Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) (AFP)
Kyrgyzstan holds its first elections on Sunday since a recent political crisis embroiled the former Soviet country and saw a populist released from prison who is now tilted at the head of the poll.
Sadyr Japarov’s journey from prison to presidential leader is an example of the dramatic changes in political fortunes in this Central Asian country which is both more unpredictable and pluralistic than its authoritarian neighbors.
But critics of the combative Japarov, who became the interim leader during the October unrest, fear his victory could tip Kyrgyzstan towards the strongman rule dominant in the ex-Soviet region.
In the capital Bishkek, where cold winters usher in a thick layer of smog thanks to polluting heating systems and aging transport, many voters said they intended to support Japarov at the polls.
“Of course, I’m for Japarov,” said Talant Samatov, 49, who owns a small sewing workshop.
He said he believed the 11-year sentence Japarov handed out in 2017 for taking a government official hostage was unfair.
“He has known a deep injustice and now he will become a leader just for us,” Samatov said.
In addition to choosing a new president, Kyrgyz people choose between parliamentary and presidential forms of government, with Japarov supporting greater powers for the post he seeks.
Voting begins at 8:00 a.m. (02:00 GMT) and the first results are expected shortly after the polls close at 8:00 p.m. (2:00 p.m. GMT).
– Crime, corruption –
Japarov, who was released from prison by supporters during the crisis before a court overturned his conviction, has presented himself as an uncompromising opponent of organized crime and systemic corruption.
He despised the critics, some of whom hypothesized that criminal networks were at the root of his rise to power.
But he struck a unifying tone in his last campaign appearance in Bishkek on Friday.
“Let’s come together… treat one another with understanding and respect. We are a country, a people, ”he told a crowd of several thousand people.
With an exhausted economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic, Kyrgyzstan’s next ruler will likely be even more dependent on the goodwill of Russia’s allies – a destination for hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz migrants – and neighboring economic giant China .
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently called the overthrow of the previous government “a disaster”.
In his year-end press conference, Putin berated Kyrgyz politicians for trying to emulate Western democracies.
The Beijing ambassador has met with Kyrgyz officials several times over the past year to discuss the protection of Chinese companies, some of which have been attacked during the unrest.
– A level playing field? –
Mountainous Kyrgyzstan’s votes are more competitive than those of its former Soviet neighbors, but they have rarely offered a level playing field.
The crisis that allowed Japarov to rehabilitate and come to power overnight was sparked by vote-buying campaigns for parties close to former President Sooronbay Jeenbekov.
Jeenbekov resigned less than two weeks later at the insistence of Japarov supporters and after agreeing to sign Japarov’s election as prime minister by parliament.
It was the third time that a Kyrgyz head of state had resigned for street protests since independence in 1991.
While constitutional demands saw Japarov abandon his positions to participate in Sunday’s election, his rivals complained that his campaign had benefited from state resources, where his allies now occupy prominent positions.
On Friday, the National Security Committee said it was investigating evidence that “some presidential candidates and their supporters” were preparing unrest after the vote, but did not name the candidates.
Bekjol Nurmatov, a 77-year-old retiree, accused Japarov of “throwing the people into chaos” last year and complained that his campaign was using “administrative resources” to win votes in the region. Osh where Nurmatov is from.
“Madumarov is a worthy candidate,” said the pensioner, accusing the favorite Japarov of “hiding from the people”.
© 2021 AFP