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Kyrgyzstan to vote in Central Asia's first real election

Two-horse presidential race draws nine others

The presidential campaign of Sooronbai Jeenbekov, Kyrgyzstan’s prime minister until last month, is backed by Almazbek Atambayev, the incumbent leader. (Photo by Altynai Mambetova)

BISHKEK/EDINBURGH, U.K. -- Kyrgyzstan will vote on Sunday in the first genuinely competitive leadership election in Central Asia.

The vote on Oct. 15 is Kyrgyzstan's second presidential election since a revolution in 2010 but its first competitive one, a watershed for a region more closely associated with Soviet-tinged autocratic leaders.

In Bishkek, the Soviet-built Kyrgyz capital, 24-year-old Aidai Begalieva was pushing her baby in a pram through one of the city's many parks. 

"I will vote definitely, but I am not sure how the nation will vote, and who people will choose," she said. "I hope that my vote is important and will decide something in this election. We are a democratic state. For that reason, the election is important."

This is not a statement one is likely to hear in the other four Central Asian states -- Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Sooronbai Jeenbekov, the 58-year-old prime minister until last month when he stood down to run his campaign, is backed by outgoing President Almazbek Atambayev. Steady and dour, Jeenbekov is the reliable establishment choice for president. 

Omurbek Babanov, 47, is his main challenger. He was prime minister for nearly a year before resigning in 2012 after a slew of corruption allegations. Wealthy, flamboyant and telegenic, analysts said he could defeat Jeenbekov.

Omurbek Babanov, a presidential candidate in the upcoming elections, speaks at a news conference in Bishkek on Oct. 1.   © Reuters

There are nine other candidates, including a third former prime minister, Temir Sariev, but it is a two-horse race and the others are mainly running to boost their profiles. A poll at the start of October put Jeenbekov in the lead with 40.4% of the vote and Babanov in second place with 21.8%, although many Kyrgyz are undecided and the vote is expected to be close.

Campaigning has been fraught, bordering on the furious -- a petri-dish for Western-style democracy in Central Asia and a counterbalance to the media crackdowns and the flaccid political discourse that have dominated the region since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

The candidates' campaigns, which all lean heavily on their patriotism, hog Kyrgyz television, radio, the internet and street-side billboards. Personalities, not the generally pro-Russia policies, are discussed and argued over. The atmosphere of excitement and anticipation is palpable.

Zamirbek uulu Ulan was slurping a bowl of laghman, or a noodle and mutton broth, at a street stall in central Bishkek. The sky was a cloudless blue; sunlight bounced off the snow-capped mountains that rise up behind the Kyrgyz capital like a purple-grey granite wall.

Ulan said that he was an entrepreneur, a trader in a nearby market, and that the elections were vital for Kyrgyzstan but he hadn't yet made up his mind which way to vote.

"I am a businessman, all I need is a stable state and a stable government," he said.

Kyrgyzstan, with a population of 6 million people, may be poor but it has become the focus for the West's efforts to boost democracy in Central Asia. Corruption is rife and the authorities have been accused of overstepping their remit and locking up potential opponents, but Western observers judged the presidential election in 2011 and the parliamentary election of 2015 to be, more or less, fair. The country depends on remittances from workers based mainly in Russia for half of its gross domestic product. Gold and water are also significant exports.

Former Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva (Getty Images)

Roza Otunbayeva is one of the most popular and recognizable people in Kyrgyzstan. She cuts a motherly figure. As Kyrgyzstan's post-revolution interim president in 2010, she stabilized the country and imposed a new constitution that empowered parliament. She also initiated Central Asia's first peaceful transition of power when she left office at the 2011 election which Atambayev, the current president, won with 63% of the vote.

"Power has to be changed every six years. This election is important for us to show the peaceful transfer of power and democratic development," she told  Nikkei Asian Review.

Last year, Atambayev, who has been accused of becoming increasingly autocratic, forced through a change to the constitution that handed more power to the prime minister and Otunbayeva, who has fallen out with her former protege, warned that he may be trying to engineer a power grab similar to Vladimir Putin's shift from Russia's president to prime minister.

"The new constitution strengthens the position of the prime minister," she said. "And, in accordance with the new constitution and the parliamentary elections, it is quite possible that Atambayev will return to politics."

In 2008, Vladimir Putin stood down as Russia's president after two consecutive terms, as stipulated by the constitution. Dmitry Medvedev took over as Russian president for four years, with Putin becoming the all-powerful prime minister until he could move back into the presidency in 2012. Kyrgyzstan is a staunch Russian ally. It hosts a Russian military airbase and is a member of the Kremlin-lead Eurasian Economic Union.

With 38 of the 120 seats, the Social Democrats, the party of Atambayev and Jeenbekov, is the biggest party in Kyrgyzstan's parliament and dominates the deal-making and coalition-building that create governments and prime ministers. The next parliamentary election is set for 2020.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, listening to Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev during talks in Moscow on June 20. (Getty Images)

Atambayev, 61, had publicly denied that he had any interest in the prime minister's job but analysts said that he would want to play a role in directing the government either as prime minister or from a more obscure background position.

And, as ever in Kyrgyzstan, this battle for power and control, heightened by the presidential election, creates an element of uncertainty and instability. The election will go to a run-off if no candidate gets a majority on Sunday.

Kyrgyzstan has a reputation for revolutions -- as well as the one in 2010, there was one in 2005 -- and street demonstrations. Posturing and political stand-offs are a real possibility after this election, said Stanislav Pritchin, an analyst at Chatham House's Russia and Eurasia Programme.

"No matter who is the next president, Kyrgyzstan will be unstable in the short period," he said. "Visits to Moscow and Sochi [the Black Sea town where Putin has a retreat] show that Atambayev and his team are not sure about the results."

And this lack of certainty about the result of Kyrgyzstan's presidential election next week, is a first for Central Asia.

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