The political stakes are intensifying in Kyrgyzstan as the presidential elections scheduled for July 23 has revealed that several political leaders might challenge the incumbent president Kurmanbek Bakiyev. The country’s main opposition bloc, the United National Movement (UNM), however, is currently frantically searching for suitable candidate that would represent a credible challenge to Bakiyev. The UNM candidate’s tasks would be to unify the opposition and prevent the falsification of the election results. Surprisingly, on April 1, Omurbek Tekebayev, leader of the Ata Meken party and also a member of the UNM, announced his decision not to run for president in July (www.24.kg, April 1).
Tekebayev was mooted as a potential presidential candidate during former president Askar Akayev’s reign. He previously served as a parliamentary speaker, while Ata Meken is one of the largest and oldest political parties in Kyrgyzstan. His announcement has raised many questions amongst his supporters. Local newspapers speculated on whether the opposition leader was pressured by the ruling regime to withdraw from forthcoming presidential election.
Inside the UNM, Tekebayev’s move was regarded as an effort to unite and strengthen the opposition at the expense of his own political ambitions. "Everyone thought that he would die for a presidential term, but Tekebayev proved to be just the contrary", commented one UNM leader to Jamestown. Should the opposition prevail at the elections, Tekebayev will still play a significant role in the government.
Another UNM member suggested that one of the main reasons for Tekebayev’s decision not to run for president is his lack of sufficient financial resources. He is surrounded by opposition leaders with a stronger financial base. According to UNM estimates, a presidential candidate in Kyrgyzstan needs up to $10 million to constitute a viable electoral challenge to the current regime. The funds would be spent on campaigning as well as gathering crowds to contest election results in case they proved to be rigged.
With Tekebayev out of the contest, the opposition is now looking for an alternative candidate. The informal short list of candidates thus far includes four leaders: former MP Temir Sariyev, MP Baktybek Beshimov, former Prime Minister and the leader of Social Democratic Party Almazbek Atambayev, and the former MP Kubatbek Baibolov. All of these candidates enjoy popularity among voters and have previously supported Bakiyev. But they will need to decide amongst each other, as to which will choose to run for president. Ravshan Jeenbekov, the leader of Ata Meken believes that aside from collecting the necessary funds, any candidate from the UNM would be potentially risking their personal safety. The recent suspicious death of Medet Sadyrkulov, Bakiyev’s ex-aide and an influential politician, and the severe beating of an opposition journalist last month, showed that the political opponents of the regime might face violent attempts to curb their actions (EDM, March 16).
According to Jeenbekov, the UNM is currently struggling to prevent Bakiyev from running in the elections. "Should Bakiyev try to get re-elected, the elections will be rigged and the results predictable," claimed Jeenbekov. The opposition is planning to stage more demonstrations before and after the elections "to pressure Bakiyev to leave the political stage", concluded Jeenbekov. The UNM will renew its demonstrations on April 20. The movement is investing considerable financial resources into organizing mass protests, threatening Bakiyev that its actions in Bishkek will be open-ended.
The opposition is also preparing for Bakiyev’s use of the armed forces against the demonstrations. The UNM is currently negotiating with members of the security structures to refuse to obey any order to use force or abandon the Bakiyev regime altogether when anti-government demonstrations become large-scale. Some UNM members also fear that mass demonstration might escalate into an armed conflict between the government forces and demonstrators. In the worst case scenario, "everyone already has weapons," Jeenbekov told Jamestown.
According to Jenishbek Nazaraliyev, a Kyrgyz political expert, the opposition’s inability to find a candidate is its main weakness. In the meantime, Nazaraliyev has warned that Bakiyev is actively seeking Moscow’s support. Russia’s first $150 million tranche has been transferred to Kyrgyzstan and might be used in Bakiyev’s election bid this summer (www.24.kg, April 1). The tranche is part of Moscow’s’ promised $2 billion investment into the Kyrgyz economy. Bolot Sherniyazov, a member of the UNM believes the party will announce its candidate by April 10, (www.akipress.kg, April 1). Whether Tekebayev’s decision will indeed help to unite the opposition and present a realistic alternative to Bakiyev, will only be clarified after the announcement of a candidate that the opposition can rally around.