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In Kyrgyzstan, An Unexpected Victory For Atambaev's Chosen Candidate

Presidential candidate Sooronbai Jeenbekov casts his ballot at a polling station during the presidential election in Bishkek on October 15. REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov
Presidential candidate Sooronbai Jeenbekov casts his ballot at a polling station during the presidential election in Bishkek on October 15. REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov

Sooronbai Jeenbekov has won Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election by a wider margin than anyone could have predicted during the campaign.

It was apparent several weeks ahead of polling day that the election would essentially be a contest between Jeenbekov, the candidate from the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) who had the support of incumbent President Almazbek Atambaev, and Omurbek Babanov, the multimillionaire leader of the Respublika party.

But polls by media outlets and predictions by the pundits suggested a much closer race than was actually the case on October 15.

Barely an hour after polls closed, preliminary results already showed Jeenbekov receiving more than 900,000 votes, easily more than the 50 percent-plus-one vote needed to be declared the outright winner of the election.

Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Commission said some 1.65 million eligible voters cast ballots.

Babanov will undoubtedly challenge the results.

As voters were still casting ballots, Babanov declared, “There is no fair election today.… Law enforcement authorities are interfering with the election. Is this what they call a fair election?”

Babanov’s complaints are unlikely to change anything. Atambaev anticipated such a response, saying as he voted on October 15 that “nobody will allow any nullification of the election results. Whoever the people elect will be elected.”

The final weeks of the campaign were marred by attacks on Babanov by some state media outlets, who insinuated the candidate had connections to oligarchs in Kazakhstan, especially after he met with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev on September 19; accused Babanov of inciting Kyrgyzstan’s ethnic Uzbeks to violence during a speech in southern Kyrgyzstan at the end of September; and said he may have been part of a plot to unleash a campaign of unrest in Kyrgyzstan if he lost.

An election campaign banner for Sooronbai Jeenbekov in the village of Kok-Zhar, near Bishkek
An election campaign banner for Sooronbai Jeenbekov in the village of Kok-Zhar, near Bishkek

Jeenbekov was equally dogged by accusations that administrative resources were being used to boost his chances on election day, accusations that will likely be repeated in the coming days as many question how Jeenbekov was able to gather so many votes.

For months there has been the question of who would win. But equally important was the question of how any announcement of victory would be received by Kyrgyzstan’s population.

The specter of revolutions in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 and 2010 that ousted previous presidents haunted this latest campaign. It remains to be seen how the country’s people will react to an outcome that just a few weeks ago seemed all but impossible.

There will be many doubts expressed about the results of the October 15 presidential election.

Babanov might have lost officially, but he still received more than one-third of the votes cast, including nearly 90 percent of the votes cast in his native Talas Province.

Much now will depend on whether Babanov gracefully accepts the results of this election.

As the apparent victor, Jeenbekov inherits a raft of problems, foremost the current feud with Kazakhstan, touched off by Atambaev’s continued criticism of what he believes was Kazakh interference in the election.

Atambaev’s public jabs at Kazakhstan, and at Nazarbaev, led Kazakhstan to tighten control over border crossings with Kyrgyzstan on October 10, a situation that remained as of election day in Kyrgyzstan.

Since Atambaev publicly supported Jeenebekov, it will likely now fall to Kyrgyzstan’s president-elect to figure out how to repair this damage to relations with one of Kyrgyzstan’s key partners, especially since, as Kazakh officials reminded, Kyrgyzstan’s main routes to the outside world run through Kazakhstan.

And while Jeenbekov vowed to continue the policies of Atambaev, many question how effective Atambaev’s policies have actually been for Kyrgyzstan.

While Kyrgyzstan has not suffered unrest under Atambaev, the country is far from prosperous, with hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz working abroad as migrant laborers, mainly in Russia and Kazakhstan, making Kyrgyzstan one of the most remittance-dependent countries in the world.

There are still no signs Kyrgyzstan’s economic prospects stand to improve anytime soon.

And there is the security problem.

Since citizens of Kyrgyzstan are accused of being involved in the deadly bombing of the St. Petersburg subway in April, Kyrgyzstan’s security forces have been hunting for, and finding, people allegedly connected to extremist groups.

Detentions of such people are reported regularly now, whereas not long ago such detentions happened but were infrequent, raising the question of just how bad Islamic militancy is in Kyrgyzstan.

Jeenbekov’s victory -- with some 55 percent of the vote -- represents the smallest percentage of votes ever received by a winner in a presidential election in Kyrgyzstan. So while Jeenbekov may have won, his mandate is not as solid as those of any of his predecessors.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.