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Kyrgyzstan elects Sadyr Japarov and opts for presidential government

Kyrgyzstan's snap presidential election resulted in a landslide victory for Sadyr Japarov. The vote came at the same time as a referendum on the population's preferred form of government, with over 80% choosing a presidential rather than parliamentary system. The referendum result paves the way for far-reaching constitutional changes.

Written by: Florian Coppenrath
Original article

A polling station in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyz voters headed to the polls, here in Bishkek

Kyrgyzstan’s snap presidential election resulted in a landslide victory for Sadyr Japarov. The vote came at the same time as a referendum on the population’s preferred form of government, with over 80% choosing a presidential rather than parliamentary system. The referendum result paves the way for far-reaching constitutional changes.

According to preliminary results after polls closed on 10 January, Sadyr Japarov has been elected president of Kyrgyzstan with 79.9% of the vote, avoiding a runoff. 84.18% of voters also opted for a presidential, not parliamentary, form of government in a referendum held at the same time as the election.

Turnout was low, around 33%, just above the 30% threshold required for the referendum results to be valid. In contrast, 56.2% of the electorate had voted in the previous presidential election in 2017.

After Rashid Tagaev withdrew from the race in late December, voters had 17 candidates to choose from, 16 men and one woman.

Snap elections following a political crisis

The position of president has been vacant since the resignation of President Sooronbay Jeenbekov on 15 October. This followed a controversial, and eventually annulled, parliamentary election marred by fraud in October. While the parliament postponed a new parliamentary election indefinitely, it also approved the organisation of the referendum on the form of government.

Read more on Novastan: Kyrgyzstan: President Sooronbay Jeenbekov steps down

In response to a request by the Supreme court of Kyrgyzstan, the Venice commission criticised the move: “One may have an impression that suspension of election motivated by a need of a constitutional reform is a purely instrumental perception of the Constitution and cannot be considered to be in line with democratic standards.” 

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In an overview of the events leading up to the election, Kloop.kg calls the political crisis that started in October a (non)revolution: “The protest, started by young politicians and those unhappy with the results of the elections, did not turn into a third revolution and has not yet changed the political elite.” In fact, Japarov emerged as the main winner of the crisis: after having been freed from prison on 6 October, he became interim president after Jeenbekov’s resignation and only left the position on 14 November.

A campaign with a clear frontrunner

The election campaign, launched in early December, was also dominated by Sadyr Japarov. While holding the office of interim president, Japarov nominated close allies to key positions in the state and disposed of by far the biggest campaign budget : 67 million som (nearly £600,000), or more than the budget of all the other candidates combined. Additionally, as Kloop.kg discovered, Japarov benefited from the support of organised social media trolls who previously worked for Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, one of the winners of the cancelled parliamentary election.       

As a result, as Deutsche Welle sums up, Japarov was “omnipresent” on banners and in TV spots. From his position as frontrunner, he refused to take part in the electoral debates organised by the state-owned television channel KTRK: “It’s more useful for all of us to meet the people. It’s more useful to be closer to the people”, he commented, calling the debates places for “defamation”. 

Read more on Novastan: Can Sadyr Japarov fulfil his promises?

Japarov appeals to the most deprived parts of Kyrgyzstan’s population, a connection he widely instrumentalises with populist references to “the people” as a whole. For example, interviewed after casting his vote, he stated that the money he spent for the electoral campaign was “gathered from the people”. He also evoked the possibility of “counter-revolutionary disorder” after the election, adding: “But I believe the Kyrgyz people will not let that happen”.       

Alleged violations on election day

In the wake of the overturned parliamentary election, monitoring violations during the electoral process seemed particularly sensitive. As in October, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) only sent a limited observation mission with 13 experts and 22 long-term observers to the poll, by whom “systematic observation of voting, counting or tabulation of results on election day is not envisaged”. 

But, widening a programme started in October, the independent online media Kloop.kg sent about 1,500 observers to voting stations all over the country and covered the electoral process throughout the day. In its live coverage of the election day, Kloop.kg documented alleged manipulations of the electoral outcome. In contrast with the October vote, electors had to vote at their local polling place, which reduced the organised transportation of loyal voters to strategic polling stations. 

There was also less vote-buying than in October, which may also be an explanation for the low turnout, as political expert Azim Azimov stated on Twitter. The head of the Electoral Commission also shared this view, noting that “the main factor impacting turnout was vote-buying”. However, observers reported cases of money being handed to voters and of third parties or members of electoral commissions holding separate lists of “loyal” voters.   

Most other problems concerned the violation of the secrecy of ballots in numerous polling stations. This was due to a lack of distance between third parties and ballot boxes and to members of the electoral commissions standing too close to citizens as they cast their vote, taking pictures of the ballot and sometimes even casting the vote in their stead.

Additionally, Kloop reports hundreds of violations of electoral rules due to malfunctioning electronic ballot scanners. The electronic voting system and biometric voter identification were first used in Kyrgyzstan in 2015 and are meant to prevent the most blatant forms of electoral fraud. 

Finally, in several cases, the work of observers was hindered by members of the electoral commission or by the police and sometimes their phones were confiscated.     

What next for Kyrgyzstan?

In a press conference late on 10 January, Japarov said he believed the election was fair: “Until I came to power I didn’t believe in the honesty of elections. But after I examined the work of the CEC (Central Electoral Commission), I’m convinced that everything there is going on honestly.” He further promised to build a fair judicial system and to fight corruption, evoking the October protests’ demands for lustration: “All work will be carried out openly and transparently. We will not tolerate political persecution and will not protect lawbreakers. We must cleanse ourselves of old bureaucrats and corrupt officials. This is the demand of the people.”

While the present election came as a result of big-scale protests in October, several members of the interim government claimed they would prevent a repetition of that scenario. As the interim prime minister, Artem Novikov, said after issuing his vote: “The government is prepared for possible provocations. I take this opportunity to call on all candidates in the election race to accept the results, whatever they may be, to show political will and responsibility to the country and to the citizens”.

The elections mark a new stage in the political transition started in October. Upon taking the position of the head of state, Japarov is planning to engage in a wide-ranging constitutional reform that will likely widen his powers at the expense of the parliament. A corresponding constitutional project had already been proposed in November and dubbed “khanstitution” by the opposition.  

Nonetheless, in the absence of proper socio-economic reforms, such a concentration of power could lead to yet “another cycle” of revolutions and foster “a normalization of revolts and forceful takeovers of power”, as sociologist Asel Doolotkeldieva wrote on Twitter in the morning. “I am saddened to see that people place high hopes in Japarov and strong president. Not understanding that unlimited unchecked presidency has been and will be a source of instability and economic degradation…

Florian Coppenrath
Founder of Novastan Deutsch

Valentine Baldassari
Editor of Novastan English

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