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Kyrgyzstan election odds favor strongman rule after 2020 turmoil

Prison-to-presidency populist Japarov expected to win Sunday as China watches

Kyrgyzstan presidential candidate Sadyr Japarov attends an election rally on Dec. 30. As recently as October, he was serving a 10-year sentence for organizing a kidnapping.   © Reuters

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- Kyrgyzstan goes to the polls on Sunday for two votes that look likely to cement the Central Asian state's dramatic political evolution over the last three months.

The presidential election is widely expected to confirm nationalist politician Sadyr Japarov's whirlwind journey from a prison cell to high office in less than 100 days. A simultaneous referendum on moving back to presidential rule could see the new leader amass unrestrained power.

China, for one, will be watching the outcomes closely as it weighs future Belt and Road plans.

As recently as October, Japarov was serving a 10-year sentence for organizing a kidnapping. He was sprung from jail during a night of unrest following Oct. 5 protests against a tarnished parliamentary election. He quickly assumed the roles of prime minister and -- after incumbent Sooronbai Jeenbekov resigned on Oct. 15 -- acting president. He then relinquished these posts in November to run in Sunday's vote.

The field is crowded, with 17 candidates running, but election posters are few and far between on the snowy streets of the capital, Bishkek. Japarov has only one real rival, fellow nationalist Adakhan Madumarov, who has already sought the presidency twice. Madumarov gained slightly over 15% of the vote in 2011 but only 6.55% in 2017.

In a December poll, 64% of respondents said they intended to vote for Japarov with just 3% supporting Madumarov, according to the Bishkek-based Central Asian Barometer.

Observers link Japarov's rapid rise to disillusionment with Kyrgyzstan's previous leaders and its political parties. Many voters feel that the political class has enriched itself, with parties acting as fronts for elite groups rather than for the people.

People perceive that "the party system doesn't serve their interests," political scientist Asel Doolotkeldieva told Nikkei Asia. "The party bosses, the 120 deputies in the parliament care only about their private interests and using the state for their private gain, fully abandoning the population."

Japarov supporters: In a December poll, 64% of respondents said they intended to vote for him, with just 3% supporting his closest rival.   © Reuters

This has led to disenchantment with the parliamentary system that was introduced following a revolution in 2010. Japarov -- who has popular, widespread support among Kyrgyzstan's traditional nationalists and conservative voters -- has harnessed these feelings by calling for a return to presidential rule. By default, the strongman president would take over responsibility for the economic development of the country.

Japarov is "manipulating this very deep-seated frustration of the people with the economic situation" and "trying to sell his candidacy and the strong presidential system as the only way to redress the economy, the only way to strengthen the state and the nation," Doolotkeldieva added.

The economic situation is indeed grim amid the global coronavirus downturn. The Asian Development Bank forecasts a 10% contraction for the country in 2020 -- much deeper than its projection of a 2.1% decline for Central Asia as a whole. Strapped for cash, Kyrgyzstan last year pleaded for relief on $1.8 billion it owes the Export-Import Bank of China on loans taken for Belt and Road projects. Beijing late in the year offered a grace period, at 2% interest.

At the time, Niva Yau, a researcher at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, told Nikkei Asia that China was waiting for the presidential election "to see first who they are dealing with" before making any other commitments.

Within Kyrgyzstan, the turmoil that followed last year's parliamentary election briefly raised hopes for cleaner politics. Opposition groups banded together to protest the allegedly rigged vote, but the hopes were quickly dashed as Japarov and his shadowy backers moved swiftly to fill the power vacuum. The results of the contentious vote were annulled on Oct. 6.

In days, Japarov was in charge, after Jeenbekov became the third Kyrgyz president forced to step down since independence in 1991. Jeenbekov said he did not want to shoot his own people.

Although the protests were about the parliamentary poll, no date has been set for a rerun. And with Japarov now expected to romp home to a presidential victory, Doolotkeldieva predicted "the post-electoral period will be quiet."

She feels his opponents are unlikely to contest the results "by creating trouble" and "will not use violence, they will not go for clashes. They will not use their support base to go against Japarov."

The turmoil that followed Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary election last fall briefly raised hopes for a new brand of politics.   © Reuters

Doolotkeldieva explained that since October, Japarov has prepared the ground for an "easy victory."

"In late October he placed his own people to occupy the key positions of the state" in order to smooth his path to power, she said. "He has control of the key state bodies and all branches of power."

Also on the agenda on Sunday is the vote on Kyrgyzstan's system of rule.

In November, new constitutional proposals that would see parliament sidelined and power consolidated in the office of a president were presented to the legislature. The intention was to vote on these proposed changes on Jan. 10, but after some pushback by opponents the plan was put on the back burner.

A simplified referendum will offer voters a choice between the parliamentary and presidential systems, or neither. The CAB research from December showed 80% of respondents in favor of Kyrgyzstan becoming a presidential republic and just 14% supporting a parliamentary system.

2021 is already shaping up to be a dark year for democracy's prospects in Central Asia. As Kyrgyzstan takes a turn toward a more authoritarian style of rule, its neighbor Kazakhstan is holding a parliamentary election the same day. A field of five pro-government parties will contest the vote, with the only registered opposition party boycotting the poll.

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