Lessons in How to Steal Elections
Lessons in How to Steal Elections
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Lessons in How to Steal Elections

Don't expect a Georgian-style revolution in Central Asia--or the West to pay more than lip service to promoting democracy.

The two recent elections in the Caucasus should give food for thought for Central Asia’s autocrats.

In the first instance, Azeri President Heidar Aliev passed power to his son, Ilham, with only the merest nod towards democratic processes. The voting was rigged, but the United States and the West hardly batted an eyelid, merely mouthing the expected rhetoric of regret over electoral malpractice.

In the second election, for the Georgian parliament, the ruling party failed to win a clear majority--despite widespread vote-rigging and intimidation. (The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was “shocked” by the conduct of the election.) But the rigged results still did not manage guarantee a pro-government parliament. Popular discontent at the election fraud finally toppled Shevardnadze, and brought the opposition to power.

These two contrasting results have been widely and carefully watched in Central Asia--an area where the next few years could bring the possibility of political transition (for the first time since independence, in the cases of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan).

The lessons are twofold. In countries where the elite strike some kind of deal on succession among themselves; the opposition is divided and weak; and elections fully under the control of the regime, autocratic leaders can put their favorite children into the driving seat. There won’t be much objection from the United States or anyone else (as long as oil contracts and military bases are not at risk). That’s the Azeri model.

But when there is division among the elite, an active opposition with credible leaders, and at least some semblance of a fair vote, the ruling elite will have problems retaining power. In this case, attempting to flagrantly falsify the election results will risk violence--and even revolution. That’s the Georgian model.


In Kazakhstan, it is already clear that the Azeri variant has proved an inspiration. Dariga, President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s daughter, has created a political party that should sweep her into office--in much the way that Ilham gained power: first, by getting elected to parliament; then, being elected speaker; and then soaring up the ranks from there. And Dariga Nazarbaeva’s media empire will certainly help.

As for the Kazakh elite, they know they could do worse than accept a deal from Dariga. Kazakhstan’s oligarchs will be able to carry on doing what they do best--making money from the oil economy and filtering it into offshore banks. The opposition has been stamped down, with its leaders imprisoned or silenced--and many Kazakhs will probably acquiesce to the dynastic succession, as long as the economy keeps growing.

At first glance, the Azeri model looks even easier to follow in Uzbekistan. Gulnora, the ambitious elder daughter of President Karimov, seems ready to take over once her father steps down. There will be no free vote, and there is no real opposition candidate that could mount an election campaign even if choice were allowed.

But Gulnora is not popular with all the different groups that make up the Uzbek regime, and pushing too hard for the top job could cause serious dissension within the regime. Other candidates from inside the system will try hard to keep her out. While Karimov ruled by balancing different power groups off against each other, his daughter admits she is a “maximalist,” and there are more than a few powerful Uzbek politicians who would fear for their futures if she were to come to power.


In all these countries winning power matters, because business and politics are so intertwined. Whoever controls the political system ultimately controls business, and so losing power is tantamount to losing everything. In the worst case, new leaders may court instant popularity by seeking to prosecute ousted presidents, following the old Soviet tradition of blaming all ills on one’s predecessors.

For the Kyrgyz ruling family, the fear of prosecution by a successor prompted a new law that granted former presidents immunity. But the feeling may be that laws are there to be amended or broken, so there is a real fear about any change in leader. Akaev has announced he will step down at the elections in 2005, as he is required to do by the constitution. So the search is on to retain power, while creating the impression of giving it up.

Without oil wealth, and with much of the budget coming from Western sources, it is slightly more difficult for the regime in Kyrgyzstan to ignore international criticism. True, the Americans now have a base in Bishkek, which might help tone down the worst criticism, but Akaev also likes his image as the region’s democrat, however disputed it might be. Going too far down the Uzbek road is not an option. In Bishkek, the Georgian example might be more pertinent than the smooth transition of Azerbaijan.

