Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan – The icy, snow-capped streets of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, bear little evidence of the events that rocked the country last October, when mass protests led to the annulment of contested parliamentary elections.
But in the past four months, the Central Asian country has taken an unexpected path.
With the old parliament still in place and no new parliamentary elections in sight, Kyrgyzstan is preparing to choose its next president.
The election scheduled for Sunday January 10 will see 18 candidates contesting the country’s top position. But only one name is on everyone’s lips: Sadyr Japarov.
He has de facto ruled the country for four months and remains a character who divides.
For some, he is the national hero the struggling nation has been waiting for. For others, he is a dangerous nationalist with authoritarian tendencies.
His rise to power remains a mystery.
Following the contested parliamentary elections on October 4, protesters stormed the government building and called for the results to be quashed.
Soon after, a number of politicians serving prison sentences on various charges, some of which were bogus, were released.
Among them was Japarov. A marginal nationalist politician, he was serving an eleven and a half year sentence for kidnapping a local official in 2013.
He quickly reached the upper echelons of power.
The High Court acquitted him in a hasty trial and he served as the country’s interim prime minister. Soon after, Japarov’s supporters forced President Sooronbay Jeenbekov to resign and the former convict became interim president.
With the old parliament still in place and an unelected individual serving as both prime minister and president – he has since resigned as prime minister in order to run for president – the government has started to work on the new constitution of the country.
According to the account of the Japarov camp, the parliamentary system introduced in the wake of the 2010 revolution, which promised more transparency and democracy, failed.
They say the elites have exploited Kyrgyzstan and it is time to get back to the roots, take back control and pull the country out of the current crisis. This will only be possible with a strong and uncompromising leader, ready to go against all. Someone like Japarov.
The new draft constitution strengthens the role of the president at the expense of parliament. It gives the president extensive legislative and executive powers, similar to what is happening in neighboring Central Asian countries.
“All these initiatives are completely illegal because, according to the constitution, the parliament cannot use its power to adopt such fundamental changes as constitutional reform. They cannot call for a constitutional referendum because their mandate has already expired, ”said Saniya Toktogazieva, a Kyrgyz expert on constitutional law.
“From a legal point of view, the draft constitution presents many differences and fundamental guarantees for the rights and freedoms of the people have been omitted, such as the prohibition of slavery and torture. More importantly, the efficient system of checks and balances no longer exists. “
Referendum to be held in parallel with the elections
Despite criticism from jurists, on January 10, in addition to choosing the new president, citizens will decide what type of political system they want to live in.
In a referendum held alongside the election, they will respond if they prefer a presidential or parliamentary system. The third possible answer is: “against all”.
Japarov campaigned for the presidential system, unlike civil society.
Standing on the podium recently, in the southern town of Kara-Suu, blue flags bearing his name fluttered behind him.
“Televised debates are no longer debates but defamatory discussions. Have you watched them? he said, wearing a tebetey, a traditional Kyrgyz fur hat. He wiped his nose with a handkerchief in his campaign colors.
“Is it more useful for me to travel in the regions or to spread rumors during debates? Instead of debating, we all prefer to meet people. Be close to people. “
He speaks in a calm but firm voice in clear Kyrgyz. He comforted those who have been left behind, for whom the hip neighborhoods of the Russian-speaking elite in the capital represent all that is wrong with Kyrgyzstan today.
Meanwhile, protests and talks on how to protect democracy and civil liberties took place in Bishkek every week.
Those who form the country’s vibrant civil society are often criticized by Japarov as enemies of Kyrgyzstan and defenders of the status quo.
Activists fear that Japarov’s victory may spell the end of the country’s fragile democracy.
“Constitutional changes could endanger civil society activists. The draft includes provisions as dangerous as Article 23, which prohibits the media from publishing content that goes against the moral or traditional values of the Kyrgyz people, ”said Bektour Iskender, co-founder of the media platform Kloop.
“Japarov will not follow the law. He has already lied several times in his public statements, he contradicts himself and the opinions he expresses threaten freedom of expression, freedom of expression and of protest. I’m afraid that if he wins, it will be much riskier to be a civilian activist in Kyrgyzstan.
The new constitution proposes the creation of the National Kurultai, an assembly of members of the public, whose roots go back to the 13th century.
It would act as an organ of support but also of control of those in power.
Japarov wants Kyrgyzstan to go back to its roots. Its populism and nationalism are reminiscent of the narratives used by Western populists. Kyrgyzstan may well have its Donald Trump moment.
The results of the next presidential election will likely be decided outside the capital.
Japarov is the hope of young people and disenfranchised migrant workers.
He smiles banners across the country. His team spent about $ 720,000 on the election campaign, more than any other candidate. Its supporters are motivated and the hopes for change are high.
Right now, all the opposition can hope for is a runoff.
If Japarov does not get the 50% of the vote necessary to win, the opposition will choose a candidate with the highest potential to beat “the common man” in the next vote.
The chances, however, are slim.
“If Japarov wins, it will be a huge change for Kyrgyzstan,” Toktogazieva said. “He will have only two choices: find a compromise with the opposition, and it seems he is not ready to do it; or resort to repression. Otherwise, he will not be able to stay in power.