Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan – The freezing, snowy streets of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital, bear few traces of the events that shook the nation last October, when mass protests led to the annulment of disputed parliamentary elections.
But over the past four months, the Central Asian country has taken a path few expected.
With the old parliament still in place and no new parliamentary elections in sight, Kyrgyzstan is getting ready to choose its next president.
The election scheduled for Sunday, January 10 will see 18 candidates compete for the highest position in the country. But only one name is on everyone’s lips: Sadyr Japarov.
He has been de facto running the country for the past four months and remains a divisive figure.
For some, he is the national hero the struggling nation has been waiting for. For others, he’s a dangerous nationalist with authoritarian tendencies.
His rise to power remains a mystery.
Following the disputed parliamentary election on October 4, protesters stormed the government building and called for the cancellation of the results.
Soon after, a number of politicians serving time in prison on various charges, some of them spurious, were freed.
Among them was Japarov. A marginal nationalist politician, he was serving an eleven-and-a-half year sentence for kidnapping a local official in 2013.
He quickly rose to the top echelons of power.
The high court acquitted him in a hasty trial and he filled in the rank of the country’s interim prime minister. Soon afterwards, Japarov’s supporters forced President Sooronbay Jeenbekov to resign and the former convict became acting president.
With the old parliament still in place and an unelected individual in the position of both prime minister and a president – he has since stepped down as PM and president to be able to run – the government began working on the country’s new constitution.
As the Japarov camp’s narrative goes, the parliamentary system introduced following the revolution in 2010, which promised greater transparency and democracy, has failed.
They say the elites have exploited Kyrgyzstan and it is time to go back to the roots, take back control and lead the country out of the current crisis. That will only be possible with a strong and uncompromised leader who is ready to go against all. Someone like Japarov.
The new proposed constitution strengthens the role of the president at the expense of the parliament. It gives the president extensive legislative and executive powers, similar to what happens in neighbouring Central Asian countries.
“All these initiatives are completely illegal because according to the constitution the parliament cannot use its power to enact such fundamental changes as the constitutional reform. They cannot call for the constitutional referendum because their term has already expired,” said Saniya Toktogazieva, a Kyrgyz expert in constitutional law.
“From the legal point of view, the draft constitution has many discrepancies, and fundamental guarantees for the rights and freedoms of the people have been omitted such as the prohibition of slavery and torture. Most importantly, the effective system of checks and balances is no longer there.”
Despite criticism from legal experts, on January 10, in addition to choosing the new president, citizens will decide in what kind of political system they want to live.
In a referendum held alongside the election, they will answer whether they prefer a presidential or a parliamentary system. The third possible answer is: “against all”.
Japarov has campaigned for the presidential system, in contrast to civil society.
Standing on the podium recently, in the southern town of Kara-Suu, blue flags bearing his name fluttered behind him.
“Television debates are no longer debates but defamatory discussions. Have you watched them?” he said, wearing a tebetey, a traditional Kyrgyz fur hat. He wiped his nose with a tissue matching his campaign colours.
“Is it more useful for me to travel to the regions or spread rumours during debates? Instead of debating, we all prefer to meet with the people. Be close to the people.”
He speaks with a calm but firm voice in plain Kyrgyz. He comforted those who have been left behind, for whom the hip neighbourhoods of the capital’s Russian speaking elite, represent all that is wrong with Kyrgyzstan today.
Meanwhile, protests and discussions on how to protect democracy and civil liberties have taken place in Bishkek on a weekly basis.
Those who form the country’s vibrant civil society are often criticised by Japarov as enemies of Kyrgyzstan and defenders of the status quo.
Activists worry that Japarov’s victory might mean the end of the country’s fragile democracy.
“The constitutional changes might put civil society activists in danger. The draft includes such dangerous provisions as the Article 23, which forbids the media to publish content that goes against the moral or traditional values of the Kyrgyz people,” said Bektour Iskender, cofounder of the Kloop media platform.
“Japarov is not going to follow the law. He has already lied several times during his public statements, he contradicts himself and the views he expresses threaten freedom of speech, freedom of expression and protest. I’m afraid that if he wins, it is going to be much riskier to be a civil activist in Kyrgyzstan.”
The new constitution proposes the creation of national Kurultai, an assembly of members of the public, with the roots in the 13th century.
It would act as a body supporting but also controlling those in power.
Japarov wants Kyrgyzstan to go back to its roots. His populism and nationalism bring to mind the narratives used by Western populists. Kyrgyzstan could well be having its Donald Trump moment.
The results of the next presidential election will most likely be decided away from the capital.
Japarov is the hope of disenfranchised youth and migrant workers.
He smiles from banners across the country. His team spent an estimated $720,000 on the election campaign, more than any other candidate. His supporters are motivated and hopes for change are high.
Currently, all the opposition can hope for is a second round.
If Japarov does not secure the 50 percent of the vote needed to win, the opposition will pick one candidate with the highest potential to beat the “man of the people” in the subsequent vote.
The chances, however, are slim.
“If Japarov wins, it will be a tremendous change for Kyrgyzstan,” Toktogazieva said. “He will only have two choices: find a compromise with the opposition, and it seems that he’s not ready to do that; or resort to repression. Otherwise, he will not be able to stay in power.”