And the Kyrgyz family succession is not as straightforward. Akaev’s daughter, Bermet, is widely thought to be a potential political player. Smart, multilingual, and much courted by the international community (she is head of the Aga Khan’s foundation in Kyrgyzstan), she is seen as the progressive wing of the family regime. But still in her early thirties, she looks too young for the post.

Her mother, Mairam Akaeva, also seems to have political ambitions, but Uzbek-style voting would probably be needed to get her elected. Akaev might think it better to stay on himself, a move that would get support from at least some in the elite who fear someone worse might take over.

But then there are those annoying voters. True, Kyrgyz elections have never been labelled “free and fair”; the main opposition candidate Felix Kulov is still locked up, and the other opposition groups are unlikely to find a credible joint candidate. Still, dissatisfied constituents have developed a dangerous habit of getting out onto the streets when they are unhappy. Last year, one such demonstration in the Aksy district left five people dead and almost caused a national political crisis. Fixing the constitution and blatantly rigging the election to allow the Akaevs to stay in power could produce a serious danger of unrest in some regions. If the opposition begins to organize itself, the unrest could even end in Georgian-style mass street demonstrations.

And in all three countries, there is traditional male chauvinism to be overcome, not an easy task in these conservative societies. Expect increasing stress in government propaganda on women’s rights, and much talk of Benazzir Bhutto and Margaret Thatcher (neither perhaps ideal examples)--but it is still not clear if the old men who still run much of these countries will stomach taking orders from young women.


So the internal dynamics are not as simple as they might seem. And in all three countries, the options are still being discussed in family circles. But one thing Azerbaijan’s election did show was that it won’t be the international community that stands in the way of dynastic political systems developing in Central Asia. Too many diplomats still think that only strong men (or women) in the Caucasus and Central Asia can somehow ensure stability in a volatile region--and so best not to rock the boat by promoting free elections too strongly.

But this alternative is not attractive. Central Asian countries face serious problems that need new approaches and new ideas. However, in most cases the existing ruling elites seem to have run short of inspiration. Hanging on to power will only increase popular dissatisfaction and weaken any belief in democracy as a way to change governments.

If people can’t change unpopular regimes through voting, they will eventually try and do it some other way. This plays into the hands of extremists, increasing the explosive potential of these societies. Radical Islamists who say democracy is a sham, and that justice will only come through an Islamic state, are finding a growing audience.

Not a happy prospect for any of Central Asia’s rulers. Nor indeed for their Western allies.

Presidential candidate Sooronbai Jeenbekov casts his ballot at a polling station during the presidential election in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov

Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President

The inauguration of Kyrgyzstan’s new president on 24 November is a tribute to the country’s parliamentary democracy. But to overcome continued vulnerability, Sooronbai Jeenbekov must manage powerful southern elites, define the role of religion in society and spearhead reconciliation with Central Asian neighbours Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Sooronbai Jeenbekov will be inaugurated as Kyrgyzstan’s fifth president on 24 November, the victor of a tight, unpredictable, contested but ultimately legitimate election. The new leader, a loyal member of the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), won 54 per cent of the vote and gained a majority in every province but Chui and Talas – the home territory of the defeated main opposition candidate Omurbek Babanov.

As president, Jeenbekov will face a number of challenges and opportunities, both at home and in Central Asia. The state Committee for National Security (GKNB) on 4 November opened an investigation against Babanov for inciting ethnic hatred based on a speech he made on 28 September in an ethnic-Uzbek area of Osh, a city in southern Kyrgyzstan’s Ferghana Valley. Babanov called on Uzbeks to defend their rights and for any Kyrgyz police officers who harassed Uzbeks to be dismissed. Some observers see the GKNB case as politically motivated.

