Kyrgyz go to polls as vote-buying fears rise

Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) (AFP) –


Kyrgyzstan goes to the polls to choose a new parliament Sunday with electors and smaller parties afraid vote buying will spoil a rare competitive election in former Soviet Central Asia.

Surrounded by authoritarian states with rubber-stamp legislatures, elections in mountainous Kyrgyzstan offer a colourful and sometimes unpredictable contrast.

Yet with the coronavirus pandemic battering paltry incomes, many observers are warning that the stage is set for massive ballot fraud by well-resourced parties.

Aisuluu Alybayeva, a 34-year-old school teacher in the capital Bishkek, told AFP she hoped the parties that made it into parliament would not be the same ones "buying people", whose votes sometimes cost as little as $25, according to reports.

The pandemic that saw new cases and deaths peak in July in Kyrgyzstan showed voters "how (officials) work," Alybayeva said.

"When the pandemic hit, our lawmakers took their (scheduled) holiday. I personally took offence."

Voting across the country begins at 0200 GMT and concludes at 1400 GMT, with the first results expected late on Sunday.

- Rift over Russia -

Of sixteen parties competing, two are almost certain to take seats in the 120-member legislature.

The Birimdik (Unity) party is viewed as loyal to President Sooronbai Jeenbekov and includes the president's brother and former parliamentary speaker Asylbek Jeenbekov among its candidates.

Its main rival, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (My Homeland Kyrgyzstan), is associated with the powerful Matraimov family, whose figurehead Rayimbek Matraimov -- a former Customs Service official -- was the target of anti-corruption protests last year.

Both parties have spoken in favour of further integration with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union bloc, which has raised the status of hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz migrants working in Russia since Kyrgyzstan joined in 2015.

But Birimdik's party chairman Marat Amankulov sparked indignation after comments emerged from last year of him saying it was "time to return" to Moscow's fold.

Rivals accused him of undervaluing Kyrgyz independence.

In a meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Monday, Jeenbekov warned of "forces" that wanted to "drive a wedge into the (Kyrgyz-Russian) alliance" -- an apparent reference to a pro-sovereignty rally held in opposition to Amankulov's comments in the capital Bishkek last Sunday.

On Friday, the state prosecutor said it was investigating a video widely distributed on messaging apps.

The video, which showed two male students from a top university secretly filmed in a hotel room, appeared to imply that opposition parties were supportive of homosexuality, which is deeply frowned on in the conservative country.

The opposition parties targeted said this was an attempt to smear them ahead of the vote.

The state prosecutor is also investigating accusations that one party bribed voters with sacks of coal, the office said.

- Political drama -

Revolutions unseating two authoritarian presidents in the space of five years were seen as the driving force behind a fresh constitution to curb authoritarian excess and contain political in-fighting in 2010.

Electoral laws dictate that no one party can take more than 65 seats in the 120-member legislature.

Presidents are limited to a single six-year term -- a departure from the strongman trend seen in neighbours China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Jeenbekov will be hoping for a cooperative parliament as he plans for life after his term ends in 2023, knowing that his own predecessor and former protege Almazbek Atambayev is currently languishing in jail.

Tensions between the pair grew following Jeenbekov's electoral victory in 2017, peaking last year with a shootout at Atambayev's residence between the former president's armed supporters and state security forces trying to arrest him.

Atambayev was detained on charges of illegally releasing a crime boss from jail and jailed for 11 years in June.

He has also been charged in the murder of a special forces officer who died during the raid.