Kyrgyzstan sets stage for open presidential election

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Competitive elections are few and far between in Central Asia, a region better known for its longstanding, autocratic leaders. But gold-exporting Kyrgyzstan is on course for the region’s most open presidential election in history with dozens of candidates in contention as the ruling party’s control over the ballot slips.

The Social Democratic party on Saturday agreed to officially nominate Sooronbai Jeenbekov, the prime minister, as its candidate for the October poll. However, in a sign of the uncertainty around the election, Chynybai Tursunbekov, a party colleague and parliamentary speaker, confirmed he would also stand.

In stark contrast to elections in neighbouring states such as Kazakhstan, Taijikistan and Turkmenistan where incumbents typically claim victory with more than 90 per cent of the vote, Mr Jeenbekov and Mr Tursunbekov join 26 other candidates in the wide open race to succeed Almazbek Atambayev, who is standing down after one six-year term in office, as prescribed by law.

Foreign investors have viewed political succession as a growing risk in Central Asia, following the unexpected death of Islam Karimov, the former Uzbek president, last year, and the advancing age of veteran rulers in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.

“Disillusionment with previous governments and a demand for new faces has led to the emergence of multitude of candidates and intense competition between financial resources and administrative tools,” said Kate Mallinson, associate fellow for the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House. “A second round is looking likely and if the results are not clear there is a danger that there could be a stand-off.”

While it lacks the major oil and gas deposits of its neighbours and the resulting economic dependence on the commodity market, Kyrgyzstan nevertheless was hit by a slowdown in 2014, thanks to contagion from the economic travails in key trading partners Russia and Kazakhstan.

Public discontent at the prolonged slowdown, alongside the SPDK’s failure to stamp its authority on the succession process is seen as the factor behind the large cast of candidates.

Two former prime ministers have thrown their hat in the ring, alongside business executives. Two candidates are in jail, and another is technically banned from running because of a conviction for corruption while serving as speaker.

“Most of the election platforms, to put it mildly, are not impressive. There is an outpouring of populist promises, which even the candidates themselves must hardly believe,” said Nurlan Sadykov, director of the Institute for Constitutional Policy, a local think-tank.

“We can see that the majority of candidates do not see the main problems facing our society,” Mr Sadykov told the 24.kg news agency.

A former member of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan maintains good relations with Moscow but has also embraced neighbouring China’s One Belt One Road strategy to build trade links to Europe across Central Asia.

After being confirmed as the party’s candidate, Mr Jeenbekov, 58, said he would ensure “further development of relations with neighbouring countries”.

“We will maintain and bring to a new level strategic partnership with Russia,” said the prime minister, a close associate of the outgoing president. “[And] Kyrgyzstan will continue traditional relations of partnership with the countries, with which it has diplomatic relations: the European Union, the United States, and Japan.”

Mr Tursunbekov’s decision to run against his prime minister raises fears of a widening division in the ruling SPDK, which has been in power since a bloody uprising in 2010 that killed thousands and deposed the former president.

“We’ll have twice as many votes as if one candidate participates. Not everyone likes Jeenbekov, not everyone likes Tursunbekov . . . [the public] has the possibility to choose,” Mr Tursenbekov said on Saturday as his fellow party members endorsed the prime minister’s candidacy. “There is no split within the party,” he added.

Much could hinge on the country’s distinct political geographic division. Mr Jeenbekov is from the south, an area with large Uzbek and Tajik communities. One major rival, Omurbek Babanov, a former prime minister, hails from the more ethically Kyrgyz north.

“The divide between the north and the south of the country also heavily influences the playing field,” said Ms Mallinson. “And vitally, Russia has yet to reveal which candidate it will back.”

Source: Financial Times

by: Henry Foy

https://www.ft.com/content/d07f919c-6a01-11e7-bfeb-33fe0c5b7eaa

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