Falling for the Promises, yet again? Kyrgyzstan’s New President: New Hope or the Next Disappointment?

by Meerim Egemberdieva

On the 10th of January, early in the morning, I headed to the polling station to participate in the presidential election. There was no queue and the process of voting took me only five minutes. Unlike other elections though, this time I went to the polling station knowing almost certainly what the election results would be.

In the course of the past three months, after the parliamentary elections, we have witnessed endless protests, peaceful marches, chaos, and power struggles. Kyrgyz political processes, such as presidential or parliamentary election results, have always left certain doubt in political researchers’ prediction over who will win. Yet, the results of these early presidential elections, despite the uncertainties of the past months, were considered more or less predictable by most political analysts as well as the population. Why? 

The answer is Sadyr Japarov, a released prisoner, who came to reap the benefits of the brand “Japarov” that he has been cultivating for many years.  But let us start where the story begins.

Why did we have an early presidential election in the first place?

The 2020 post-parliamentary election chaos resulted in the resignation of President Sooronbai Jeenbekov. Mostly because of the threatening and pressure by the menacing mobs-supporters of Sadyr Japarov. Being released from prison and brought right to the angry protesters at the main square, he gained immediate support and triumphed as the savior of the nation.  

After the resignation of President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, Japarov became acting President and Prime Minister. But Kyrgyz law does not allow an acting president in an interim capacity to run for office. Thus, in mid-November 2020, he suspended his duties to be eligible to run for the upcoming presidential elections. 

However, most striking in the whole process of announcing early presidential elections is the suspension of parliamentary elections first to mid-December 2020 and later to an unknown date. The post-parliamentary election protests happened because of the massive vote-buying by status-quo parties. Protesters went to the main square on the 5th of October 2020 to demand annulling the results of the parliamentary elections and holding a fair election. 

There was a demand to lower the threshold for political parties to enter parliament from young progressive parties so that they can participate in the new parliamentary elections. And in fact, the acting President Sadyr Japarov has signed amendments changing the law on elections that lower the threshold for political parties to enter parliament from 7 percent to 3 percent, while also reducing the registration fee for candidates from 5 million soms ($62,000) to 1 million soms. Yet, with the suspension of the parliamentary elections to an unspecified date and the announcement of presidential elections in combination with a referendum about the system of government, all political and administrative power started to concentrate in the hands of Sadyr Japarov, and his popularity was at its high all around the country. These conditions allowed Sadyr Japarov to completely redirect the demands of the protesters’ to his benefit.

What happened before and during the presidential elections?

By mid-November, around 60 people registered to participate in the early presidential elections. But only 20 candidates provided the required documents. By late December, 17 candidates remained to run for the presidency. Kyrgyzstani people saw fresh and young faces ready to offer progressive ideas and change in the country. Yet the majority of the population saw only Sadyr Japarov as a worthy candidate. 

According to Central Asia Barometers’ public opinion poll on the upcoming presidential elections and referendum in Kyrgyzstan, 64% of respondents would vote for Sadyr Japarov and 80% of respondents chose the presidential form of government and 14% parliamentary form of government.

Polling station in Osh. Source: Egemberdieva

Starting from late December until mid-January I was in the south of Kyrgyzstan, the city of Osh. A city with a big Uzbek minority and place of two violent ethnic conflicts since Kyrgyzstan’s independence. Close to the election days discussion about the election flamed up everywhere where I went. And to my surprise, despite race, nationality, age, and social status, I noticed unanimous support for Sadyr Japarov. 

One might even say that it was almost fanatic support from the people for Sadyr Japarov, fanatic in the sense of turning a blind eye on his wrongdoings and of reacting  aggressively to those who criticize him. During the pre-election campaign, Sadyr Japarov visited all regions of Kyrgyzstan. Despite the cold winter and the Corona-Pandemic, thousands of people gathered to meet with him. He was greeted with loud applause and whistles in every region. People stayed for hours to deliver him their messages, worries, hopes. And the crowds turned aggressive when someone voiced criticism about Sadyr Japarov. I heard from other people and experienced some conflicts with my relatives while discussing Sadyr Japarov’s candidacy. Increasingly, he became more than just a candidate for the presidency to the people all over the country. He became the savior of the nation. 

Where does so much trust in Sadyr Japarov come from?

Or should I ask why so many people fanatically love him? Given the fact that people in Kyrgyzstan faced two autocratic presidents, one would not expect the same people to fall into the same trap again and put all of their trust in one strong man. But exactly that is currently the case in Kyrgyzstan. 

