Eighty-three. That’s the number of men and women who have declared their candidacy for Kyrgyzstan’s presidency. The skeptic might say Bishkek, scene of near-daily protests since ushering out President Kurmanbek Bakiyev last year, is drowning in democracy. And that would not be far from the truth. But Kyrgyzstan is also possibly holding the first presidential election in Central Asian history where the outcome is uncertain.
Registration for aspirants wishing to compete in the October 30 polls ended August 16. Parties nominated only 16 candidates. The rest -- from the “temporarily unemployed” to former military officers and recycled political hacks -- nominated themselves.
Most of us will never learn half their names. A majority of the 83 is expected to drop out before September 25, when campaigning officially begins and candidates must hand over 100,000 soms ($2,250) and 30,000 supporting signatures. All candidates must also pass a live, televised Kyrgyz-language exam.
Observers doubt fresh leadership will emerge from the contest. The most prominent contestants have all enjoyed various stints in recent governments. But for many in Kyrgyzstan, a larger concern is the country’s salient north-south political divide. Exacerbated by Bakiyev’s bloody ouster, that rift is likely to grow wider during elections. Several of the most prominent candidates enjoy strong regional followings and it is unlikely any one can win broad support across the whole country.
Interim President Roza Otunbayeva, in power since a referendum in June 2010, is barred from running and has been praised for vowing to step aside, an unprecedented decision. Her ally, Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev of the ruling Social Democratic Party, is a northern favorite.
In the opposite corner is Kamchybek Tashiev, a leader of the ultranationalist Ata-Jurt (“Fatherland”) party and a strong contender in his native southern Kyrgyzstan, where he has been accused in the past of organizing protests when it suited him.
Another nationalist, Adakhan Madumarov of Butun Kyrgyzstan (“United Kyrgyzstan”), the loser of last fall’s parliamentary vote, is likely to dull Tashiev’s hand (or fist, as it were) in the south. Both men are former Bakiyev allies and say they favor resurrecting presidential powers that were watered down after the April uprising. Moscow, which has commanding economic leverage over Kyrgyzstan, has also hinted that it will support a return to strongman politics.
Atambayev has told RFE/RL that he will step down temporarily during the campaign; it is unclear if he will name a seat-warmer. The move is supposed to calm fears that, as an incumbent, he could use institutional resources to support his candidacy -- a tried and tested election tradition in Central Asian and other former Soviet republics.
Politics watchers in Kyrgyzstan expect the candidates’ divided supporters to stuff ballot boxes and employ other dirty tricks for getting their man (it will be a man) elected, rather than following one direct order from the center. The contest will thus be rancorous and, with so many candidates virtually ensuring no one will gain an absolute majority in the first round, a runoff some Sundays later is expected. Until then, expect a season of head-splitting, behind-the-scenes deal-making that puts the candidates’ interests, not their country’s, first.