Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan – Voters cast their ballots on Sunday in arguably one of the most polarising elections since this Central Asian nation’s independence from the Soviet Union 30 years ago.
Amid a freezing winter breeze, voters will choose not only their next president but also the political system they want to live under.
The stakes are high. Seventeen candidates will run against Sadyr Japarov, who has run the country since the unrest that broke out as a result of a rigged parliamentary election on October 4 that led to the cancellation of results.
Japarov has been agitating in favour of switching to a presidential form of government, which would give the president excessive legislative and executive powers.
In a referendum that runs alongside the election, people will decide whether they prefer the current parliamentary system, a presidential one, or neither – an option that remains unclear.
As snow melted under the warm afternoon sun, ever-present policemen with cameras monitored a group of a few dozen activists who marched to Ala-Too square, which only four months ago was drenched in revolutionary fervour.
The protesters denounced Japarov’s plan to change the constitution, which opponents say will put the country on a path to authoritarianism.
“I’m here to show my support for the constitution, the rule of law and parliamentarism,” said Aizhamal Bektenova, 23.
“I’m against what is happening in my country. It is a usurpation of power, disrespect towards the law. People came here in protest against the corrupt leadership that wants to take the power away from the people,” she added.
According to Japarov, a populist and nationalist, for the past 30 years Kyrgyzstan – which since 1991 has been through three revolutionary upheavals – has been run by irresponsible elites who led to the destruction of its economic, social and political potential. A strong leadership, in his view, is the only way to right the wrongs.
Japarov remains a highly divisive figure. Amid the October revolt, he was freed from prison where he served an 11 and a half year sentence for kidnapping a local official. His supporters, however, say he was a political prisoner, persecuted for his activism to nationalise Kumtor, the country’s biggest gold mine.
After getting out of prison, he was acquitted in a hasty trial and nominated to the position of interim prime minister. After the resignation of president Sooronbay Jeenbekov, he also became interim president, but resigned from both positions in November to be able to run for president.
The opposition fears the proposed constitutional changes might lead to the concentration of power in the hands of one individual, whose rise to power has been deeply suspicious. Many point to Japarov’s unclear connections to organised crime and continuing attempts to curtail civil liberties.
According to analysts, the new constitution that the current parliament has drafted – despite having no legal mandate to do so – is not only full of gaps but also fails to ensure protections such as freedom from slavery and freedom of speech. It also does not specify the country’s electoral system.
While in recent weeks Bishkek has seen a number of protests by activists, lawyers and civil society calling on Japarov to respect the country’s laws, the vote will most likely be decided outside of the capital.
Supporters say Japarov is a man of the people, the disenfranchised youth of the countryside, migrant workers and Kyrgyz speakers who have felt abandoned by the Russian-speaking Bishkek elites.
Japarov, many believe, is Kyrgyzstan’s last hope.
“I feel sorry for Japarov,” said supporter Uliijan, 46. “If he becomes president and the system changes to presidential, he will be done. Already now the parliament is constantly criticising him. They will not leave him in peace. I hope he will fulfill his promises. Probably not all of them but at least some. It will already be a lot.”
Meanwhile, opposition candidates are aiming for a second round of voting. If Japarov does not secure 50 percent of the vote on Sunday, the opposition will vouch for the candidate with the highest percentage of votes.
The game, however, remains uneven. Apart from having access to administrative resources, Japarov has also spent the largest amount of money on his campaign, much more than other contenders.
Also, while in 2016 Kyrgyzstan modernised its voting system – which prevents some forms of fraud as each citizen votes with a fingerprint and the electronic ballot boxes accept only one ballot at a time – the practice of vote-buying is still common.
Polls close at 8pm local time (14:00 GMT) on Sunday and results are expected on Monday.