Voters in Kyrgyzstan are set to cast their ballots in parliamentary elections on October 4 after a campaign highlighted by allegations of vote-buying and a rift over the how much influence Moscow has over its closest ally in Central Asia.
Sixteen political parties are competing for seats in the 120-member Jogorku Kenesh (the Supreme Council) in the election, with pro-government parties Birimdik and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan expected to be frontrunners in the race, ahead of opposition groups Ata-Meken and Respublika.
Kyrgyzstan’s electoral laws stipulate that no single party can take more than 65 seats in the legislature, a departure from a trend in Central Asia where ruling parties dominate rubberstamp parliaments.
Since the early 1990s, Kyrgyzstan has been called an “island of democracy” in Central Asia. Still, like all of the country’s election campaigns, this one has had its share of controversies. But it has also shown once again how very different the country’s elections are compared with its authoritarian, undemocratic neighbors.
Criticism of President Sooronbai Jeenbekov and the Kyrgyz government has been heard frequently on the campaign trail and in the many debates that are held on prime-time television almost every night on a range of topics and with pro-government and opposition candidates taking part.
Smaller parties have accused Birimdik, widely considered loyal to Jeenbekov, of using administrative resources to promote its candidates, an allegation the party denies. The president’s brother Asylbek Jeenbekov and several high-ranking members of the current parliament are among the party’s candidates.
Mekenim Kyrgyzstan is closely associated to the wealthy and influential Matraimov family.
The clan’s figurehead, Raiymbek Matraimov, a former top customs official, was the target of large protests in November and December last year, with demonstrators demanding a probe into allegations of corruption and massive outflows of cash from the country.
Some of the new parties in Kyrgyzstan are, according to professor and columnist Asel Doolotkeldieva, only a cover for “long-standing, informal elite political and economic networks.”
Meanwhile, Birimdik party chairman, Marat Amankulov, drew criticism and even a protest rally after a video – from several months ago – emerged that shows him saying it was time for Kyrgyzstan to reconsider its independence and “return” to Russia’s fold.
In the leaked video, Amankulov added that the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, which includes post-Soviet states Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, should become a single country.
Hundreds of protesters gathered in Bishkek on September 27, calling on election authorities to bar Amankulov and his party from running in the election. Amankulov said his comments were taken out of context.
The protest in Bishkek came a day before President Jeenbekov held a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
In the meeting with the Russian leader, Jeenbekov spoke of “forces” that “try to drive a wedge into the [Kyrgyz-Russia] relationship and strategic partnership.”
“We won’t let them succeed because the support of Russia for us is the main thing, it’s very important,” Jeenbekov said.
Russia hosts hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from the impoverished former Soviet nation of some 6.5 million. The COVID-19 pandemic and measures to contain it have dried up work for migrants in Russia, reduced remittances, and led to a rise in unemployment in Kyrgyzstan.
The election campaign was also marred by allegations of violence when at least 12 people were hospitalized, and several vehicles set on fire after a scuffle between supporters of Mekenim Kyrgyzstan and Birimdik in the southern Osh Province.
The brawl occurred during a Mekenim Kyrgyzstan party meeting with voters in Aravan district on September 20, when a group of people – described by local media as Birimdik supporters – interrupted the event. Police said some 100 people were involved in the fight.
On October 1, the Respublika party claimed that one of its activists had been stabbed to death by a supporter of another unspecified political party in the southern district of Uzgen on September 30.
The party said that another campaign member was beaten up in Naryn Province, while the head of the party’s election campaign in Panfilov district in Chuy Province had come “under an explicit pressure.”
Respublika said in a statement that its members and supporters had faced pressure and physical attacks since the beginning of the election campaign.
The election comes as Kyrgyz authorities warn of a rise in COVID-19 infections, with some regions re-imposing restrictions on people’s movements.
Political parties mostly defied warnings by health authorities and held large gatherings with supporters.