Bishkek and Osh are the most important cities in northern and southern Kyrgyzstan, respectively. They are not only the most populous cities in their regions but also the political centers for the regions and their respective parties in the country. Control over the executive office has oscillated between northern and southern political movements throughout Kyrgyzstan's post-Soviet history, a process often prone to instability and violence.
For example, the country's first president, Askar Akayev, who ruled from independence until 2005, was a northerner. Though he was not a formal member of any political party, northern parties supported him, while his support in the south was much weaker. Believing that Akayev had overreached, citizens in the southern cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad spawned the 2005 Tulip Revolution, which ended with Akayev's downfall. This paved the way for the election of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, a southerner from Jalal-Abad and a member of the southern Ak Jol party. In 2010, Bakiyev, too, was ousted in a revolution, which was in large part due to corruption and nepotism but that nevertheless began in the northern city of Talas before spreading to Bishkek and elsewhere across the country.
The second revolution paved the way for a transition to a parliamentary system, given the unstable nature of a strong executive office in a polarized political society. This gave greater power to the parliament and prime minister, but in reality the role of president remained the most important and powerful. Current President Almazbek Atambayev, a northerner, was elected in 2011 but has been careful not to be overly aggressive in exploiting regional divisions given the lessons learned from the two previous presidents. Still, political tensions have remained in the country, and protests occur on a regular basis over issues such as the detention of opposition figures in the south and security sweeps for alleged militants operating in the area.
It is in this context that the upcoming mayoral elections in Bishkek and Osh could have an important effect on the stability of Kyrgyzstan. Both cities' mayors lost their positions late last year; former Bishkek Mayor Isa Omurkulov resigned amid corruption allegations, while Osh Mayor Melis Myrzakmatov was dismissed after participating in a demonstration against the national government.
The Bishkek mayoral race is unlikely to lead to significant disruptions because only a single candidate, Kubanychbek Kulmatov, has been nominated and will likely be elected. However, in Osh, the former mayor is vying for the position against a former first deputy governor of the Osh region, Aitmamat Kadyrbaev. This has already resulted in tensions between the rival camps — Myrzakmatov represents the Unity of Nationalities party while Kadyrbaev is supported by Ata-Meken, Respublika and even Atambayev's Social Democratic Party — another potential overreach from the north.
Osh is notable not only for its political polarization and regular protests but also as a major site of ethnic tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, the latter of which make up a significant minority in southern Kyrgyzstan. These tensions occasionally lead to violence, such as the June 2010 riots in Osh and Jalal-Abad that nearly precipitated a military intervention from Uzbekistan. Already there have been claims that riots could occur if Myrzakmatov loses the elections, and there are reports of leaflets being spread in markets and other public places urging action against ethnic Uzbek deputies and listing their home addresses. Furthermore, these elections also come as there are other issues compromising stability in the south, including tensions and sporadic shootings near the country's border with both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Added together, these developments spell a potentially volatile situation in Osh — and perhaps elsewhere in the country — during the upcoming elections. This has raised concerns with Russia, which hosts a military presence in the country and is Kyrgyzstan's security guarantor, as well as with China, which has made significant economic inroads into the country. The Kyrgyz government has also been locked in a bitter dispute with Canadian mining firm Centerra, whose operations in the Kumtor gold mine in the eastern part of the country have been the source of protests. All these factors serve to undermine the already fragile stability of the country, and the upcoming mayoral elections could add further strain to this stability.