This week Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced that he would chair his newly formed electoral bloc, Ak Zhol, which unites all major pro-presidential political parties. Bakiyev’s bloc will be the frontrunner in the snap parliamentary elections anticipated after the referendum on Sunday, October 21. Al Zhol held its founding congress on October 15, but barely one day later Bakiyev temporarily resigned as its leader, citing constitutional requirements. Most Ak Zhol members are veteran politicians, individuals who are already engaged in the government and parliament. Opposition parties and local NGOs are strongly opposed to Bakiyev’s referendum, and poll watchers widely expect the voting result will be largely falsified.
Bakiyev’s bloc consolidated quickly and came up with its own political program in just days, after uniting various political forces. Members of the bloc’s political parities are all interested in being a part of the pro-regime force, as its chances of winning a majority of parliamentary seats are growing by the day. Smaller parties are especially interested in joining the ruling majority, since they have a limited time to prepare for early parliamentary elections.
The Republican Party of Labor and Unity is also expected to join Ak Zhol soon. Its leaders, Zhanysh Bakiyev and Zhusup Bakiyev, both brothers of President Bakiyev, have made clumsy statements showing their support of the referendum. Ak Zhol is also negotiating with Ata Zhurt, Moya Strana, Sodruzhestvo, the Liberal Progressive Party, and United Kyrgyzstan. The bloc is already the largest political formation to compete for parliamentary elections (Akipress.kg, October 17). Ak Zhol’s interests will best be served by the new constitution up for approval in the referendum to be held this weekend.
To date, only a handful of political parties represent genuine competition to Ak Zhol. These parties include the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, led by Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev; Asaba, led by MP Azimbek Beknazarov and former foreign minister Roza Otunbayeva; Akshumkar, led by MPs Osmonbek Artykbayev, Kubatbek Baibolov, and Baktybek Beshimov; and Ata Meken, led by MPs Omurbek Tekebayev and Bolot Sherniyazov. However, the opposition, being dominated by a few popular political leaders and NGO activists, still shows little inclination for consolidation.
In many aspects the upcoming referendum reminds observers of the one held by former president Askar Akayev in February 2003. At that time Akayev tried to convince voters that an increasing crisis among the government and the opposition had forced him to organize a referendum. Ironically, Bakiyev and State Secretary Adakhan Madumarov opposed Akayev’s 2003 referendum. At that election the government claimed an 86% turnout and 78% support. However, Bermet Bukasheva, a respected opposition journalist, claims that in 2003 only some 40% of the population voted and that the government largely forged the elections results (Akipress.kg, October 17).
So far, the slogans Bakiyev chose to promote his political bloc are rather inappropriate, given his existing reputation. For example, he has proclaimed that Ak Zhol’s top priority will be fighting corruption, and he even accused some business figures involved in the energy sector of pocketing large sums of money. Bakiyev also tried to assure the public that his political bloc is “not a party of power and bureaucrats, but hard working people.” But these accusations seem naive against the background of rising corruption rates among members of his government and family (24.kg, October 15).
The 2003 referendum was one of the reasons behind the mass protests in February-March 2005 that then led to Akayev’s ouster. The amendments had allowed Akayev to have a small, controllable parliament.
If Ak Zhol wins an overwhelming majority in the next parliament, new political tensions are inevitable in Kyrgyzstan. A number of local NGO activists have been complaining that the government is suppressing the activities of any movements that call for cancellation of the referendum. One such demonstration was staged in Tokmok, a city west of Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. According to Maxim Kuleshov, an NGO activist and ardent critic of the referendum, the formation of a strong pro-presidential bloc could signify the beginning of widespread challenges to the freedom of speech in the country. Local NGOs will stage another protest tomorrow, October, 19 to persuade the public to ignore the referendum.
Bakiyev’s latest moves are increasingly reminiscent of his counterparts in neighboring countries. Al Zhol resembles Tajikistan’s People’s Democratic Party and Kazakhstan’s Nur Otan party. Bakiyev is in control of the dominant political bloc in Kyrgyzstan, just like Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev act as chairmen of these parties. They are able to use administrative resources and local government officials to win parliamentary majorities and marginalize the opposition, and Bakiyev may be planning to adopt those habits as well.