While tensions remain high in Osh, the epicentre of violent ethnic clashes that left 400 mostly Uzbeks dead in June 2010, unrest could also occur elsewhere. Babanov travelled abroad after the campaign, but if he returns he could be arrested at the airport, raising the possibility of protests in his stronghold of Talas, a city 300km west of Bishkek. His arrest and trial would undermine Kyrgyzstan’s international credibility, lay bare the politicisation of the security services and the judiciary, and show unwillingness to tackle deep-seated inter-ethnic issues in the south.

While tensions remain high in Osh, the epicentre of violent ethnic clashes that left 400 mostly Uzbeks dead in June 2010, unrest could also occur elsewhere.

Former President Almazbek Atambayev, also from the SDPK, was sometimes unpredictable but managed to balance competing regional and business interests inside Kyrgyzstan, key factors in the ousting of Presidents Kurmanbek Bakiev in 2010 and Askar Akayev in 2005. Jeenbekov will have to replicate this balancing act and make a strategic decision whether or not to reestablish central government control in Osh, which operates like a fiefdom. The latter risks upsetting heavy-weight figures in the south with vested interests, but in the long term, a failure to do so will perpetuate internal political tensions.

The new president will also have the opportunity to shape the debate about the role of religion in society. For too long – and much like other Central Asian states – Kyrgyzstan has overly securitised its response to those practicing non-traditional forms of Islam, creating tensions and resentments, while politicians leading a secular state make public displays of piety integral to their political personas. Kyrgyzstan is widely perceived as an easy target for terrorist activity, as the August 2016 attack on the Chinese embassy demonstrated. It will be essential to find a balance between assessing what are real risks and what are questions of religious freedoms and civil rights.

As soon as he takes office, Jeenbekov should make every effort to repair Kyrgyzstan’s relationship with Kazakhstan, which deteriorated spectacularly after President Atambayev accused Astana of meddling in the Kyrgyz presidential election to bolster Babanov. Astana responded by introducing strict customs controls on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border citing concerns about Chinese goods being smuggled through Kyrgyzstan. The disruption on the border is negatively affecting Kyrgyzstan’s economy and Kyrgyzstan has complained to the World Trade Organization and to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, a trade bloc of which Kazakhstan is a founding member. Russia has so far failed to make any meaningful comment on the standoff.

The degree to which Kazakhstan is motivated by anger at Atambayev or genuine concerns about cross-border smuggling is unclear. Still, it will fall to Jeenbekov to spearhead a reconciliation. How open-minded Kazakhstan will be to resolving the spat will also depend on whether or not they see Jeenbekov as a strong, independent leader or merely Atambayev’s puppet.

There is now scope to improve relations with Uzbekistan in a way that was unimaginable before President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took office in December 2016. Much of the initiative is coming from the Uzbek side but the amount of progress made between the two states is remarkable. Regional cooperation, in the long term, will foster stability in Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan can play a leading role in both practicing and promoting the type of cooperation that defuses tensions in border areas and over shared resources such as water and energy. By doing so Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan can provide a model of collaboration and peacebuilding in the region.

Having been the first country in Central Asia to see a president voluntarily leave his post at the end of his constitutionally mandated term, Kyrgyzstan is in many respects light years ahead of its neighbours.

Kyrgyzstan is still a young parliamentary democracy in a difficult neighbourhood. If Jeenbekov is to continue Atambayev’s program of fighting corruption, efforts need to extend beyond targeting the SDPK’s political opponents. Kyrgyzstan and its partners should begin to address how corruption in politics can be tackled. Beyond the technical success of casting votes electronically, there are many opportunities for illegal practices. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) election observers said the presidential elections were legitimate, but local concerns focus on arrests of opposition figures, vote buying and the misuse of administrative resources.

Having been the first country in Central Asia to see a president voluntarily leave his post at the end of his constitutionally mandated term, Kyrgyzstan is in many respects light years ahead of its neighbours. Tajikistan could be facing a potentially destabilising transition in 2020, and Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, 77, cannot hold power forever. Any regional stress will be quickly felt in Bishkek, another reason that Jeenbekov should focus on bolstering Kyrgyzstan’s long-term stability while the situation is calm.

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