By Aspen Brooks
Aspen Brooks is a CCSDD Research Assistant and a first-year MAIA student at Johns Hopkins SAIS Europe.
If Kyrgyzstan is Central Asia’s “island of democracy,” the sea level is rising to hazardous levels. Instability and a power struggle following annulled elections left an opening for political opportunism in an already precarious constitutional order: an opportunity that Sadyr Japarov seized. Appointed interim President and Prime Minister in October, Japarov has now won a new presidential election, and empowered by a referendum regarding constitutional amendments, is poised to shift the government’s very structure.
Mass protests after Kyrgyzstan’s elections in early October led to President Sooronbai Jeenbekov resigning and appointing former MP Japarov as both interim President and Prime Minister. Before the protests, Japarov had been serving a prison term for attempting to kidnap a political opponent, but was freed by protestors during the unrest.
The widespread protests were sparked when the Central Election Committee (CEC) announced the official election results, with only four out of 16 participating parties meeting the 7% vote share threshold to enter parliament. All four parties had close ties to the incumbent, Jeenbekov, or other established elites, which alongside credible accusations of irregularities in the election including vote buying prompted serious concerns about the legitimacy of the election. The opposition parties announced that they would not accept the election results, and the CEC annulled the elections.
The country has shown a relatively strong civil society for the region, with the Tulip revolution of 2005 and April revolution of 2010 toppling President Askar Akayev and President Kurmanbek Bakiyev respectively. Although it could be argued that the citizenry’s resistance to corruption and election rigging demonstrates their commitment to democracy, it does not appear that Japarov shares the same commitment.
Japarov began consolidating power by appointing a friend, Kamchybek Tashiev, as head of the State Committee for National Security (UKMK). Japarov and Tashiev oversaw a new anti-corruption campaign, which was met with criticisms of targeting political opponents—a claim supported by the fact that both leading opponents for the presidential election were imprisoned. In preparation for the January election, Japarov then resigned from the presidency and with the approval of Parliament appointed allies as acting president and prime minister so that he was eligible to stand as a candidate for the presidential election.
Currently, Kyrgyzstan has a semi-presidential parliamentary system, but with a significantly more powerful president. In the referendum held alongside the January presidential election, voters opted to change to a presidential form of government through constitutional amendment. This will grant broader powers to Japarov, and opens the door to exacerbate authoritarian tendencies in the presidency. The January elections, unlike October, have been recognized as respecting basic freedoms by the OSCE, although observers also noted that Japarov had an advantage “from disproportionate financial means and misuse of administrative resources.” Although the voting process for the referendum was well conducted, its constitutionality remains questionable given that it was put forward by a parliament that extended its own term following the October electoral crisis.
The precise content of the upcoming constitutional amendments remains to be seen, but the shift to a presidential system will drastically expand the powers of the presidency, and likely do so without meaningful checks from other branches of the government.
 The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) disclosed they had, “received numerous credible reports from interlocutors throughout the country about instances of vote buying and abuse of administrative resources.” This is in addition to election observers reporting witnessing civil servants pressured into participating in campaign events, hostile misinformation campaigns, intimidation, and concerns about the misuse of the right of voters to temporarily change their registration address leading up to the election. On the day of the election, ODIHR LEOM observers reported witnessing at least one instance of money being distributed to voters as well as bussing of voters. (Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, ODIHR)