BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Kyrgyz voters go to the polls Sunday to elect a new president in what is seen as a landmark election in the region but what locals dismiss as not bringing real change to the country following last year’s uprising.
“They fired bullets here in April last year and 87 people died, but unfortunately the entire revolution was in vain,” says former politician Edil Baisalov, 34, pointing to broken window panes and bullet holes in his Bishkek office. “The government may have changed, but the root of the country’s problems are still there.”
Kyrgyz citizens last year took to the streets to push for democratic change and personal freedoms, which led to the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev on April 15, 2010.
Three months later, a bloody conflict erupted between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south of the country, leaving hundreds dead and forcing tens of thousands of ethnic Uzbeks to flee to neighboring Uzbekistan.
Two weeks later, Kyrgyz voters took part in a referendum that set up a parliamentary democracy with increased powers for the legislature and a weaker executive branch. Voters chose members of that new parliament, which established a coalition government for the first time in the country’s history.
It was also a turning point in post-Soviet Central Asia: The first time a country in the region made clear moves toward representative democracy.
In the neighboring states of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, for example, authoritarian dictators have maintained absolute rule for two decades.
Kyrgyzstan’s interim government has started reform programs, particularly involving the justice system, but corruption and nepotism hinder progress, politicians say. The country is still one of the poorest in the world, and more than 10 percent of the working population emigrates to Russia or Kazakhstan to look for jobs.
Sunday’s presidential election will be the first in the country’s post-independence period, marked by large posters displaying the faces of 23 candidates.
The front-runners are members of the transitional government of interim President Roza Otunbayeva, who under the constitution can stay in office until the end of the year. They include Almazbek Atambayev, the current prime minister and leader of the Social Democrats, who stepped aside temporarily to run, and Kamchybek Tashiev of the conservative Ata-Jurt party in parliament.
Candidates hope the election can bring about the vital economic and political reform necessary, but they say it’s a long shot.
“We all expect the parliamentary system to be abolished,” says Shirin Aitmatova, 34, one of the youngest delegates in the Kyrgyz parliament.
Ms. Aitmatova, daughter of the well-known writer Chingiz Aitmatov, became politically active after the Kyrgyz-Uzbek conflict last year. She set up a Facebook page for the Kyrgyz victims and then was recruited by several political parties before choosing the socialist-oriented Atameken party, now in the opposition.
But after a year of what she terms often fruitless debates and discussions with her counterparts in parliament and members of the executive branch, she says she is tired and disillusioned.
Kyrgyzstan is economically too weak to continue a parliamentary democracy in Central Asia on its own, Ms. Aitmatova says. As a result, she expects a return “to a larger model of political allegiance, as is common in Central Asia.”
Mr. Baisalov, who had been living in exile in Sweden, returned to Kyrgyzstan after the government was overthrown and Ms. Otunbayeva was made head of state. He initially had taken a job as chief of staff under the interim leader but quit to run in elections for parliament in June 2010. He has since retired from politics, and his party, Aikol El, no longer exists.
“There was no real renewal, no break with the past,” he says. “Ninety percent of the current members of parliament were working under the old, corrupt system of Bakiyev — and no one is doing anything about that.”
Aziz Sharsheyev, 24, who is developing business opportunities in the coal industry, disagrees with the widespread pessimism and believes Kyrgyzstan has a chance to develop a prosperous and pluralistic society. But Mr. Sharsheyev, who studied in the U.S., says that depends on the government improving educational opportunities.
“Democracy without education is not a democracy, and the quality of education here is very low,” he says.
Many Kyrgyz say they no longer believe that ushering in a more representative democracy is the right choice for the conflict-stricken country.
“I do not think much of parliamentary democracy,” says film director Alexander Tsay, 24. “Too many people making a decision on equal footing only complicates the process. We need a strong president again.”