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Profiles: Kyrgyzstan’s Presidential Hopefuls

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by October 11, 2017 Energy & Power

Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election on October 15 boasts 11 candidates, but polls appear to show two clear front-runners in what could shape up to be a rare competitive vote in post-Soviet Central Asia.

Kyrgyzstan’s constitution limits presidents to a single, six-year term.

This is colorfully quotable, 49-year-old businessman Arstanbek Abdyldaev’s second bid for the presidency.

He received just 0.4 percent of the vote in the 2011 election.

Abdyldaev has gained a reputation for oddball remarks, including calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a “complex bio-robot” designed to save humanity and “forecasting” catastrophic flooding in the West. Footage of Abdyldaev promising at a press conference that “there would no winter” has been watched more than a million times on YouTube.

Abdyldaev is not expected to fare well in the election.

A former prime minister and wealthy businessman, 47-year-old Omurbek Babanov is a top contender according to polls and key rival to the incumbent president’s preferred pick to succeed him.

In 2010, Babanov founded the pro-business Respublika Party, which has since merged with Ata Jurt to form Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest faction in parliament after the ruling Social Democrats. Respublika-Ata Jurt currently holds 28 seats in the 120-seat parliament, the Jogorku Kenesh.

Babanov served as prime minister for nine months, from December 2011 until September 2012.

A native of the northern Talas region, he began his political career in parliament in 2005. Two years later, Babanov sat atop of Social Democrats’ party list for parliamentary elections but was disqualified, reportedly over a Kazakh passport he obtained in the 1990s while living in Taraz in southern Kazakhstan.

Babanov set off a diplomatic spat between Bishkek and Astana by meeting with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev in Almaty in September. The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry said the event amounted to foreign meddling in the country’s internal affairs, while Kazakhstan expressed “extreme surprise” at Bishkek’s reaction.

Babanov has promised a crackdown on corruption, constitutional reform to reintroduce presidential rule, and a more effective foreign policy.

Controversial for his fiery and seemingly nationalistic remarks, 61-year-old Amirbek Beknazarov was nominated for the presidency by the newly formed Union of National Patriotic Forces of Kyrgyzstan.

A lawyer by training, Beknazarov entered the political scene as a lawmaker in 2000.

He shot to prominence just two years later, taking part in public rallies and criticizing the government’s decision to renounce a claim to a swath of disputed territory claimed by neighboring China. His arrest at the time sparked antigovernment protests in his native southern district of Aksy. Six people were killed and dozens wounded when police opened fire on demonstrators in March 2002 in what is now considered the first major rally against then-President Askar Akaev.

Beknazarov went on to play a key role in Kyrgyzstan’s 2005 and 2010 “revolutions” that ousted presidents Akaev and Kurmanbek Bakiev, respectively.

Beknazarov has vowed to help create a “national state” for the Kyrgyz people and in a thinly veiled appeal to ethnic Kyrgyz said he “reject[s] the idea of Kyrgyzstan as a common home.”

Beknazarov is not among the leading candidates.

A top contender according to polls, the 58-year-old Sooronbai Jeenbekov stepped down as prime minister in August to run for president.

He was nominated by Kyrgyzstan’s leading political party, the Social Democrats (SDPK), who control 38 seats in the 120-seat parliament.

He is closely associated with outgoing President Almazbek Atambaev. Jeenbekov has said the future president should be a person “capable of continuing” the policies of Atambaev, who has publicly called Jeenbekov a “friend” and said Jeenbekov’s government was “the best” cabinet during his presidency.

Prior to becoming prime minister in March 2016, Jeenbekov served as head of the presidential administration and governor of the southern Osh Province following the 2010 revolution.

In the country where regional associations play a key role in politics, Jeenbekov is among a group of influential politicians from the southern provinces.

Jeenbekov began as a village school teacher in his native Osh before moving through many different posts in the region and then moving to the capital, Bishkek, in December 2015.

Authorities are probing accusations that teachers at a state-run academy instructed students to vote for Jeenbekov, lending weight to allegations that the ex-prime minister sought to misuse “administrative resources” to aid his chances.

Jeenbekov was criticized for his treatment of subordinates after footage of a government meeting showed him telling off an official for coming to the meeting unprepared.

At 43, Ulugbek Kochkorov is the youngest candidate in the current presidential race.

He has led the little-known party of Zhany Door since early this year.

He became a member of parliament in 2010 through the powerful Ata-Jurt’s party list. In 2013, he suggested that only Kyrgyz-speaking journalists should be allowed into parliament and blamed media for distorting his comments.