Sadyr Japarov was not just a prisoner, but a political prisoner. He was popular for his position towards the nationalization of the Kum-Tor gold mine. Before ending up in the prison, he lived abroad because of political reasons. At that time, and with the help of social media, he created a platform where thousands of Kyrgyz migrants in Russia and people inside Kyrgyzstan followed him and watched his channel on YouTube. He listened to the problems of people and promised to solve them. In 2017, just when he returned to Kyrgyzstan he was sent to prison. While being in the prison he lost his parents and his eldest son. The population’s empathy and sympathy grew steadily. In the end, with the help of social media, and because of the enormous personal losses he suffered during his prison years, he became people’s favorite.

Since becoming an acting President, Prime Minister, and later candidate for the presidency, Sadyr Japarov has been criticized by civil society and some deputies and other candidates. Firstly, because of the constitutional reforms that were initiated under his leadership. Soon, Kyrgyzstan might have a new constitution that, according to lawyers, concentrates enormous powers in the hands of the President, bearing the danger of constitutionalized autocracy. And the paths is prepared, because together with electing a new President, Kyrgyz people also voted in a referendum over which system of government, parliamentary or presidential. This referendum will allow a new president to legitimize the concentration of power in his hands.  

Additionally, Japarov appointed personal friends and even his relatives to important political offices. One of the country’s most corrupt people, Raim Matraimov, was released after only some hours of detention. Sadyr Japarov, when asked about why Matraimov was released, answered: “What’s the use of someone’s imprisonment when he can pay money to the state budget”. Raim Matraimov, who recently was placed under Magnitsky sanctions by the U.S, promised to pay 24 mln dollars to the state budget, apparent as part of a plea bargain. Yet, most of the population in Kyrgyzstan are blind to these important developments, and Sadyr Japarov remains the only ground where the people expect to find truth and hope. Yet, not for everyone. Civil society members have been marching against all the unlawful actions of Sadyr Japarov and those who are in power. Every Sunday hundreds of people march from the train station of the capital to the main square shouting “Country without Khan” “No to Referendum”. Protesters express their anger over the imposed referendum which happened by mostly manipulating the public’s opinion. 

Early presidential election and referendum results show a 40% turnout where Sadyr Japarov took over 79% of the votes, while his closest rival, Adahan Madumarov, took 6,7% of the votes. Regarding the referendum on the system of government, results show that 80% voted for a presidential form of government. There’s no legally imposed threshold for the presidential vote and a 30% minimum of participation for the referendum is to be considered valid.

During the pre-election campaign, the presidential form of government has been pushed strongly by Sadyr Japarov and most of the government and private television channels. County’s main television channel worked in favor of Sadyr Japarov’s candidacy. 

The only female candidate, Klara Sooronkulova, who advocated for the parliamentary form of government criticized Sadyr Japarov for using administrative resources and powers. She also accused the Central Election Committee of not taking measures over the violation of pre-election campaign rules. She and most of the progressive part of the society voted for the parliamentary form of government. While television channels continued to criticize and discredit parliamentarism. 

Now, Sadyr Japarov is Kyrgyzstan’s new President for the next six years. But will he be able to stay in power for six years? – This is an open and big question. The answer will strongly depends on his ability to fulfill the thousands of promises that he made, but that are unrealistic to reach in the nearest time. As many say, people now are expecting some miracle from him…


References

Central Asia barometer. (2020, December 22). Bishkek, December 21, 2020 – Central Asia barometer has conducted a public opinion poll in the Kyrgyz Republic. Retrieved from https://ca-barometer.org/en/news/bishkek-december-21-2020-central-asia-barometer-has-conducted-a-public-opinion-poll-in-the-kyrgyz-republic

Imanalieva, A. (2021, January 6). Kyrgyzstan: Japarov, last hope or populist menace? Retrieved from https://eurasianet.org/kyrgyzstan-japarov-last-hope-or-populist-menace

RFE/RL. (2020, December 9). U.S. places former Kyrgyz customs official Matraimov under Magnitsky sanctions. Retrieved from https://www.rferl.org/a/us-places-former-kyrgyz-customs-official-matraimov-under-magnitsky-sanctions/30992348.html

RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service. (2020, November 11). Kyrgyzstan’s acting president signs amendments to election law. Retrieved from https://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstan-president-japarov-signs-amendments-election-law/30942748.html


Meerim Egemberdieva is a civil activist and researcher from Kyrgyzstan. Her research interests include China, political processes in Central Asia, and gender issues.

Featured image: Mijaeus, Bishkek White House, via flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


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