14 October 2020

Forged by fire: Violent protests in Kyrgyzstan and the potential for political reform

Anti-government protests and violence in the capital Bishkek are likely to spread further nationwide until the current political system is overhauled.

By Ramya Dilipkumar

Violent anti-government protests and riots have rocked Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek since the 4 October elections to the 120-seat parliament. Opposition party members alleged vote-buying after four out of 16 parties - Birimdik (Unity), Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyzstan and Butun Kyrgyzstan - with close ties to President Sooronbay Jeenbekov - cleared the threshold to enter the parliament with more than seven percent of the votes. Kyrgyzstan has a semi-parliamentary system with the prime minister retaining more powers than the president, so the election results were viewed by the opposition as Jeenbekov's ploy to exert his control on the parliament. After protesters stormed and torched parts of the White House (President’s Office), National Security Council and other government buildings, and freed several politicians from prison on 5-6 October, Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov and several other cabinet members resigned and the election results were annulled. Jeenbekov announced his willingness to resign after a new government was formed following fresh parliamentary elections, with a date to be decided in November. The announcements did little to quell the political protests and violence in Bishkek, due to the varying and contrasting demands of protesting opposition activists.

Jeenbekov cannot acquiesce to all demands of the opposition without triggering further agitations in the near-term. On 6 October, Sadyr Zhaparov from the opposition Mekenchil party was chosen by the parliament in an emergency session attended by 63 out of 120 lawmakers, as the country’s acting prime minister. However, the move was opposed by other opposition parties who want their own candidates to be the next PM; contenders for the PM post include Omurbek Babanov from the Respublika Party and Ata Meken party candidate Tilek Toktogaziev. On the other hand, dozens of former ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) members who left Jeenbekov’s camp in September to join Almazbek Atambayev, former president of Kyrgyzstan, want Jeenbekov to step down. If Jeenbekov were to relinquish control to Atambayev, who was imprisoned in June on corruption charges, or Zhaparov, as per the constitutional mandate, protests by other parties who remain opposed to these politicians are likely to ramp up. Rivalling claims of government leadership by Zhaparov, Babanov and Toktogaziev have spurred further clashes between their supporters and security forces, and riots in Bishkek, with over 600 people injured on 5-9 October.

While Jeenbekov has implemented a stay-at-home order for residents in Bishkek, with overnight curfews, ban on gatherings and entry and exit restrictions to the city, effective until 19 October, these measures are not sufficient to prevent anti-government protests from spreading further in the near-term. Opposition activists have announced that they are garnering more supporters in other parts of the country to help take control of Bishkek. Further protests have the potential to escalate to widespread unrest nationwide and force Jeenbekov out of office before new parliamentary elections are held. In other major cities like Talas, Osh and Jalalabad where Respublika and Ata Meken parties have a large number of supporters, protests are imminent. Security forces are limited in these areas and cannot contain widespread protests and unrest. Atambayev’s supporters are also likely to step up their protests in the Chuy region, around his home-town Koi Tash, after he was re-arrested and imprisoned on 10 October. Similar anti-government demonstrations in 2005 and 2010 resulted in riots in Talas, Osh and Jalalabad and the eventual ouster of two former presidents.

To quell the anti-government agitations in Kyrgyzstan, a complete change in government structure is imperative. Parliamentary elections need to be held as soon as possible with a transparent voting mechanism, where a leader who is popular among a majority is elected. The current protests have also highlighted that many want the president's powers, deemed to be autocratic, curtailed. Instead of conducting new presidential elections, the Respublika and Ata Meken parties want the constitution to be amended to give full governance powers to the PM. It seems inevitable that Kyrgyzstan's constitution will have to be amended to establish a more democratic parliamentary system of government and bring about long-term political stability.

Ramya Dilipkumar is an Australia-based political and security risk analyst covering South Asia and Central Asia.