Eliminating Presidential Candidates In Central Asia

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Jahongir Otajonov just dropped out of the presidential race in Uzbekistan.

“My parents' tears are too high a price to pay,” Otajonov said on Instagram when he announced he was withdrawing as the unregistered Erk Democratic Party's candidate due to pressure on his family.

The obstacles to running for president in Uzbekistan, and in Central Asia, for genuine opposition candidates are formidable.

Incumbents in the region don't appreciate people with fresh ideas, and they tend to use law enforcement, the judicial system, and sometimes thugs to eliminate unwelcome competitors from elections.

Here's how.

Uzbekistan

Otajonov is a former singer who cast aside his career in December 2020, saying it conflicted with Shari'a law.

It was a bit surprising when he later announced that he would be the Erk (Will) Democratic Party’s candidate for president in the October presidential election.

Erk has been around for some 30 years but has never been officially registered.

Realistically, Otajonov and Erk had no chance from the start.

Incumbent Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev is seeking a second term. And although Mirziyoev has said several times the country needs genuine opposition parties and candidates, he and his administration appear to believe that now is not the time.

A former rector of Uzbekistan’s Termez University, Khidirnazar Olloqulov, formed a new party called Truth And Development (Haqiqat va Taraqqiyot) and planned to run for president. But the Justice Ministry has repeatedly denied that party's registration.

Otajonov and Olloqulov have encountered other similar obstacles.

Unknown and uninvited individuals showed up at their parties’ public meetings and at the candidates’ homes, disrupting strategy debates and calling on Otajonov and Olloqulov to exit politics.

Otajonov’s vehicle was impounded by police, and when he complained about it on Instagram, police started an investigation into whether Otajonov's comments about police constituted an insult.

It recently became a crime to insult the president on social media. Apparently the same is true of insulting the police.

Meanwhile, Olloqulov was said to have been accosted in the stairwell of his apartment building by a group that was clearly trying to provoke a fight with the would-be candidate. Olloqulov publicly complained about the group, and they then successfully sued him for insulting their honor and dignity.

Court bailiffs showed up at Olloqulov's home and seized all his home appliances -- television, refrigerator, microwave oven, and other things -- to cover the fine.

Years ago, there was a case involving Sanjar Umarov, the leader of the Sunshine Uzbekistan Coalition, who announced his intention to run for president in 2005 and was quickly charged and convicted of embezzlement, tax evasion, and other financial violations and sentenced to 11 years in prison.

He was freed amid international pressure in 2009 and left for the United States, where he remains.

Tajikistan

Authorities in Tajikistan arguably treat political opponents far more harshly.

Zayd Saidov was a businessman and government official, even serving as minister of industry from 2002-07.

But when he formed the New Tajikistan (Tojikistoni Nau) party, authorities launched a brutal campaign against him.

New Tajikistan submitted its registration application at the beginning of April 2013 and Saidov stated clearly that he had no intention of running in the presidential election scheduled for later that year.

It made no difference.

By May 12, the state agency for combating corruption had launched a criminal investigation against Saidov for allegedly falsifying figures and for polygamy.

Saidov’s home was searched.

The parliamentary newspaper Sado-i Mardom alleged that parties like New Tajikistan were created to protect certain individuals' personal interests, that Saidov “was able to become the owner of so much wealth and property because of such selfishness,” and that he had helped collect money for the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) that had fought against government forces during the 1992-97 Tajik civil war.

The charges against Saidov piled up: bribe-taking, embezzlement, illegal privatization of state property, rape, and statutory rape.

Barely eight months after announcing the creation of his political party, Saidov was convicted at a closed trial of financial fraud, polygamy, and sexual relations with a minor and sentenced to 26 years in prison (three more years were added later).

After the verdict. Saidov’s lawyers and their families were harassed. One lawyer, Shukhrat Kudratov, was later sentenced to nine years in prison after being convicted on fraud and bribery charges.

Saidov’s property was gradually seized and his family members evicted from their homes.

The same tactics were used in late 2015 to discredit and ban the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, which had been the backbone of the UTO, and imprison many of its leaders.

Kazakhstan

Akezhan Kazhegeldin was Kazakhstan’s prime minister from 1994-97, leaving that post after coming into conflict with Kazakhstan’s president at the time, Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Kazhegeldin intended to run for president in the subsequent election, scheduled for December 2000.

But in October 1998, Nazarbaev met with a group of deputies behind closed doors at which the MPs proposed changing the length of a presidential term in office from five to seven years. The move would give Nazarbaev two more terms in office, bringing the presidential election forward to January 1999.

A joint session of parliament approved the proposals within days.

