Article by Angelachiara Allegretti | Illustration by Armadilly
After the 4 October parliamentary elections, Kyrgyzstan was shaken by violent protests. The Kyrgyz population took to the streets in the capital Bishkek and throughout the country to protest the results of the vote.
The two parties close to the current President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, the Birimdik (Unity), and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (My Motherland Kyrgyzstan) obtained 24.5% and 23.9% of the vote respectively, winning the highest number of preferences. For the opposition, the only party to cross the 7% threshold was Butun.
On 6 October, Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Commission (CEC) declared the outcome of the parliamentary elections invalid. According to demonstrators, supporters of the opposition parties – the Social Democrats, Chon Kazat (the Great Crusade), Meken Yntymagy (National Unity), Bir Bol (We are united), and the Reformation-, the electoral round was distorted by irregularities and vote buying. The corruption has been favoured by the widespread poverty.
On the night of the elections, protesters seized the White House – the presidential office building, and other government buildings. The following day, before disappearing, President Jeenbekov delivered an address to the nation calling for calm and asking the leaders of opposition political parties to quell their supporters. Kubatbek Boronov and Dastan Jumabekov, the country’s Prime Minister and Parliament Speaker respectively, resigned after the CEC’s decision.
The President, who has been in hiding ever since this crisis began, gave an interview to BBC Kyrgyz service, telling them that he was “ready to give responsibility to strong leaders, no matter which group they belong to.” Jeenbekov also condemned what he described as protests whipped up for the sole purpose of removing him from power, adding that he was making every possible effort to resolve this crisis.
Clashes between the police and demonstrators on Bishkek’s Ala-Too square began on 5 October, when the crowd and leaders of the opposition met to demand a repeat of the vote, chanting of “kaira shailoo,” meaning “new elections.”
After a group of men attempted to break through the gate of the White House government building, the police used rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse the demonstrators, some of whom were injured. Official sources said that seven people were injured during the riots in the capital over the past days.
Talking to the crowd, Karamushkina, a candidate of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan said that they could not accept the election results, since there were shreds of evidence of violations, massive bribery, and pressure on voters.
The riots became uncontrollable and the demonstrators freed former President Almazbek Atambayev, former Prime Minister Sapar Isakov, and other politicians from a detention center of the State Committee for National Security.
The COVID-19 epidemic has also worsened this situation, with estimates of a 10% contraction of GDP in 2020, while it is estimated that unemployment will increase to 21%.
Something not new
Kyrgyzstan is considered Central Asia’s most democratic nation, but it is not new to this kind of unrest. This is the third time in fifteen years that the population has taken to the streets to demand political change. As in 2005, with the Tulip Revolution, and in 2010 with episodes of inter-ethnic violence, it seems difficult for the country to find stability.
Even if the protests have important differences, there are some similarities between them, such as the corruption and false results of the election, and the harsh response of the governments towards the demonstrators.
Kyrgyzstan is the second poorest country in Central Asia and has, like its neighbours, a huge problem of corruption. President Jeenbekov came to power promising to clean up the system; however, episodes of corruption were evident also in the 2017 presidential election. The country’s current position in Transparency International’s ranking of the most corrupt states in the world has slightly improved compared to 2017, when Jeenbekov took office, but not enough to see a real change.
It is not clear who is now running the country. However, the Kyrgyz parliament has voted in an emergency session to appoint Sadyr Japarov as the country’s prime minister. Japarov had been sentenced in 2017 to more than 10 years in prison on kidnapping-related charges. After being nominated prime minister, Japarov revealed that he had met with President Sooronbai Jeenbekov and they had agreed that the latter would sign a letter of resignation in a few days.
On 15 October, President Jeenbekov made an appeal to the Kyrgyz people in connection with the current socio-political situation in the country. “For me, peace in Kyrgyzstan, the integrity of the country, the unity of our people and tranquility in society are above all. There is nothing dearer to me than the life of each of my compatriots. I’m not holding on to power. I do not want to remain in the history of Kyrgyzstan as the President who shed blood and shot at his own citizens. Therefore, I decided to resign”, he said.
The recently appointed speaker of the Kyrgyz parliament, Kanatbek Isaev will serve as interim president. However, Japarov guaranteed that new presidential elections will be held no later than January 10, the date that marks the last Sunday within the 90-day limit to elect a new president. While parliamentary elections have been postponed to the start of June 2021, instead of by December 20, as was previously scheduled, and it will be ensured that parties will only need to overcome a threshold of 3 percent of votes cast to enter parliament, rather than the 7 percent required previously.
Clan based politics
In Kyrgyzstan, politics is strictly connected to family ties and regional affiliation. Most of the time, political leaders are determined by the clans to which they belong. Citizens do not vote for liberals or conservatives – they elect the clans that stand behind the parties. To be successful at the national level, political parties need the support of the leaders of the southern regions, the most populous in the country.
This is the tactic followed by the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) in the 2015 parliamentary elections. The party was supported by leaders of the northern regions of the country, bureaucrats, and businessmen from the south, including the Matraimovs, that supported the Mekenim Kyrgyzstan political party in the 2020 elections. Their native Kara-Suu region is the most densely populated in the country.
This parliamentary election results should also be viewed in connection with the 2023 presidential elections. Undoubtedly, these disorders show the people’s will for political renewal and a generational shift. Indeed, Bir Bol and Ata-Meken parties have a lower average age of candidates, 56 and 57 respectively.
Even with these controversies, typical in Kyrgyzstan’s elections, the country has shown, once again, how very different its elections are compared to its undemocratic neighbours.