Kyrgyz nationalist wins landslide election months after release from prison

The populist Sadyr Japarov was on his way to an easy victory on Sunday in Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election, the first vote after the recent political upheavals in the Central Asian country.

The results, published by the Central Electoral Commission of the former Soviet Union (CEC), showed Japarov by nearly 80 percent of the vote after an automated count.

A referendum held in parallel showed that Kyrgyzstan strongly preferred the presidential regime, which would give Japarov extensive powers when a new constitution was adopted, probably later this year.

The referendum enchants the end of the political system adopted a decade ago to tame the authoritarian after two successive strongman presidents were ousted during street protests in 2005 and 2010.

Just over 10 percent supported a parliamentary system.

Japarov, 52, was serving a prison sentence for the hostages when protests in October saw him freed by supporters and driven to the top of the political pyramid.

CEC data on Sunday showed that his closest competitor, nationalist Adakhan Madumarov, was less than 7 percent behind.

Japarov’s journey from prison to the presidency is an example of the dramatic changes in political fortunes in the Central Asian country that are both more unpredictable and pluralistic than its authoritarian neighbors.

As the results leaked, portable toilets and a stage were set up in the main square of the capital Bishkek – the site of clashes between police and protesters who left a protester dead in October – as supporters gathered to mark his victory.

Critics of Japarov, who became acting leader during the riots, fear his victory and the presidential vote could tip Kyrgyzstan against the authoritarianism that dominates the former Soviet Central Asia region.

In Bishkek, where cold winters usher in a thick blanket of smog with conditions of polluting heating systems and aging transports, many voters had said they intended to support Japarov at the ballot box.

“He has promised to raise salaries, pensions,” said Vera Pavlova, 69, who admitted she knew little about other candidates.

“I have not seen their posters anywhere. Only Japarovs.”

Crime, corruption

Japarov has portrayed himself as an uncompromising opponent of organized crime and systemic corruption, beating out critics who speculated that criminal networks were helping him come to power.

But he struck a unifying tone in his latest campaign appearance on Friday in Bishkek.

“Let’s come together … treat each other with understanding and respect. We are a country, a people,” he told crowds of several thousand people.

With a lean economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic, Kyrgyzstan’s next leader is likely to be even more dependent on Russia – a destination for hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz migrants – and the nearby economic giant China.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently described the overthrow of the previous government as an “accident” and also forced Kyrgyz politicians to try to imitate Western democracies.

Beijing’s ambassador met with Kyrgyz officials several times last year to discuss protection for Chinese companies, some of which were attacked during the unrest.

The voices of mountainous Kyrgyzstan are more competitive than in its former Soviet neighbors, but they have seldom offered a smooth playing field.

The crisis that enabled Japarov’s rehabilitation overnight and the rise to power were triggered by vote-buying campaigns that benefited former President Sooronbay Jeenbekov.

Jeenbekov resigned from Japarov’s supporters and after agreeing to sign Japarov’s election as prime minister of parliament.

Japarov also became acting president after his resignation during the political chaos, but he resigned from both roles to compete in the vote.

Still, rivals complained that his campaign benefited from state resources, with his allies now occupying top positions.

Bekjol Nurmatov, a 77-year-old pensioner, accused Japarov of “throwing people into chaos” last year.

The pensioner noted that Japarov had not appeared for televised debates between candidates and accused him of “hiding from the people.”