JAN. 8 2021 (The Bulletin) — So, the New Year is set to start in Central Asia with two political stability tests. A parliamentary election in Kazakhstan and a presidential election in Kyrgyzstan, both scheduled for Jan. 10, will provide early litmus tests on the stability of both countries and also the popularity of their current governments.
In both countries the incumbents will win. Parties supporting Pres. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev will win a majority in the Kazakh parliament, as they always do, and Kyrgyzstan’s Acting-President Sadyr Japrov will win a contest to be sworn in as full president for a single seven-year term.
Neither elections are good adverts for democracy in the region. Opposition groups have effectively been banned from standing in the Kazakh election, and there is a chance that protests will occur in an increasingly restless Almaty.
In Kyrgyzstan, Japarov will be elected on a popular ticket but he is also using his popularity to bend Kyrgyzstan’s constitution to his will. People in Kyrgyzstan will be asked to vote on two issues on Jan. 10. As well as who they want to become president, voters will have to vote on whether they want to change the country’s constitution, as pushed for by Japarov, to boost the power of the president at the expense of parliament.
This is where the controversy lies. By pushing for these tweaks, Japarov, who was freed from jail during a coup in October and quickly installed as Acting-President, is essentially tearing up a constitution sponsored by the West and adopted after a revolution in 2010. It was supposed to safeguard democracy in Kyrgyzstan and turn it into a beacon for the rights of ordinary people in a region dominated by autocrats. Instead it looks to be heading to the scrap heap.
Western influence in Kyrgyzstan has diminished and shrivelled since the US withdrew its airbase from outside Bishkek in 2014. During the coup in October, Western diplomats had to look on, warning of the threat to democracy by the ascent of Japarov through street-level politics. Now they are looking on as he manipulates the constitution to strengthen his position.
Japarov has argued that the parliamentary democracy system was imposed on Kyrgyzstan by well-meaning but misguided intelligentsia types who lived in central Bishkek and didn’t understand the country. He said that Kyrgyzstan was too young to adopt parliamentary democracy. There may be some truth in this but more accurate may be that the country is just too corrupt and the West didn’t put in the effort to ensure the survival of the political system that it advocated.
— This story was first published in issue 467 of the Central Asia & South Caucasus Bulletin
— Copyright the Central Asia & South Caucasus Bulletin 2021