As the July 23 presidential election approaches in Kyrgyzstan, the number of contenders is rapidly dwindling. From the original twenty two candidates registered to run for the presidency, the number has now dropped to seven. The list will continue shrinking further, according to Kyrgyz experts, with only the most zealous candidates remaining. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev continues to be the most formidable candidate, while the opposition is badly divided.
In the run-up to the election, Bakiyev has been using both soft and hard power to sideline his opponents. The Kyrgyz president has regularly emphasized the importance of economic growth and national security. In the past few weeks the government has produced a myriad of positive reports concerning the state of the national economy, while the security council has discussed threats emanating from Afghanistan. Furthermore, Bakiyev has been forcing through the construction of the Kambarata-1 hydropower station, as well as several other critical infrastructure projects. The recent visit of the Turkish President Abdullah Gul to Bishkek was almost entirely focused on the domestic economic agenda.
In the meantime, opposition leaders complain that the Bakiyev regime is habitually disrupting their pre-election activities. According to Bakyt Beshimov, government-hired provocateurs have tried to interrupt several of the opposition’s gatherings (www.24.kg, June 3). Furthermore, local law-enforcement forces control the opposition’s daily activities within rural areas. At recent events organized by the opposition leaders, provocateurs and policemen attacked opposition members of parliament (MP’s). Among these were MP’s from the Social Democratic Party (SDP) Kubanychbek Kadyrov and Roza Otunbayeva, as well as the leaders of the Ata Meken party Omurbek Tekebyav and Bolot Sherniyazov -who were interrogated by police within the past few days.
To date, the United Opposition Movement, which is composed of several opposition parties, has been unable to demonstrate how and whether it will become a real challenge to Bakiyev. Achieving unity at the elections was the main goal for these opposition parties. However, the movement is fractious and divided between its leaders. Two candidates from the opposition movement are running against Bakiyev. Shortly after the leader of the Social Democratic Party Almazbek Atambayev, announced his decision to run for president, his counterpart from the Akshumkar party Temir Sariyev also registered. Many within the opposition expect Sariyev to drop out from the race. In the event that Sariyev continues to resist this pressure, the opposition parties will have fewer resources to mount any challenge against the election results.
The lack of unity among the opposition also undermines their ability to persuade more government officials to defect from the Bakiyev regime. Earlier this year, opposition leaders hoped that they would be able to gather large crowds in order to oppose the regime -even before the election. In case Bakiyev deployed either the police or the armed forces against the crowds, the opposition leaders anticipated that law-enforcement structures might collaborate with them. However, there is little sign that any of the law-enforcement structures – from the police to the prosecutor-general – are ready to risk their affiliation with the regime.
Aside from Atambayev and Sariyev, Bakiyev’s other competitors are too politically weak to represent any credible challenge to his regime. Some candidates were unable to collect the necessary number of signatures, while several candidates failed a Kyrgyz language exam – a filter invented by the previous regime led by Askar Akayev.
To secure international support, Bakiyev was able to cement relations with the United States around the Manas airbase in Bishkek. Experts in Bishkek argue that the Manas base will continue functioning for several years, with Washington increasing aid to Kyrgyzstan. Although officially the U.S. base will close on August 18, Bakiyev will most likely announce new developments around the basing issue shortly before or after the elections.
Cooperation with the United States prevails, despite Bakiyev’s promise in Moscow in February to expel the base. Simultaneously, the Kyrgyz government has continued to advance its cooperation with Russia. Recently, the Kyrgyz interior ministry announced that it will contribute a brigade to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization’s rapid reaction forces.
Less than two months prior to the presidential elections, Bakiyev appears to be its most likely winner. Opposition forces have failed to seize the opportunity to confront his regime. Unless the opposition movement chooses one single candidate to run against Bakiyev, it is bound to fail. The movement lacks unity, while the president is utilizing all the available opportunities to improve his image at home, and maximizing the leverage of the country’s international ties. Russian opposition to the U.S. base in Bishkek, and the latter’s interest to retain it, enables Bakiyev to stay in power regardless of his low domestic approval rating.