With presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2005, political analysts are wondering whether Kyrgyzstan will become the first Central Asian state to experience a ballot-box-driven transfer of power. President Askar Akayev has sent mixed signals concerning his presidential intentions. His recent actions suggest that he wants to maintain control over the political process, while keeping his options open.
At the moment, Akayev appears to be leaning towards staying out of the 2005 presidential race, having stated repeatedly that he will not be a candidate. In March, for example, Akayev told the visiting European Union commissioner for external affairs, Chris Patten, that by not running for reelection he hoped to establish Kyrgyzstan as a role model for regional democratic development. Despite Akayev's statements, his political opponents believe that Akayev may end up running for a third term. Kyrgyzstan's constitution limits a chief executive to two terms, but some Akayev supporters maintain that a legal loophole for a third term was created by the adoption of constitutional amendments during a February 2003 referendum.
While Akayev's personal political plans are not clear, one thing seems certain about 2005: he appears intent on preventing the political opposition from coming to power. The Kyrgyz government of late has taken steps -- including amending the electoral code and tightening control over mass media -- that are designed to influence the upcoming campaigns, opposition activists contend.
Officials contend that most of the electoral code amendments, adopted in January, are designed to promote election transparency. Yet, one change appears to limit the ability of political parties to forge election blocs. This could prevent the formation of an opposition alliance for the parliamentary election, scheduled for February 2005. In addition, the electoral code now limits the official parliamentary election campaign to 25 days prior to the balloting, and the presidential campaign to 35 days before the vote. Opposition activists say the government's tight hold over mass media would give incumbent authority a distinct electoral advantage during such a compressed campaign period.
In recent weeks, opposition activists also have complained about official harassment of independent media outlets. Much of the criticism has centered on Pyramid TV, which went off the air in mid-March because of "technical problems." Although the company has addressed the technical issues, officials have sought to prevent Pyramid TV from resuming its broadcasts. In addition, authorities are restricting the ability of a regional channel, Osh TV, to broadcast.
Meanwhile, official actions concerning imprisoned opposition leader Feliks Kulov indicate that Akayev does not want to give his critics any opportunity to build political momentum. In early April, speculation mounted that Kulov, who received a seven-year sentence in 2001 on an abuse-of-power conviction, might soon be freed. However, when Akayev approved an amnesty, designed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the country's constitution, Kulov was excluded from the list of those to be released from custody.
Authorities sent a strong signal to the opposition on April 15, when about 60 opposition supporters gathered for a protest march from Bishkek to Jany-Jer, site of the camp where Kulov is incarcerated. Almost immediately after assembling, police arrested 18 of the protesters, including Kulov's political deputy, Emil Aliyev, along with prominent civil society activists Tolekan Ismailova and Tursunbek Akunov. The detainees were released from custody after being fined, or being issued a formal warning for disturbing public order.
The political opposition in Kyrgyzstan has been relatively quiet since the February 2003 referendum, which in addition to approving constitutional changes, also confirmed Akayev's authority through 2005. In the months leading up to the referendum, Akayev's grip on power had seemed tenuous, as the opposition had seized on public outrage over the March 2002 Aksy riots to mount large political protests.
Over the past year, a lack of unity has hampered the opposition's ability to challenge Akayev. Prominent opposition figures, including Kulov, Azimbek Beknazarov and Topchubek Turgunaliev, have been unable to formulate a cohesive strategy for the parliamentary elections. Sectional differences between northerners and southerners in the opposition are a major factor in keeping Akayev critics divided, political analysts in Bishkek say.
On April 16, Kulov's political party, Ar-Namys, issued a statement complaining about alleged government political persecution, and calling for unity among opposition forces. "There is a need for all progressive forces to unite to work for the legitimate and peaceful transfer of power," the statement said. There were no immediate signs that opposition leaders were prepared to heed the statement's call and undertake efforts to harmonize their positions.
Opposition disunity should assist Akayev in accomplishing one major political aim: packing the next parliament with as many of his supporters as possible. A legislature dominated by Akayev supporters could potentially provide the president with the legislative cover that enables a run for a third term, should he end up wanting to do so. Political analysts point out that a pro-presidential political movement-- Alga Kyrgyzstan -- has been working diligently in recent months to build support at the grass-roots level.
Some experts in Bishkek suggest that a major force in the next parliament could be entrepreneurs who have no fixed ideological preferences and who are likely to support the government as long as it maintains relative stability in the economic sphere. At the same time, some observers believe that the parliamentary vote could prove a volatile political exercise that is vulnerable to manipulation. As such, it could prove a destabilizing experience for Kyrgyzstan.
As for the presidential election, Akayev's absence from the race, at least at this point, leaves the field wide open. The most prominent figure to already announce his candidacy is Kurmanbek Bakiyev, a former Prime Minister and current member of parliament. Some media outlets speculated in late 2003 that Akayev's wife, Maryam, might also emerge as a candidate. In recent months, however, Akayeva has not sent signals that she aspires to succeed her husband as chief executive.
If Akayev indeed sticks to his pledge not to run in 2005, most analysts believe that whoever wins the election would enjoy the incumbent's political blessing. Even so, the voluntary departure from power of a sitting president would establish an important precedent in Central Asia's political development. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, no Central Asian state has witnessed a turnover of authority in the executive branch.
Eurasianet, April 22, 2004