Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan – It was almost 11 p.m. when Sadyr Japarov began his victory speech, three hours after the polls closed on Sunday.
Most of the votes in Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election and a referendum that will put the country on the path to stronger presidential rule have been counted.
It was a moment of triumph for Japarov and his vision.
Seventy-nine percent of voters trusted his presidency, while 81 percent opted for the presidential form of government.
Japarov, a nationalist who was just a few months ago in a prison cell, enjoyed the moment with ease and a sense of seriousness.
Her voice was calm and soft. He was confident, with an undisturbed faith in the righteousness of his cause. He looked humble and determined.
“Your votes filled me with energy and confidence and pushed me to work. I will do everything in my power to keep your trust. I am coming to power at a difficult time for the country, ”he said.
“Therefore, I ask for your support once again in the next three or four years. You all know that solving the problems that have built up over the past 30 years in a year or two will be difficult. But I am convinced that we will succeed in improving the economic situation in the next two, three years and out of the crisis.
He then vowed to bring migrant workers back home by creating opportunities for those in menial jobs in foreign countries for unfair pay.
He said he had neither hatred nor anger towards his opponents and those who tried to discredit him and go against the will of the people. Today, he continued, everyone should join him in his fight to make the dreams of all Kyrgyzstan come true. Today everyone should be a patriot.
Japarov’s speech ended with applause but not all shared his enthusiasm. For activists, lawyers and the intellectual elite, his victory is synonymous with disaster – the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual, disregard for the law and authoritarianism.
“It uses the standard populist tools that have been used by popular leaders,” Saniya Toktogazieva, a Kyrgyz constitutional law expert, told Al Jazeera. “He plays on people’s emotions and doesn’t back up his claims with any facts. Now the main story is that he is acting on behalf of ordinary people against the elite who exploit Kyrgyzstan ”.
“He works for the regions, he speaks clearly Kyrgyz that everyone understands and knows what to say to touch people’s emotions. I think it is fabricated and that there are political technologists behind it who know the Kyrgyz reality, especially in the regions.
Japarov’s rise to power remains a mystery.
When the third political upheaval since the country’s independence began on October 4 last year, following a disputed parliamentary election, he was still in prison and serving an 11.5-year sentence for kidnapping a local manager.
Amid revolutionary fervor, he was released from prison by protesters and immediately rose to the top echelons of power.
The High Court acquitted him in a hasty trial and he became acting prime minister. Soon after, his supporters forced President Sooronbay Jeenbekov to resign and Japarov assumed the role of the country’s interim president.
With the old parliament still in place, he began work on a new constitution that would place almost unlimited powers in the hands of the president, a process which lawyers said was far from legal.
But on Sunday, Kyrgyzstan decided to trust him.
He is the man of the people. The voice of the voiceless: poor regions and average citizens far from the glamor of the Russian-speaking capital. The new national hero.
Opponents have acknowledged that he has earned his reputation, although his past is not without controversy.
He started his political career in 2005.
From 2008 to 2010, under the leadership of President Kurmanbek Bakiev, he headed the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption, a period that some observers noted during a period of rampant corruption.
Today he hesitates to talk about that time. He prefers to focus on his activism to nationalize the Kumtor gold mine following the 2010 revolution that dethroned Bakiyev.
His protest against the exploitation of Kyrgyzstan’s scarce natural wealth by foreign companies, which he said benefited the country’s elite at the expense of the people and the environment, won him support across the country.
“In 2013, Japarov became a unique figure in the movement to nationalize the Kumtor gold mine. The protests he organized were much more radical than any previous protests. In 2013, during one of the rallies in Karakol, his supporters locked the local governor in a car. Authorities called him a kidnapping and legal action was taken against him, ”said Bektour Iskender, co-founder of the media platform Kloop.
Following the incident, Japarov left Kyrgyzstan and spent three years between Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkey and Cyprus. He devoted a lot of attention to supporting migrant workers, who have been largely ignored by the country’s political elite.
“It was a very important part of building his real popularity because we are talking about a huge group of people. There are about a million Kyrgyz working abroad, most of them live in poor conditions, are discriminated against by everyone, ignored by the Russian state and completely forgotten by Kyrgyzstan. And suddenly there is a politician who cares about them, ”Iskender said.
The total population of Kyrgyzstan is approximately 6.3 million people.
In 2017, Japarov returned to Kyrgyzstan, knowing he would be at risk of arrest. He was summoned to jail as he crossed the border. In the public eye, he has become a martyr, a victim of the corrupt elites.
In prison, he wrote a lot about his political career and his vision of the country. His books were widely distributed among his followers who began to see him as the last man standing.
In 2017, still in prison, Japarov attempted to cut his neck. In a video available on YouTube, a weak and confused Japarov serving his sentence explains that he didn’t know why he did it. He was in shock.
After being released from prison, Japarov facilitated parliament meetings, which left many questions unanswered.
According to Iskender, there is reason to believe that organized crime, which for years has had a significant influence on Kyrgyz politics, played a role in its rise to power. So far, however, direct evidence has been lacking.
Japarov’s popular appeal, nationalism, and promise to bring the country back to its roots, restore pride, and promote people’s well-being worked.
“People come to his rallies despite the cold just to see him. Those who could not have asked when he would return. He said that if he becomes president, he will visit the regions again in the spring to meet with the people. I don’t remember any candidate, president or prime minister who would have met the people so openly, ”said Jyldyz Bekbaeva, a well-known journalist, who decided to join Japarov’s electoral team.
“People were crying, asking for help, demanding justice. For the past 30 years, no one has listened to them.
It remains to be seen if Japarov keeps his promises. One thing is however clear: it will not be easy.
“If you go back to Kyrgyz history, every time a president changed the constitution was followed by unrest. That was the case in 2005 and 2010, and I’m sure the upheaval that occurred in 2020 took place because of the constitutional changes introduced by President Atambayev in 2016, ”Toktogazieva said. “If Japarov wants to go ahead with reform and completely change the constitution, I’m really worried about the consequences.”