Nationalist politician Sadyr Japarov is on course to a landslide victory in Kyrgyzstan’s snap presidential election, which was triggered by the collapse of the previous government.
Japarov won almost 80 percent of the vote on Sunday in the Central Asian nation which is closely allied with Russia, according to preliminary results cited by Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Commission, meaning there will be no runoff.
The data meanwhile showed his closest competitor trailing with less than 7 percent.
“I am assuming power at a time of hardship and crisis,” Japarov told reporters after the results were announced.
“One or two years will not be enough to fix everything, we can do it in three or four years and it will require stability.”
More than 80 percent of voters have also supported a proposal to reform the constitution to give the president greater powers at parliament’s expense, the commission said.
Just more than 10 percent supported the parliamentarian rule.
The referendum vote spells the end for a mixed political system adopted in 2010 to tame authoritarianism after two successive strongman presidents were ejected from power during street protests.
Violent protests which erupted last October sprung Japarov, 52, from jail to the prime minister’s chair and culminated in him assuming the interim presidency before he ran for the full-time role.
Japarov, who was sentenced to a lengthy prison term for kidnapping a provincial governor as part of a protest, had his verdict quashed amid the October unrest and has outspent 16 presidential poll rivals by a wide margin.
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Bishkek, said the central election commission had reported turnout of about 40 percent in both votes.
Stratford said the election has been “divisive” as his critics accused him of intimidation and bullying tactics in the run-up to the election.
[But] he is hugely popular … especially amongst the rural disenfranchised communities of this country,” he said.
Russia a ‘strategic partner’
Despite his nationalist stance – Japarov’s first act as prime minister was to add ethnicity information to national ID cards – he has repeatedly pledged to maintain a close relationship with former Soviet overlord Moscow.
“Russia is our strategic partner,” Japarov said after casting his ballot in a suburb of capital Bishkek, and urged all groups to accept the results in order to preserve stability.
Russia operates a military airbase in the mountainous nation and is the main destination for hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz migrant labourers.
Neighbouring China is another key trade partner and investor in the impoverished and predominantly Muslim nation, whose economy has been battered by the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting disruptions to trade and travel.
Japarov’s prison sentence stemmed from his campaign in the early 2010s to nationalise the giant Kumtor gold mine operated by Canada’s Centerra Gold. After coming to power last year, however, he said that was no longer a goal and he would only seek to ensure profits are split fairly.
Japarov’s campaign, which combined references to traditional symbols and values with promises such as doubling healthcare spending struck a chord with voters, especially in rural areas.
Before toppling the government of President Sooronbay Jeenbekov in October, similar violent protests deposed presidents in 2010 and 2005. Another former head of state, Almazbek Atambayev, is under arrest on corruption charges.
Some opposition supporters denounced Japarov’s plan to change the constitution as authoritarian.
“Japarov’s victory will not bring anything good because the way he came to power remains suspicious. It’s an usurpation of power and the election was not fair from the beginning,” Talgat, an opposition supporter, told Al Jazeera.
“People see him as a martyr or a hero, but his plan to change the constitution is a disaster. We can’t keep on changing it. I don’t know why people don’t understand that.”
However, others believe Japarov is Kyrgyzstan’s last hope.
“I feel sorry for Japarov,” said supporter Uliijan, 46.
“Already now the parliament is constantly criticising him. They will not leave him in peace. I hope he will fulfil his promises. Probably not all of them but at least some. It will already be a lot.”
Stratford said the economy is in a desperate need of investment, as more than 2 million Kyrgyz are forced to work abroad due to a lack of employment opportunities at home.
“[It is a] very controversial election and win … there is a lot for Sadyr Japarov to do in the coming years,” Stratford said.
Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska contributed to this report from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.