Amid a freezing winter breeze, people will choose not only their next president, but also the political system they want to live in.
The stakes are high. Seventeen candidates will run against Sadyr Zhaparov, who has ruled the country since the unrest that erupted following a rigged parliamentary election on October 4 that led to the results being overturned.
Zhaparov has argued for a shift to a presidential form of government, which would give the president excessive legislative and executive powers.
In a referendum that runs parallel to the election, people will decide whether they prefer the current parliamentary system, a presidential system, or neither – an option that remains unclear.
According to Zhaparov, a populist and nationalist, for 30 years Kyrgyzstan – which has experienced three revolutionary upheavals since 1991 – has been ruled by irresponsible elites which have led to the destruction of its economic, social and political potential. He believes strong leadership is the only way to right the wrongs.
Zhaparov remains a very controversial figure. In the middle of the October uprising, he was released from prison where he served an 11 and a half year sentence for kidnapping a local official. His supporters, however, say he was a political prisoner, persecuted for his activism aimed at nationalizing Kumtor, the country’s largest gold mine.
After his release from prison, he was acquitted in a hasty trial and appointed to the post of interim prime minister. After President Sooronbay Jeenbekov resigned, he also became interim president, but resigned both positions in November in order to run for president.
The opposition fears that the proposed constitutional changes will lead to the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual, whose rise to power has been deeply suspect. Many point to Zhaparov’s unclear ties to organized crime and continued attempts to curtail civil liberties.
Analysts say the new constitution that the current parliament drafted – although it does not have a legal mandate to do so – is not only full of loopholes, but it also fails to guarantee protections such as freedom of speech. slavery and freedom of expression. It also does not specify the country’s electoral system.
While in recent weeks Bishkek has seen a number of protests by activists, lawyers and civil society calling on Zhaparov to respect the country’s laws, the vote will likely be decided outside the capital.
Supporters say Zhaparov is a man of the people, the youth stripped of his voting rights in the countryside, migrant workers and Kyrgyz people who felt abandoned by the Russian-speaking elites in Bishkek.
Zhaparov, according to many, is Kyrgyzstan’s last hope.
Meanwhile, opposition candidates are aiming for a second ballot. If Zhaparov does not get 50% of the vote on Sunday, the opposition will vouch for the candidate with the highest percentage of the vote.
However, the game remains uneven. In addition to having access to administrative resources, Zhaparov also spent the most money on his campaign, far more than other contenders.
In addition, while in 2016, Kyrgyzstan modernized its voting system – which prevents certain forms of fraud since each citizen votes with a fingerprint and electronic ballot boxes only accept one ballot at a time – the practice of buying votes is still common.
The polls close at 8 p.m. local time (2 p.m. GMT) on Sunday and the results are due on Monday.