BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan: Kyrgyzstan holds a presidential election on Sunday in which the outcome is unusually open for an ex–Soviet Central Asian state.

Here are the most prominent players in the run–up to Sunday’s vote.

Outgoing president

Almazbek Atambayev, 61, cuts a rare figure among national leaders in the landlocked region where authoritarian rule for life is the norm.

Elected in 2011 on the back of a revolution, he has decided to honour a six–year, single term constitutional restriction for standing presidents, while making his preferred successor openly known.

Nevertheless, Atambayev, a staunch ally of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, is no democratic poster boy. His time in office has seen political opponents jailed in controversial trials and media outlets face libel suits over critical articles.

All of this has cast doubt over his pledge to oversee what could be the freest and fairest presidential vote since the Muslim–majority country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Government candidate

Sooronbai Jeenbekov, 58, is a good friend of Atambayev’s and is running for the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan that the incumbent founded.

Prior to serving as prime minister from April 2016 to Aug 2017 Jeenbekov was little known but Atambayev has made it clear he is his preferred successor.

Jeenbekov has presented himself as a steady hand.

Main challenger

Oligarch MP Omurbek Babanov, 47, provides the most significant obstacle to Jeenbekov’s bid for the presidency.

Charismatic and photogenic, he is widely regarded as the richest man in the race, having made a fortune in oil trading and other business ventures. While Jeenbekov hails from the south, Babanov is from the north, and can expect to source considerable support from this half of the country.

The pro–government media has portrayed him as corrupt, untrustworthy and incapable of fulfilling his populist promises. A prominent supporter of Babanov’s was arrested on coup–plotting charges in the build–up to the vote.

In a testy televised pre–electoral debate in October, Jeenbekov promised to make his rival his first target in a battle to rid the country of graft.

Kazakhstan’s strongman

While Kyrgyzstan’s key ally Russia has stayed neutral, Kazakhstan’s veteran autocrat Nursultan Nazarbayev made a surprise appearance in the race by appearing to endorse Babanov’s bid last month.

Nazarbayev’s meeting with Babanov drew a furious reaction from Kyrgyzstan’s foreign ministry, who accused the strongman of meddling.

Later, Atambayev blasted Nazarbayev in a fiery speech hailing his own country’s democratic principles and accusing Kazakhstan of being ruled by corrupt “sultans”. Kazakhstan called his remarks “unacceptable”.

The kingmaker

Although few tip him to win, the presence on the ballot of popular northern politician Temir Sariyev, 54, could be significant.

Along with Babanov and Jeenbekov, Sariyev is one of six prime ministers who served under Atambayev, overseeing the country’s entry into a Moscow–led economic bloc.

The Washington–based International Republican Institute has forecast that no candidate will secure an outright majority, triggering a second round.

In this case, endorsements from candidates such as Sariyev could help swing the contest between the two men.

The soothsayer

Kyrgyz leadership votes traditionally feature a handful of less serious candidates expected to score under one percent of the vote.

Among them is businessman–turned self–styled soothsayer Arstan Alai Abdyldayev, 49, known for eyebrow–raising statements.

He called Russian leader Vladimir Putin a “complex bio–robot” after his first presidential bid failed in 2011.

Abdyldayev promised that under his presidency, the Kyrgyz people “will rule the whole world” during a recent debate but put forward few concrete policies.

Speaking to AFP ahead of the vote, he remained optimistic of his chances. “This time I think the representative of the universe will win,” the eccentric businessman said. — AFP



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