Voters turned out in high numbers on October 30 for what promised to be Central Asia’s first relatively democratic presidential election. But allegations of foul play were rife, ensuring the results would be hotly contested. By evening, a group of candidates pointed to “gross violations” and demanded a recount.
Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev, who stepped down temporarily to run, leads the race, with widespread support in the north and among ethnic minorities in the south. His main rivals include two popular southerners, Adahan Madumarov and Kamchybek Tashiev. All three had held high-level positions under ex-president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, ousted in bloody street riots in April 2010, but Atambayev has been a fixture of the interim government that took over afterwards. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, a second round will pit the top two vote-getters against one another. That has analysts fearing a regional clash between the more Russified, developed north and the more rural, conservative south.
Madumarov and several other candidates held a press conference at the end of the day, expressing indignation about widespread violations. “After such lawlessness it’s impossible to speak of honest and legitimate elections,” he told reporters. “We insist on a recount and will fight for every vote.”
Local and international monitors also pointed to numerous violations, including irregularities with voter lists, saying some voters were turned away despite having registered. This is the first time in Kyrgyzstan when voters could cast ballots without a local residency permit, as long as they had registered at a particular polling station by October 20. Observers from the Bishkek-based Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society saw problems not only with voter lists, but with unsealed ballot boxes and attempts to vote more than once. They also reported that ink used to mark voters’ thumbnails washed off too easily.
At school No. 27 in Bishkek, a wiry man in a gray suit vigilantly checked the hands of incoming voters for the telltale mark. A number of voters in the middle-class neighborhood indicated a preference for Atambayev. Ayder Murataliev, a 25-year-old loan officer at a local bank, said his family had come to the conclusion after extensive discussion. In an election fraught with worries about regional divisions, he expressed hope that Atambayev could mitigate some of them, particularly between urban and rural residents, who have been prone to friction with the rise of internal labor migration.
“Atambayev would be the most flexible person, in terms of finding the right solutions for our country,” he said. “As much as we don’t like to say it, people here are divided. We live in the Chui Valley, for example, where we have more resources. In other areas, in the mountains, people have less. Sometimes even less food. So they have more of an animal survival instinct.”
Atambayev’s detractors, including Madumarov and Tashiev, have claimed he abused his position as head of government to sway the election’s outcome, for instance by manipulating public sector employees. Officially, Atambayev’s campaign funding was nearly double that of Madumarov’s, totaling about $870,000, but sources of contributions in Kyrgyzstani politics remain opaque. On October 28, Tashiev warned that “millions” of people would rise up if they found Atambayev had unfairly rigged the vote using such “administrative resources.”
Tashiev, a pugilistic politician with strong nationalist views, caused a stir on election day when he stormed out of a polling station in rural Naryn Province, where he had decided to cast his ballot, after failing to vote. The reason proved comically benign: He had forgotten to bring identification. Tashiev returned hours later after an employee brought his driver’s license from Bishkek.
Outgoing President Roza Otunbayeva called Tashiev’s allegations about abuse of power “ridiculous.” His Ata-Jurt party, a member of parliament’s ruling coalition, controls six ministries, she said after casting her ballot in Bishkek, noting that the culture minister regularly accompanied Tashiev on campaign trips.
In Osh, epicenter of last year’s deadly violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks, the vote, as many had predicted, appeared split along ethnic lines.
Several ethnic Kyrgyz voters at the Kirov School said they had voted for Madumarov. A student, 21-year-old Eldar Isakov, said Madumarov would “unite Kyrgyzstan.” But at the Lenin School, in a predominantly Uzbek neighborhood, Zurahan Mamajanov, 74, supported Atambayev for the same reason: He would “unite Kyrgyzstan.”
The day before the vote, in the Uzbek neighborhood of Cheremushki, scene of some of last year’s worst violence, young men said they would not vote. Ulugbek, 37, a construction worker, who would only speak while hidden from view in a car, said he could not go to the polls as he feared for his safety.
In majority-Uzbek Aravan, also in the south, an international monitor who has observed Kyrgyz elections multiple times said the vote was orderly, with “medium-high turnout” but “blatant ballot stuffing." He also said Madumarov’s representatives were attempting to intimidate Uzbek voters.
“A lot of Uzbeks think Atambayev is going to win and seem to support that, but once Madumarov’s representatives are around, they go quiet,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity according to the rules of his organization. “There are Kyrgyz men in kalpaks [traditional Kyrgyz hats] standing around outside, which is intimidating.”
An hour after polls closed, the Central Elections Commission confirmed that half of registered voters, more than 3 million in all, had voted, making the election valid. Results are expected to start appearing on the CEC’s website late Sunday, though the body has three weeks to make an official announcement.
David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor. Nicolas Tanner contributed reporting from Osh.