BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev stormed to a victory with a whopping 85 percent of the vote this week, in an election that opposition politicians and international observers said was massively marred by fraud.
The question is: Should anyone be surprised?
But the future is uncertain in this ex-Soviet nation, which just weeks ago signed a multimillion-dollar base agreement with the United States, and confronts possible Islamic unrest in its south.
The July 23 presidential vote had an air of inevitability about it, and followed a well-worn routine for anyone who has followed electoral processes in the former Soviet Union.
First, media outlets, especially television, weighted their coverage heavily to the incumbent. Bakiyev likewise enjoyed an expansive election war chest, and seemed to benefit from a savvy campaign fine-tuned by foreign consultants.
The opposition meanwhile struggled to find a voice and squabbled among itself for a period. Opposition supporters were subjected to intimidation and harassment. In some cases it appears they were beaten up, and one died.
On election day the fraud was omnipresent. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the main body monitoring the vote with more than 200 observers, said that the process was marked with “obstruction and intimidation” and fostered “an atmosphere of distrust” which “undermined … genuine democratic elections.” More than half of the OSCE observers criticized the vote counting that they observed.
Bakiyev’s camp declared a great victory, while the Central Election Commission dismissed the violations, or else said that it would investigate. Opposition leaders, including the main anti-government candidate Almazbek Atambayev, for their part called the vote illegitimate even while people were still voting, and said that they would stage a series of protests. So far, the country is quiet however, and the opposition — forever divided and indecisive — seems uncertain of which path to take.
All this took place almost according to a pre-determined script.
“This is not really a real election,” one Western elections expert in Bishkek, who asked to remain anonymous for the sensitivity of the issue, said on the eve of the contest. “What is painful for me is the pretending game among everyone involved.”
Bakiev conducted another heavily criticized vote in 2007 when his Ak Zhol party swept nearly all seats in parliament, and his main contender, Ata Meken, was locked out of the legislature due to an electoral technicality, despite evidence that it polled as well, if not better, than the ruling party.
This time, among long-time onlookers, the question was not whether the president would garner well over the necessary 50 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off, or that turn-out numbers would be inflated, but instead how widespread the fraud would be so that authorities could dictate the percentages from above. The answer surprised even some members of the OSCE delegation, who described the figure of more than 50 percent violations in counting “stunning” and “devastating.” The figure is higher than the percentage observed during the parliamentary elections.
But if it was obvious to all what would happen up to election day, it is conversely not as clear what will take place now. Bakiyev has steadily tightened his grip over this impoverished, mountainous, landlocked nation of 5 million since coming to power in the so-called “Tulip Revolution.”
The fear is that the apparent march to an authoritarian state — modeled perhaps on Vladimir Putin’s Russia — will gain speed in the post-election period, possibly with a crack down in the coming weeks.
Kyrgyzstan’s opposition may also manage to organize a campaign of civil disobedience. That seems highly unlikely at this point, however: its track record is one of ineffectual protest. In any case, the public is for the most part tired and suspicious of further political adventures.
But despite its diminutive size, Kyrgyzstan matters. The country is home to both American and Russian air bases. Manas, the U.S. facility, provides crucial support to operations in nearby Afghanistan. A second Russian base has been announced in the southern Ferghana Valley, which Kyrgyzstan shares with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and which is reportedly becoming a safe haven for Islamic extremists.
As a result, Bakiyev’s stab at order imposed from above has been welcomed by some observers inside and outside the country. The period after the Tulip Revolution was one of perpetual instability, during which the government struggled with “one existential crisis after another,” said one expert. Divorced from human rights abuses, consolidation of power can be a good thing.
Askar Akayev, Bakiyev’s predecessor, also attempted to consolidate power before he was driven from the country by an angry mob that stormed the presidential palace. Bakiev seems to have succeeded where his precursor could not, as Freedom House, a U.S. government-sponsored human rights organization, pointed out in a recent report.
“President Bakiyev has become infamous for even greater levels of corruption, authoritarianism and ineffective economic policies than his predecessor,” it said.
It remains to be seen however whether Bakiyev’s creeping authoritarianism is the solution to the nation’s manifold ills.
“Akayev, despite the bushy eyebrows and pleasant face, wasn't exactly kind,” Eric McGlinchey, an assistant professor at George Mason University and expert on the region, said in an email exchange. “[But] the system worked, however poorly, under Akayev. There was a logic to it.”
“There's little Bakiyev has to keep people loyal,” he continued. “It's just asset stripping and extreme corruption now. The system isn't sustainable without repression — which is to say, it isn't sustainable in the long run.”
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