Kochkorov began his career as an economist in 1995 but switched to the national security services two years later. He worked with the National Committee for State Security until 2009 and reached the rank of colonel.

A former speaker of parliament, 52-year-old Adakhan Madumarov is an experienced politician who has been elected to parliament three times and served as the head of the National Security Council and deputy prime minister.

Madumarov ran for president in 2011, winning 15 percent of the vote. A lawyer and historian by profession, Madumarov is known for his public speaking skills.

It was announced in August that Madumarov’s Mekenim-Kyrgyzstan party would unite with two other opposition parties, Onuguu-Progress and Ata Jurt, to create a new political party (Kaira Zharaluu, or Rebirth) and field a single candidate for the presidential election.

But despite the announcement, Madumarov and Onuguu-Progress leader Bakyt Torobaev have both remained in the race. Meanwhile, Ata Jurt co-leader Kamchibek Tashiev withdrew his candidacy late September to support Sooronbai Jeenbekov.

Despite his relative success in the previous vote, Madumarov is not among the front-runners ahead of the October 15 election.

Fifty-nine-year-old Arslanbek Maliev has been elected to parliament three times. He initially sought to run for president in 2011 but failed to pass the required Kyrgyz-language test.

This time around, native Russian-speaker Maliev was more successful on the Kyrgyz test.

Maliev has been the head of the smallish Aalam party since 2007. He is also the chairman of a Kyrgyz society for friendship and cooperation with foreign countries.

Maliev has said the suffix “-stan” should be removed from Kyrgyzstan because it “creates associations with Afghanistan and other countries with unfavorable situations.” In 2012, he suggested changing the country’s name to Kyrgyz Zher, or Kyrgyz Land.

A graduate of the Food Academy of Kharkiv in Ukraine, Maliev continued his studies in Ukraine with doctoral studies in foreign economic relations.

Maliev started his career as an engineer in the Bishkek government’s food and public distribution department in 1979, eventually rising through the ranks of various government jobs.

He is not expected to garner major support in the election.

A self-described independent figure with no ties to any political party or movement, 56-year-old Taalatbek Masadykov is a new face in Kyrgyz politics.

Apart from a brief stint as a deputy head of the state committee for foreign investments in the mid-1990s, Masadykov has never worked in government structures.

Masadykov studied international relations at the prestigious Moscow University in the 1980s before working as a translator in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.

Masadykov has spent around 15 years abroad since 2000, when he went to London, saying “as my education was Soviet education, I wanted to try studying at a Western school, too.”

Two years later, he joined the United Nations, working at various UN offices in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran until 2014.

Masadykov has also taught international relations in Bishkek universities.

Fifty-four-year-old former Prime Minister Temir Sariev was the first politician to publicly announce that he would seek the presidency in the current race.

Nominated by his Ak-Shumkar party, Sariev is running on a platform of economic development. He is an economist by profession and served for three years as economy minister before being appointed prime minister in May 2015.

Sariev lasted just over 11 months as prime minister, and resigned in April 2016 amid a corruption scandal.

Sariev hasn’t held a public office since. He has been elected to parliament twice, in the 2000 and 2005 general elections.

Sariev has supported Kyrgyzstan’s decision to join the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union trading bloc that also includes Armenia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

A former professional wrestler, Sariev still keeps a vigorous exercise and fitness regime, a practice his election team uses to promote him as a dedicated and disciplined candidate.

Fifty-five-year-old rights activist and chief editor of a children’s publication Toktaiym Umetalieva is the only woman in the Kyrgyz presidential field.

It is her third presidential campaign since 2005.

Umetalieva has championed free education from preschool to university and family welfare among her major initiatives. Umetalieva has criticized Kyrgyzstan’s current education system as one that “divides children into poor and rich.”

She has also vowed to create a special Mother and Child program to improve financial support and free health care for mothers and children.

In 2011, Umetalieva suggested renaming the capital, Bishkek, as Manas. The initiative failed to gather much momentum.

An economist by profession, 50-year-old Ernis Zarlykov is probably the least-known of the presidential candidates.

He stepped down as deputy mayor of the capital in September to run in the presidential election.

Zarlykov has held different positions in Bishkek city government since 1993, mostly overseeing finance and tax departments before becoming the first deputy mayor in 2016.

He narrowly passed the Kyrgyz-language test for candidates, at 60.1 points, ahead of the required 60 points.

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.

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