Kyrgyzstan’s Puzzle: A Deep Dive into a Flawed Democracy

By Fernando López

The citizens of the landlocked nation of Kyrgyzstan have been experiencing and supporting vast protests after the country’s parliamentary elections were held on October 4th, 2020. 

In the days prior to the election and on election day, numerous videos were leaked that showed party officials Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, the country’s ruling party, being involved in vote-buying. On October 4th, a video surfaced of election officials conducting ballot stuffing. 

The results published by the Central Election Commission, which oversees how the elections are conducted in Kyrgyzstan, claimed that only four out of 16 parties that ran in the elections surpassed the threshold for entering parliament, with three of them having ties to the current president, Sooronjai Jeenbekov. Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, quickly became the epicenter of the protests against the results of the elections. There were growing calls to demand new elections, free from any interference. Jeenbekov called riot police to stop protestors, which led to them storming the presidential office and forcing Mr. Jeenbekov to go into hiding. 

On October 4th, the CEC annulled the election results due to the scale of the protests, and the Kyrghyz Prime Minister, Kubatbek Boronov, resigned from his post. 

Central Asia is notable due to most states being greatly undemocratic, and many have been ruled by the same leaders after the collapse of the Soviet Union (the USSR). Kyrgyzstan became the outlier of the region in 2010 when democracy was at the heart of the new constitution of the country. Competitive elections for the presidency and the parliament occurred in 2010, 2011, and 2015. According to Erika Marat, one of the few researchers who has studied the political developments in Kyrgyzstan since independence, the economic elites agreed on a democratic political system to formalize the rules that these leaders were agreeing on behind closed doors.

Kyrgyzstan has a history of being an unstable country. It began during Perestroika, a process pursued by the USSR to transform into a capitalist economy with political freedoms. For Kyrgyzstan, it led to ethnic riots that forced the First Secretary, the leader of a Soviet Republic, to resign, which fractured Kyrgyz elites. According to Eric McGlinchey, this event prevented any future dictators from ruling the country since independence. The selectorate model, as explained by McGlinchey, shows how difficult it is for a single ruler to lead Kyrgyzstan. Rulers in the autocratic states rely heavily on their winning coalition, which are political elites needed to maintain control, and on their selectorate, which are people with a voice in the state’s politics. For autocratic states to govern, both of these numbers must be small to keep control and divide wealth between all of them. Given that elites in Kyrgyzstan are highly divided and it is a large group of elites, individuals can decide to leave the ruling coalition instilling instability to the regime. The result is that a dictatorship is unlikely in Kyrgyzstan.

The economic system of Kyrgyzstan after independence was a loosely established market economy, allowing some entrepreneurs to obtain financial power and political influence. This group supported the 2005 and 2010 revolutions and welcomed democracy to protect their interests and have a say in national politics. They also disagreed with the parliament’s decision to nominate Japarov as the PM, and have proposed their nomination for the position of PM. 

Erika Marat explains that, even though entrepreneurs were included to allow democracy in Kyrgyzstan, elites preferred a system that allowed them to ensure all members benefited from the new political system. The state’s bureaucracy allows leaders to maintain their own wealth and can compete against each other through elections in an attempt to increase their wealth. This system of neo-patrimonial politics was supposed to stabilize Kyrgyzstan and to prevent any new revolutions from taking place. 

To prevent lawlessness, the Kyrgyz parliament agreed on a new PM, and this person is Sadyr Japarov. He was an advisor to a former president, and had been imprisoned for kidnapping a political opponent during the 2010 revolution. He was released from prison when the protests began, and opposition politicians have replaced the parliament.

On October 11th, Japarov was appointed as the interim PM. However, the decision was most likely illegal as not enough members of parliament were present to vote on this topic. It was reported that some MPs had given their right to vote to their lawyers, yet a parliamentary aide has claimed that there still were not enough members to elect him as the interim PM.

The new PM has explained that he will push president Jeenbekov to keep his promise of resigning. The new PM explained that the issue of the president resigning was going to be solved as soon as the parliament approves the cabinet he is forming. However, it is still unclear whether Japarov is the Prime Minister as it is widely believed that his election happened without reaching quorum. Citizens have not accepted Japarov as the new PM and protests are still ongoing in Bishkek.

Transforming into a democratic state has not prevented Kyrgyzstan from routinely being called a failed state. Political competition exists, and fair elections have been held before, but the leaders did not plan all aspects of a democratic system. It’s purpose is to be a regulatory body that has to prevent more revolutions from occurring. The state structure has been able to develop since 2010 and has allowed citizens to express their discontent through politics, rather than staging constant protests. 

As stated, most states consider Kyrgyzstan a failed state despite its efforts to become democratic. However, many states are asking for a solution based on the state’s democratic institutions. China, the country’s largest investor, has expressed hope that the situation will stabilize soon while reaching a solution through the rule of law. The United States has issued a statement supporting the efforts to stop the protests but has also stated that the ultimate goal is to maintain the rule of law and prevent the state from falling into the hands of organized crime.

On October 14th, Jeenbekov announced from hiding that he was resigning after Japarov had formed a cabinet that could take control of the country. He claimed he preferred “to leave the presidency rather than being remembered as a president who shot his own people”. Even though the power was supposed to transfer his power to the speaker of the house, the speaker declined the offer and Japarov undertook his powers. 

The Central Election Commission was already deciding when the repeated elections were going to occur, agreeing on October 21st that the elections would occur on December 20th, as the elections could not be three months later than the date they were annulled. However, Japarov and a majority of MPs announced a day later that the Kyrgyz constitution would be amended to strengthen the president’s role, reduce the number of parliamentarians and alter the presidential system. It would also allow the Japarov to run for the president’s office, which currently he cannot do. The election date, therefore, could be the 1st of June 2021 at the latest.

What will be the future of Kyrgyzstan flawed democracy? It is important for everyone interested in international affairs to keep an eye on any future events.

Further reading:–election-political-crisis-continues/30887314.html

Artwork by Chira Tudoran

Edited by Zuzanna Mietlińska