POST MORTEMS ON KYRGYZSTAN’S PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION.
Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 207
The presidential election just held in Kyrgyzstan is being assessed severely by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United States government. The incumbent President Askar Akaev won reelection to a third term of office with 74 percent of the votes cast. Five challengers split the rest. According to the monitoring mission of the OSCE and its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the election was neither free nor fair. Further, it shows that Kyrgyzstan is failing to meet its obligations before the OSCE in terms of conducting democratic elections. The monitoring mission objects also to the legal bars which eliminated Feliks Kulov and other potentially strong candidates from the race. And it criticizes the Kyrgyz authorities for failing to correct the procedural violations which OSCE/ODIHR had listed in its assessment of Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary elections in February-March of this year (see the Monitor, February 17, 28, March 14, 28, September 20, October 23, 27, November 2; Fortnight in Review, September 22).
The U.S. State Department agreed with the OSCE’s preliminary assessments that the conduct of the election fell short of international standards and that it denied the people of Kyrgyzstan their right of free political choice. In Vienna, OSCE Chairman-in-Office Benita Ferrero-Waldner issued a somewhat more nuanced assessment. The international and internal observers did not register any fraud during the balloting and the vote counting which would have significantly affected the overall outcome.
In their post-election statements, Akaev, his top political advisers and Central Electoral Commission chairman Suleyman Imanbaev were careful to show deference to the OSCE’s assessments. But they did term those assessments “excessively severe” and say that they reflected an insufficient appreciation of “local conditions.”
Akaev owed his landslide not only to massive and unfair use of the incumbency advantage during the pre-election campaign, but also to the narrow social base of his rivals. According to evaluations published in Moscow, Kulov could not have won the election even if registered as a candidate. He would have carried part of the urban and leftist-Russian vote, but would have been heavily outpolled in the countryside by Akaev.
The issue of the national language was injected in the campaign. Several candidates failed the legally required Kyrgyz language test and Kulov, who does not speak the language, refused to sit for the test. OSCE and U.S. representatives lobbied for Kulov and the other disqualified candidates to be registered, and criticized the language requirement as being, effectively, an instrument for the authorities to exclude challengers from the race. To meet that demand, however, the authorities would have had to either ignore the electoral law, the language law and probably the constitution, or change them in the runup to the election.
The campaign evidenced the absence not only of democratic government but also of a viable democratic alternative in Kyrgyzstan. Akaev’s main challengers were leftists who promised a “new socialism,” had the support of the two Communist parties in the republic and seemed intent on drawing closer to Moscow in foreign policy at the cost of other relationships.
Kulov, a dyed-in-the-wool Chekist who had staked much on Russian support, was not Moscow’s choice in this election. The Kremlin decided to side with the incumbent Akaev, correctly evaluating the latter’s impregnable position in Kyrgyzstan and his capacity to deliver on bilateral agreements with Russia. For similar reasons, the Kremlin–both under Boris Yeltsin and under Vladimir Putin–consistently backed the incumbent Central Asian presidents in the elections held in recent years. During the Kyrgyz electoral campaign, Putin and other Russian officials openly declared their preference for working with Akaev during the coming five years of the latter’s presidential term. These endorsements helped Akaev win a majority of the urban Russian vote and increase his victory margin.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov also publicly endorsed Akaev before the election. Not only from Tashkent but also on a visit to Bishkek, Karimov declared that were he a Kyrgyz, he would personally cast his ballot for Akaev. Karimov’s gesture could not have failed to influence voters in the Uzbek-inhabited regions of southern Kyrgyzstan. As did the Kremlin, Karimov opted for stability and continuity. The visit of Turkey’s President Ahmet Necdet Sezer before the election was also a political boost to Akaev. It also brought several million dollars worth of Turkish military assistance to the fledgling Kyrgyz army.
Akaev’s reelection presages the continuation of his policy of balance among several power centers. He will defer to the interests of both Russia and Uzbekistan, the two powers competing for influence both in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere in Central Asia. He will persist in cultivating relations with neighboring China, looking to the Shanghai-Five forum for a partial counterweight to both the CIS and Uzbekistan in terms of regional security. He will remain open to an incipient special relationship with Turkey, short of antagonizing Moscow. He will seek a resumption of Japanese investments and credits, the flow of which almost dried up in the wake of the recent Islamist insurgencies in southern Kyrgyzstan. During last year’s hostage crisis, Akaev demonstrated that he values highly the relationship with Japan and can be responsive to Japanese interests.
Akaev will almost certainly take some initiatives to mend fences with both Washington and the OSCE. He has announced the intention to accelerate privatization of state property in the hope of generating income for the state budget, which has been driven to the verge of insolvency by extraordinary military expenses. The country has won a breathing spell of internal stability in advance of a possible resumption of Islamist attacks–“Batken 3 and “Batken 4”–in the spring (Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 31; Kabar news agency, Bishkek Radio, Kyrgyz Television, Itar-Tass, October 30-November 5).
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