On October 14, Kazhegeldin announced his candidacy. But on October 20, an Almaty court ruled that Kazhegeldin had violated a recently passed law on participating in “mass gatherings and sessions of an unregistered organization” when he showed up at a meeting of the For Free Elections movement at the start of October.

It was an administrative offense, but according to Kazakh courts, the new law provided sufficient grounds for barring Kazhegeldin from participating in the election.

Kazhegeldin tried to fight the decision. But as he did so, members of his campaign team were harassed, his public relations officer and press secretary beaten, and the offices of the 21st Century newspaper -- which supported Kazhegeldin’s candidacy -- were firebombed.

Kazhegeldin fled Kazakhstan soon after and has never returned.

Altynbek Sarsenbaiuly was another prospective presidential candidate.

He had been a longtime Kazakh politician, including roles as information minister and ambassador for Russia.

Sarsenbaiuly also criticized Nazarbaev and formed an opposition party called Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path) in April 2005, with an eye to running against Nazarbaev in the presidential election later that year.

Sarsenbaiuly instead threw his support behind Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, whom several opposition groups calling themselves the For A Just Kazakhstan bloc agreed to support as their candidate.

Tuyakbai was attacked twice early in his campaigning, once while the bloc's members were meeting in a Shymkent hotel and a group of 300 or so unknown individuals entered to disrupt the opposition representatives.

Sarsenbaiuly was killed in February 2006. His body, and the bodies of his bodyguard and driver, were found on a roadside outside Almaty, with their hands tied behind their backs. They had been shot in the head.

Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan is widely regarded as the only country in Central Asia to have held democratic elections, but even there some opposition presidential candidates have faced problems that one would expect to see in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, or Uzbekistan.

Feliks Kulov served in several state positions in the 1990s: vice president, minister of national security, governor of Chui Province, and mayor of the capital, Bishkek.

Like Kazhegeldin in Kazakhstan, Kulov was increasingly critical of the president of Kyrgyzstan, who until March 2005 was Askar Akaev.

In 1999, articles started to appear in state newspapers suggesting that Kulov had been plotting to oust Akaev, or even have Akaev killed.

An investigation was launched and Kulov resigned as mayor in April 1999.

By June, Kulov had formed his own political party -- Ar-Namys (Dignity) -- and it was clear Kulov had an eye on the presidency, with an election scheduled for October 2000.

But first Kulov wanted to be elected to parliament in the February 2000 national elections.

The investigation into claims Kulov had planned to overthrow Akaev picked up pace with added accusations that Kulov had somehow orchestrated an automobile accident involving National Security Minister Anarbek Bakaev in 1996.

Kulov took over the position after the accident and Bakaev remained in a coma until he died in January 1998.

Before Ar-Namys could be registered, amendments were adopted to Kyrgyzstan's electoral laws that required parties to be registered at least one year prior to elections.

The Party of the Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan allowed Kulov to run on its ticket, but the investigation of Kulov continued.

There were allegations he embezzled some $62,000 while he was governor of Chui Province, that he had illegally purchased equipment to tap the telephones of several government officials while he was minister of national security, and that the special Kalkan unit he formed within the ministry planned to assassinate Akaev.

Kulov ran in the Kara-Buura district of Talas Province and won the first round of the February 2000 parliamentary elections, but received only 36 percent of the vote -- not enough to win outright.

In the second round on March 12 his opponent Alymbai Sultanov, who had received 18 percent in the first round, received 56 percent of the vote.

Protests started and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said its monitors reported numerous violations.

The chairman of the district election commission was said to have committed suicide on March 17.

Kulov was arrested on corruption charges on March 22 while he was in a hospital receiving treatment for a heart condition.

His closed trial started in a military court on June 27, although he was unexpectedly acquitted on August 7.

On August 9, Kulov announced his intention to run for president.

But on September 11, his acquittal was overturned and the Central Election Commission refused to register him as candidate for the October 29 vote.

In January 2001, a military court convicted Kulov of abuse of power while he was minister of national security and sentenced him to seven years in prison.

Kulov was freed from prison when Akaev was ousted in the Tulip Revolution of March 2005.

Those familiar with Kyrgyzstan’s presidential race in 2017 will remember Omurbek Babanov -- who led by a large margin in most polls ahead of the election -- was subjected to a widespread smear campaign and, after the election was over, had to leave the country temporarily to avoid facing charges that had surfaced against him during the campaign.

There are more examples in each country.

It has been almost 30 years since the Central Asian states became independent.

In all that time, with the exception of several elections in Kyrgyzstan, their elections have arguably been little more than exercises -- the form but not substance of genuine elections that, time and again, produce no real changes in policy or the system after they are over.

And still, these governments act offended when Western observers and governments criticize their elections.

Source: Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.