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Does dictatorship await Kyrgyzstan after vote?

Emily Sherwin Bishkek
January 9, 2021

Polls have opened as Kyrgyzstan votes for a new president and on constitutional changes. The election comes after protests ousted the government. but some fear it could bring the wrong sort of change.

Billboard advertising presidential candidate Sadyr Zhdaparov in Bishkek

All around Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, one name dominates presidential campaign posters: Sadyr Zhaparov.

The politician peers down from banners and his advertisements flash on screens. One video shows hands — clearly Zhaparov's — taking apart the mechanism of a watch completely, before putting it back together again, restarting time. Another shows a muddle of hands playing a fast game of chess, until one hand sweeps the board clear.

In his campaign, Zhaparov has promised a new start for Kyrgyzstan and an end to the corrupt infighting between various clans that has often plagued the political landscape in the Central Asian country.

Zhaparov is leading the latest independent polls, far ahead of 16 other candidates on the ballot. And that is despite refusing to take part in two rounds of televised presidential debates, which Zhaparov dismissed as "gossip debates."

Candidate Sadyr Zhaparov being offered fried bread at an election rally in Tokmok
Candidate Zhaparov has presented himself as a man of the people in his campaignImage: Vladimir Pirogov/REUTERS

Zhaparov was serving a prison sentence for kidnapping until protesters freed him during the demonstrations against the results of parliamentary elections in early October, which forced the resignation of the government. Zhaparov became acting president. He resigned in November to be eligible to run for office again on January 10.

At Osh market, one of Bishkek's biggest, many people say they see a Zhaparov presidency as a move towards stability, in a country that has seen three revolutions in the last fifteen years, but is often held as a paragon of democracy among post-Soviet states.

"We want one strong president, a Khan. Kyrgyzstan used to have a Khan — when the Khan works, Kyrgyzstan lives!" one man tells DW, referring to the autocratic rulers that used to run Central Asian countries. He enthusiastically pumps the air with his fist.

A man of the people

On Sunday, voters are also casting ballots in a referendum on constitutional changes, which were initiated by Zhaparov. The changes would give Kyrgyzstan a presidential system of government rather than the current mixed system, reducing the power of the parliament, which analysts say people have been disappointed with.

Zhaparov did not comment to DW, but he has blamed the country's ongoing political crisis on the current system.

Bread stands at a market in Bishkek
At Bishkek's Osh market, people say they are tired of economic and political upheaval Image: Emily Sherwin/DW

People at the market told DW they see the referendum as part of Zhaparov's promised cleanup and fight against corruption. "When there is one, single head of a household that is good. Too many people running a household is bad," one shopper comments in between stalls of bread. 

"Zhaparov is perceived as a people's leader and not as a representative of the oligarch class," political analyst Mars Sariev explains. Experts point out that Zhaparov, who is from a small village in the north of the country, is particularly popular in the countryside. He gained a broad social media following while serving a prison sentence his supporters see as politically motivated.

"Zhaparov is their guy," Bishkek-based political scientist Elmira Nogoibaeva says of voters living outside the Kyrgyz capital. "He is from the regions, he was in prison, he was in the opposition and he was subject to repression by the previous government. That is why a lot of people support him. On the other hand, now he is initiating a lot of changes that could be linked to an unlawful takeover of power," she explains, referring to the referendum.

Read more: Russians vote on constitutional changes

Artist Altyn Kapalova and another activist draw a placard ahead of a protest against the proposed constitutional reforms
Artist Altyn Kapalova (r) prepares for a protest against the proposed constitutional reforms Image: Emily Sherwin/DW

Marching for freedom

Altyn Kapalova, a feminist activist and artist agrees. She has been marching with the opposition group "Bashtan Basha," which translates as a call to start over from scratch. The group has been pushing back against the constitutional changes and against Zhaparov on social media and in weekly protests on Sundays.

"I have the impression that Sadyr Zhaparov is creating a constitution so that he can stay in power for life like a Khan. He just needs a throne," Kapalova says. "These aren't even politicians, these are just criminal groups, people who come to power not in order to develop the country but to enrich themselves and get more power," she says of Zhaparov and his allies.

Protesters march against constitutional changes in the capital Bishkek
Protesters in Bishkek say the constitutional changes could see Kyrgyzstan slip towards dictatorshipImage: Emily Sherwin/DW

Unlike at the market, a Khan is not what people here want. As they walk through the snowy cold, the small number of protesters shout for a "Government without a Khan!" and chant "No to the referendum!" in Kyrgyz.

Altyn Kapalova believes some of the changes in the new constitution may be aimed at curtailing freedom of speech. One section says that publications that don't conform with moral values and traditions of the people of Kyrgyzstan will be banned.

"Everything will be tightly controlled, and the government will have the tools, which they will call laws, to put anyone who says something they don't like behind bars," Kapalova says.

Read more: Kazakhstan rewrites its alphabet to shed its Soviet past

Certainty — with a twist?

Still, even Sadyr Zhaparov's fiercest critics seem to believe his victory and the constitutional changes he proposed are a foregone conclusion. "Zhaparov will be the winner, that is definite. His opponents don't come close," political scientist Mars Sariev predicts.

The guards at a military monument on Bishkek’s Ala-Too square
Kyrgyzstan has been rocked by three revolutions in the last fifteen yearsImage: Emily Sherwin/DW

But experts also agree that changes in the election could be far from final — and think there could be new protests soon. "The question is how the situation will be after the elections. By the end of the summer or by autumn, there could be a destabilization due to economic difficulties," Sariev says. Kyrgyzstan has been pushed to its economic edge by the coronavirus pandemic. It was the first country to receive emergency financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over COVID-19 and has had to postpone several debt repayments.

Political scientist Elmira Nogoibaeva predicts yet another revolution as early as the spring. "You could think that the protests in October were all for nothing — if this weren't Kyrgyzstan," the independent analyst says, pointing to the country's history of fast political upheaval.

"In Kyrgyzstan, people always say that everything is already decided. But every time we say that a week passes, and then everything changes."