Populist, Prisoner, President: A Convicted Kidnapper Wins Kyrgyzstan Election – The New York Times

MOSCOW — A populist politician and convicted kidnapper won a landslide victory on Sunday in a snap presidential election in Kyrgyzstan triggered by a popular uprising against the previous government.

Sadyr Japarov, the winning candidate, got nearly 80 percent of the vote, according to the central electoral commission of the mountainous country, the only democracy in Central Asia. More than 80 percent of voters also supported Mr. Japarov’s proposal to redistribute political power away from Parliament and into the president’s hands.

In September, Mr. Japarov, 52, was still in jail, serving a lengthy term for orchestrating the kidnapping of a provincial governor, a charge he denounced as politically motivated. A violent upheaval that erupted in October over a disputed parliamentary election sprung Mr. Japarov from a prison cell to the prime minister’s chair.

A few days later, he assumed the interim presidency before resigning to run for that office. The country’s main investigative body quickly canceled Mr. Japarov’s conviction.

Reviled by his critics as a corrupt nationalist with links to organized crime, Mr. Japarov tried to consolidate society behind his campaign. There were scattered reports of voting irregularities as of late Sunday, when the election authorities said turnout was around 39 percent.

On Sunday night at a news conference in the capital, Bishkek, he said Kyrgyzstan needs political stability now most of all.

“I call on all opponents to unite; the minority should submit to the majority,” Mr. Japarov said during the news conference. “I come to power during challenging times; there is a crisis everywhere.”

Arkady Dubnov, a Central Asia expert in Moscow, described Mr. Japarov as a populist “Robin Hood” figure who came to power on the promise of giving people quick relief. Speaking Sunday on Ekho Moskvy, a Russian radio station, Mr. Dubnov noted that more upheaval was inevitable in Kyrgyzstan.

“The way how the whole system of power in Kyrgyzstan was whipped and uprooted in just 48 hours shows how government institutions are unstable in this country,” he said.

A landlocked former Soviet republic of 6.3 million people, Kyrgyzstan has suffered recurrent political strife. Three of its presidents, including Mr. Japarov’s immediate predecessor Sooronbay Jeenbekov, have been toppled in violent revolts since the country’s independence from Moscow in 1991.

Deep poverty, clan rivalry and regional divisions between north and south have made it hard for successive governments to impose full control over the country. Many governments have been corrupt, profiting from lucrative smuggling routes that cross the country from China.

During the most recent political turmoil, protesters captured the main government building that houses Parliament and the president’s offices. Angered by credible allegations of widespread vote-buying in last fall’s parliamentary election, a violent mob stormed through the building, leaving piles of debris behind.

After the protests, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said Kyrgyzstan’s main problem was that its elites were trying “to fit their domestic policy into the mold of some Western countries.”

“They are always trying to run ahead of the train,” Mr. Putin said at a news conference in December. “At the same time, they lack the level of political consciousness and institutional maturity of the kind, for example, France has.”

In pushing to expand his powers, Mr. Japarov seems to be following Mr. Putin’s lead. But that path may be risky. Kurmanbek Bakiyev, another predecessor of Mr. Japarov’s, tried to consolidate all levers of power in his hands during his 2005-2010 term. He ended up being deposed in a bloody riot.

A country where Russian is a state language, Kyrgyzstan is closely allied with Moscow. Mr. Japarov pledged during his campaign to maintain close ties. Russia operates an air base near Bishkek and is also the leading destination for hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan.

“We lived together with Russia for 70 years during the Soviet time,” Mr. Japarov said on Sunday after casting his vote. “After the union collapsed, we have been allies for 30 years,” he said, calling Russia “the strategic partner.”

Neighboring China is another key partner for Kyrgyzstan. The economic giant to the east is the principal investor in Kyrgyzstan’s impoverished economy and the government’s main lender.

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