Kyrgyzstan is poised for a fresh constitutional referendum that some politicians and analysts warn risks weakening the country’s democratic institutions.
A total of 26 amendments are on the table, with the most significant change a power shift from the parliament and the president to the prime minister and the cabinet.
The nationwide vote, initiated by the president’s Social Democrats party and scheduled for December 11, has already proved divisive.
The ruling coalition broke up on October 24 amid disputes over whether constitutional change was needed at all.
Kyrgyzstan became the first – and currently only – Central Asian state to embark on parliamentary democracy after the ousting of President Kurmanbek Bakiev in 2010.
“If these amendments are passed, the country will return to authoritarianism,” Omurbek Tekebaev, the leader of the Ata Meken party and one of the authors of the current constitution, told local media last month, adding, “It would be the authoritarian rule of the prime minister rather than of the president.”
However, parliament voted to support the constitutional referendum on November 2, and the following day the Social Democrats, Bir Bol and Kyrgyzstan parties formed a new coalition.
President Almazbek Atambaev, whose six-year term comes to an end late next year, is a strong backer of the latest reforms.
“Who knows, a foolish person may come to power next time, who only thinks about his or her own pocket,” Atambaev said on October 31. “We have all heard someone promising a lot prior to coming to power, saying they will die for the people and for the country. However, they behave differently after gaining power.”
The last referendum took place on June 27, 2010, in a move welcomed by the international community and Kyrgyz legal experts who argued that the changes would prevent power from being concentrated in the hands of the elite.
The current constitution explicitly banned further amendments until 2020.
Supporters of the reforms argued that this ban could be overcome via a referendum, which in any case is needed to change the Kyrgyz constitution.
Nonetheless, analysts argue now that democratic institutions risk losing their status if the constitution is changed every few years and referendums become commonplace.
The constitution had become “a bargaining chip of political games,” said Tamerlan Ibraimov, who heads the Centre for Political and Legal Studies.
“An imbalanced constitution may cause a crisis of authority and other serious consequences,” Ibraimov told IWPR.
Lawmaker Cholpon Dzhakupova told IWPR he fear that constitutional reform was being imposed from above rather than being a popular movement as it had been depicted.
“The White House [the popular name for the Kyrgyz parliament and president’s office] brought forward the draft. Members of parliament endorsed it happily without reading it. It’s called the ‘people’s initiative’. It has nothing to do with the people,” Dzhakupova said.
The constitutional chamber of the supreme court did not respond to IWPR requests for comment.
Analysts also warn that the power shift from president to prime minister may be problematic.
The current constitution does not specify whether the prime minister should be a lawmaker or indeed a member of any political party at all. Recent Kyrgyz premier Temir Sariev was a member of a party that failed to get into parliament, but was nonetheless appointed to the post after the ruling coalition nominated him and the house approved it.
Under the proposed changes, the premier will only be able to be chosen from the ranks of serving lawmakers.
Eyebrows were also raised over changes to security policy. The president, as head of the defence council, will give up direct control of law enforcement bodies and the military.
These duties will pass to a new organisation called the security council, although new draft constitution does not specify how this body will be formed.
Another cause for concern was the extremely rapid progress of the discussions on the changes.
Instead of the legally mandated six-month period, the plenary hearings lasted only one-and-a-half months.
Some analysts suspect that Atambaev, constitutionally limited to a single six-year term, is nonetheless preparing the ground for his inner circle to hold on to power.
Kyrgyz activist Rita Karasartova, who campaigns for oversight over legal reforms, said, “Would we have seen such a rush… to adopt the new constitution, if the rewriting of the constitution and the upcoming presidential elections weren’t related?”
“One [should] observe all procedures, discuss amendments for enough time, improve them by considering public opinion and only then submit them to a vote,” she continued.
Isa Omurkulov, who heads the Social Democratic fraction, told IWPR, “The draft was available online [through the e-gov service] and it was discussed until mid-September. A massive number of [public] suggestions were included. Everyone who wanted to take part did so…. In fact, we’ve eliminated half of the originally proposed amendments.”
But Medet Tyulegenov, a political science lecturer at the American University of Central Asia, said that the referendum was indeed a sign that the political elite were thinking about their own agenda.
“The political game has no certain rules. They are reshaped for the benefit of whoever is within the ruling group,” he said. “We still haven’t got a state development ideology and there is no answer where we are heading to as a country. The new reform doesn’t address it either.”
Mariya Zozulya is a Bishkek-based journalist.
This publication was produced under two IWPR projects, Investigative Journalism to Promote Democratic Reform, funded by the European Union; and Strengthening Capacities, Bridging Divides in Central Asia, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.