By Arslan Sabyrbekov (05/13/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On May 5, Kyrgyzstan marked the 22nd anniversary of its constitution. In a relatively short period, the country’s basic law went through numerous changes, with the state remaining inefficient. The changes primarily aimed to centralize and strengthen the vertical of power of the first two ousted Presidents. Kyrgyzstan’s current constitution, adopted via a nationwide referendum in the aftermath of the April 2010, has been an exception. Ye the country’s prominent political circles recently suggested holding another referendum in the fall, together with the parliamentary elections.
Kyrgyzstan’s first constitution as an independent state was adopted in 1993 after two years of heated debates in the country’s “legendary Parliament,” as it was termed at the time. Already in 1994 the constitution faced new amendments, under the slogan of creating two chambers of the Parliament, but in reality massively increasing the power of the country’s first President Askar Akaev. A series of amendments were again introduced in 1996, 1998 and 2007 under the reign of the country’s second President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who just like his predecessor, was keen to manipulate the basic law to increase the authority of his own regime.
In 2010, Kyrgyzstan did what then seemed to be unthinkable in Central Asia by adopting a constitution that limited the power of the head of state, in a region where personalization of power is the rule. Moreover, with the objective of preventing further manipulation and ensuring a form of stability to the new system, a Constitutional council comprised of 75 members decided to introduce a special clause, banning any changes to the basic law until 2020. After less than five years, the country’s power holders are again eager to change it.
The talks on amending the 2010 constitution were activated a year ago, with some politicians advocating it from time to time. During a meeting of the country’s Council on Judicial Reform last October, President Atambayev also supported the idea of changing certain articles in the constitution, as he put it, “if they are necessary to carry out full-fledged reform of the judicial sector.” Without much subsequent public deliberation ever since, the initiators have presented a new set of amendments on April 28, stirring heated discussion and opposition from expert and civil society circles.
According to local political experts, the initiatives severely weaken the independence of parliamentarians. Under the proposed amendment, parliamentary factions can vote for early termination of the duties of individual MPs, if so proposed by the governing body of their respective political party. The initiators of the change justify this amendment, arguing that voters vote for a party rather than individual candidates. Yet according to political analyst Tamerlan Ibraimov, “in the Kyrgyz political context, voters first look at the individuals who are in the party list and then decide which party to vote for. The amendment is simply an effort to establish a system of party dictatorship and will not increase the efficiency of the legislature whatsoever, as claimed by its initiators.”
Moreover, the proposed changes strengthen the role of the Prime Minister. He will be in a position to dismiss members of the government and directly appoint and dismiss heads of regional administrations, therefore clearly weakening the role and independence of local self-governments. This initiative has already led to speculations that it serves the interests of the current President, who could after his term in office become the country’s next Prime Minister with extensive powers and no term limits, in close resemblance of the Kremlin scenario. Under the country’s current constitution, the president serves one six-year term with no possibility for reelection. President Atambayev’s term in office expires already in 2017.
Whatever the real motives are, a new amendment to the constitution will hardly improve pluralism in Kyrgyzstan’s political life. Instead, it will strengthen the “vertical of power” and will gradually diminish the room for political competition, along with general legal culture. In more than two decades of independence, the country’s political elite has become accustomed to blaming the constitution for their own lack of capacity to launch public reforms. Therefore, the real problem lies not with the constitution, but with the unwillingness of the power holders to abide by it and their constant efforts to redraw it for their own benefit.