ONE THING is clear: the Kyrgyz people do not like corrupt elections. This week, for the third time in 15 years, they revolted over a vote widely seen as twisted. Opposition leader Adakhan Madumarov describes the October 4 parliamentary poll as the dirtiest in Kyrgyzstan’s three turbulent decades of independence. On October 5, thousands of people poured into the main square of Bishkek, the capital, in protest. That night, protesters fought riot police before storming the building housing the president’s office and parliament. They shouted a revolutionary slogan popularized in previous uprisings but now directed against the current president, Sooronbay Jeyenbekov: “Ketsin!” (“To go!”)
Mr Jeyenbekov insists he remains in control, but it is not known where he is. He dismissed complaints about the conduct of the elections as a “pretext” to attempt his overthrow. Yet he also seems to have acquiesced in at least one of the protesters’ demands: election officials overturned the election results and promised a new race. However, it is not certain that this satisfies the angry crowd in Bishkek, which has freed several politicians who had ended up in prison in recent years, including Almazbek Atambayev, Mr Jeyenbekov’s predecessor. Worryingly for Mr Jeyenbekov, Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov has resigned.
Kyrgyzstan has hosted several competitive elections – a curiosity in Central Asia, where landslides crushing autocratic rulers are the norm. Voting this week, Jeyenbekov stubbornly insisted that the election was “open and fair”. However, many video footage indicating the opposite was circulating on social networks. At the very least, there was frantic vote buying ($ 25 seemed to be the going rate). The results announced on October 5 would have left only five of the 16 parties that took part in the election with seats in parliament.
A strong majority went to two parties loyal to the president: Birimdik (Unity), whom Mr Jeyenbekov tacitly defended, and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (My Homeland Kyrgyzstan), who has ties to Raimbek Matraimov, a wealthy former customs officer. Last year, anti-corruption journalists accused Mr. Matraimov of complicity in a multibillion-dollar smuggling ring. The main source behind the exposure was murdered in a gangland type murder. Mr. Matraimov has denied the allegations and has not been charged with any crime.
Opposition parties are already failing to find a common cause, with quarrels between rival factions sometimes falling into fists. The threat of violence hangs in the air, as released politicians and other influential figures (including some with suspected organized crime ties) scramble to fill the void. A return of Mr Atambayev, who presided over the flourishing corruption and degradation of democracy that continued under Mr Jeyenbekov, would prove unpopular in many quarters.
Two rivals are already claiming the post of prime minister: Tilek Toktogaziyev, a young entrepreneur, and Sadyr Japarov, a touching ex-nationalist deputy released by protesters from prison, where he was sent for kidnapping an official during an episode precedent of political unrest. China, which is alarmed by reports that protesters are targeting Chinese-owned gold mines, has expressed concern. The same is true of Russia, which has a military base in Kyrgyzstan and is hostile to popular uprisings in what it still sees as its backyard, especially given the sustained protests against the authoritarian regime in Belarus.
Confusion may help Jeyenbekov hang on, even though his hopes of securing a flexible parliament over the last three years of his tenure have clearly been dashed. Whatever happens, however, Kyrgyz democracy is a victim. When Mr. Jeyenbekov took over from Mr. Atambayev, the occasion was hailed as the first peaceful and democratic transfer of power in Central Asia. A one-term limit had been imposed on the presidency, to prevent future seizures of power. In retrospect, the cheerleaders were overly optimistic.