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. 

Published in Field Reports
Wednesday, 29 October 2014 10:11

Kyrgyzstan Debates Constitutional Change

By Arslan Sabyrbekov (10/29/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst) 

Initiatives to amend Kyrgyzstan’s constitution, adopted in the aftermath of the April 2010 events and transforming the country into the first semi-parliamentarian state in Central Asia, are again on the rise. In the past month, a number of prominent politicians have made statements ranging from proposing additional amendments to completely changing the constitution. During last week’s meeting of the Council on Judicial Reform, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev also supported the idea of changing certain articles in the constitution, “if they are necessary to carry out full-fledged reform of the judicial sector.”

This fall, two members of parliament have expressed their desire to launch constitutional amendments. The first initiative group led by MP Felix Kulov, leader of the Ar-Namys party, proposed removing the suffix “stan” and adding an “el” in the country’s name through a nationwide referendum. According to him, the resulting “Kyrgyz El Republic” would make use of the Turkic-origin “el,” that means “nation” in Kyrgyz. Kulov’s proposal received varying judgments, ranging from the party leader’s desire to attract public attention ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections to his attempt of drawing support from the so-called “national-patriotic groups.”

According to Atyr Abdrahmatova, leader of the civic union For Reforms and Results, Kulov’s proposal has little to do with changing the name of the country. Instead, Abdrahmatova claims that the suggestion was simply a pretext for probing how the Kyrgyz public would react to the idea of amending the constitution through yet another referendum. If the public agrees to such a proposal, the country’s political forces could then add additional questions to the agenda of the referendum, such as for example a different power redistribution between the President, Government and Parliament. This would indeed bring Kyrgyzstan back to the times of the first two ousted Presidents, when the country’s constitution was changed numerous times in favor of one office, turning it into a constant subject of political bargaining between the stakeholders.

Kyrgyzstan’s current constitution, adopted in June 2010, contains a special clause banning any constitutional changes until 2020. This provision was introduced in order to ensure some measure of stability to the country’s semi-parliamentarian form of government that the new constitution introduced. But last month, MP Karganbek Samakov, who has recently left the Ata Meken faction, issued a draft law repealing the ban. In his words, the “constitution is a living and moving body and it needs to be changed when necessary. Especially now, some of its rules are often violated, are not always enforced and are contradictory in their content.” These initiatives of parliamentarians and the President’s readiness to discuss constitutional amendments are obviously not coincidental and prepare the ground for the next possible modification of the country’s constitution.

Local experts skeptically perceive the president’s apparent willingness to change the constitution as a means for conducting judiciary reform and instead suspect that he maneuvers to remain in office beyond his current term. According to political scientist Uran Botobekov, the President might be preparing to run for reelection in 2017, which is not possible under the current constitution. However, in his address to the Council on Judicial Reform last week, President Atambayev clearly stated that he has no intention to change the country’s constitution in his favor as his predecessors did and will not become an authoritarian leader. Time will show if words will be kept.

Indeed, it is questionable whether adding a presidium to the Supreme Court by launching a nationwide referendum will result in any effective reforms of the judicial branch, which remains dependent on the will of political actors. The recent release of former politicians accused of heavy corruption deals speak in favor of this judgment. The country’s political elite commonly blames the constitution for their inability or lack of political will to conduct meaningful reforms. This constitution adopted only four years ago is unlikely to pose an exception. After more than two decades of independence, Kyrgyzstan is still engaged in a debate over choosing the most suitable system of governance.

The author writes in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the organization for which he works.

Published in Field Reports

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