Economist: An election in Kyrgyzstan is cleaner than usual

But an air of thuggishness still prevails

The last time Kyrgyzstan had a general election, just over a year ago, the consequences were, by any democratic criterion, far from orthodox—and even by the eccentric and sometimes violent standards of the mountain republic they were unusual. When the incumbent president wangled a parliamentary majority with copious vote-buying, protests erupted that led to his resignation. At the same time Sadyr Japarov, who was serving a ten-year prison term for kidnapping, was sprung by his backers from jail at night and propelled into the posts of prime minister and acting president. He was subsequently confirmed as president at an election in January. Now, in the parliamentary election that he oversaw on November 28th, a majority was duly found to support his agenda. And this time a revolution looks less likely.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which monitors elections among other things, pronounced this one broadly “competitive”. Vote-buying was less blatant and the poll was fairer than usual, at least by the low standards of Central Asia.

All the same, there is plenty to worry about in the region’s smallest and most fragile state. Democracy is hardly secure. Parliament has rarely stood up to Kyrgyzstan’s presidents, several with reputations for corruption and high-handedness. Mr Japarov has pushed through constitutional changes to strengthen presidential powers at the expense of parliament, whose membership he has thinned. This week’s election result was meant to be a vote of confidence. A deputy prime minister recently predicted that Kyrgyzstan would “take off like a rocket” afterwards.

Alas, lift-off may be delayed. Pro-government parties, most of them newly minted marriages of convenience, did indeed do well, taking most of the 54 party-list seats. Mr Japarov’s backers also won a good number of single-seat districts. The president now commands a clear majority in the 90-seat house.

But proponents of reform and clean government made little headway. A turnout of 35% suggests an alarming level of fatigue among voters, after four nationwide plebiscites in just over a year. The new, mixed electoral system bewildered many; nearly 10% of ballots were spoiled. Actual policy was hardly debated by candidates during the campaign.

Above all, despite its relative cleanness, the election did nothing to dispel an air of thuggishness and dirty dealing that hangs over Mr Japarov’s regime. The brother of the president’s feared security chief, Kamchybek Tashiyev, won a seat. A neighbouring district was easily claimed by the brother of an immensely powerful mafia kingpin, Rayimbek Matraimov, who has been accused of benefiting from a host of cross-border smuggling rackets.

Earlier this year Mr Japarov made a great show of Mr Matraimov’s arrest and admission of guilt, though it was unclear precisely what crimes had been acknowledged. But his fine of $3,000 looks like a good bargain for Mr Matraimov, who, in a land where state welfare barely exists, stays popular in his southern fief by sprinkling it with hospitals and mosques.

A few days after the election, thuggishness was on display in a street in Bishkek, the capital, when masked goons set about an opposition leader, Omurbek Tekebayev, who has castigated Mr Japarov, especially over the expropriation of Kyrgyzstan’s biggest foreign-exchange earner, Kumtor gold mine, from its Canadian owner.

That kind of intimidation, plus a reservoir of popularity for Mr Japarov in some quarters, may for the time being deter unrest of the sort that has curtailed three presidencies in the past decade or so. Yet Askar Sydykov, who heads the International Business Council, a lobby for the country’s beleaguered entrepreneurs, says businesspeople have a litany of problems: inflation; wild swings in the value of the som, the national currency; pandemic-related disruptions to cross-border trade; and energy shortages exacerbated by government corruption and ineptitude, just as winter begins to bite.

Mr Japarov claims, somewhat plausibly, that he inherited these failings. But voters will not swallow this excuse for long—especially since he has grabbed so many levers of power.,
Dec. 4, 2021