6th October. Source: Egemberdieva.


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