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Protests in Kyrgyzstan follow parliamentary election denounced as ‘dirtiest’ in history by opposition

Opposition parties in Kyrgyzstan have refused to accept the results of a parliamentary election in which two parties close to the country’s president, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, appear to have won a large majority of seats.

The Birimdik (Unity) party of President Jeenbekov’s closest supporters – including his brother, Asylbek – and the Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (My Motherland Kyrgyzstan) party each took around a quarter of the vote. Just two other parties, the pro-president Kyrgyzstan party and the nationalist Butun Kyrgyzstan party, reached the seven per cent threshold to enter parliament.

Together, Birimdik and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan are likely to have around 90 seats in the 120-seat parliament.

Three parties that failed to clear the threshold denounced the results on October 4, and staged a brief protest on the central square of the capital, Bishkek. A much larger protest was held on October 5.

Speaking after the vote, Janar Akayev, the leader of the Ata-Meken party, said that he considered the vote “illegitimate” and would join other parties in opposing the results “with radical methods”. He said that the election was “the dirtiest” in the country’s history.

Street protests have over the past two decades removed two presidents from office in Kyrgyzstan, although the country has been relatively stable since 2010.

International observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said in an initial statement that while the parliamentary elections were generally well run and candidates could campaign freely, there had been credible allegations of vote buying.

Videos purporting to show vote-buying schemes favouring the two largest parties abounded on social media throughout election day.

“We saw a lively campaign in elections that were held in very challenging circumstances, but the tone was at times harsh,” said Thomas Boserup, head of the OSCE mission. “It was disappointing to see the lack of critical reporting in the media, with most campaign coverage amounting to no more than paid advertising. This lowered both the quality and variety of information available to voters.”

The OSCE added that while Kyrgyzstan’s legal framework forms a good basis for democratic elections, with positive changes to electoral legislation since the last parliamentary elections, a number of recent legislative changes have failed to address other limitations. Campaign financing is lacking in transparency, while a ban on some forms of donation disadvantaged parties with greater funding constraints.

Although candidates could generally campaign freely, there were a number of concerns, including reports of candidate intimidation and disruption of campaign events. While public media provided free airtime to all contestants, the fact that campaign coverage was often produced and paid for by the contestants themselves resulted in a lack of journalistic reporting, with coverage reflecting the financial resources of the parties and candidates rather than providing an objective analysis of their programmes.

Since taking office as president in 2017 – he had previously served as prime minister – Mr Jeenbekov has drawn Kyrgyzstan ever closer to Russia, which has a military base in the country. Both of the largest parties, Birimdik and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, support deeper integration with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.

Kyrgyzstan already supplies Russia with hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, and a drop in remittances from those workers since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic has hit the country’s economy hard. According to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), remittance inflows were down by more than nine per cent in the first seven months of the year.

Real GDP dropped 5.3 per cent year-on-year in the first half of 2020, driven by contractions in construction, services and the hospitality industry (down 9.1, 9.3 and 38.2 per cent year-on-year, respectively). While gold mining was up 9.8 per cent, the rest of the industrial production shrank by nine per cent year-on-year.

A dramatic drop in imports from China (65 per cent year-on-year in the first five months of 2020) hit associated domestic production, re-export activities, and budget revenues. With domestic demand remaining subdued and tourism revenues recovering, the EBRD is now forecasting a GDP contraction of 9.5 per cent for 2020. In 2021, the economy is forecast to grow by three per cent, provided domestic demand picks up and international trade, transport and tourism linkages are at least partially revitalised.

And, of course, if a prolonged political crisis can be avoided.

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