BACKGROUND: Following the twin vote, Kyrgyzstan enters a new phase in its tumultuous development. The result confirmed Sadyr Japarov’s meteoric rise as the country’s new strongman since the discredited parliamentary election in October last year. The outcome further represents an almost complete turnaround compared to a decade ago when Kyrgyzstan in the summer of 2010 adopted a constitution with an empowered legislature and decentralized executive power. The declared intent with the move towards parliamentary governance was to avoid the kind of presidential family rule that had plagued the country during the presidencies of Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
The 2010 constitutional reform stripped the presidency of considerable powers in favor of the prime minister, the government, and the legislature. Notably, the president was restricted to a single six-year term and no longer had the right to initiate legislation. The president, nonetheless, retained significant powers, which included the spheres of foreign policy and national security as well as the right to veto legislation. Although frequently referred to as a parliamentary system, in reality it was thus a mixed parliamentary-presidential system. The subsequent parliamentary election in fall 2010 brought several closely matched parties to the national legislature, inspiring several observers to talk about a genuine democratic breakthrough for Kyrgyzstan.
Initially, there were some encouraging signs: Political representation became more inclusive, as most major political factions gained access to the parliament and the government, through the formation of ruling coalitions. The new rules provided elites with a formal arena to settle disputes instead of taking their grievances to the street as had been the case the previous decade. For the first couple of years, Kyrgyzstani politics increasingly evolved around debates taking place in the legislature, while President Almazbek Atambayev appeared to stand as a slightly aloof figure.
Yet, gradually, the formally strengthened parliament failed to safeguard the country from a return to presidential authoritarianism. Indeed, over the course of the supposedly parliamentary system, the country’s democratic progress slowly but steadily backtracked according to international observers, such as Freedom House. The system also hollowed formal institutions, weakened governance further and failed to establish a social contract between the electorate and the state.
IMPLICATIONS: Why did Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary experiment fail to live up to expectations? The overarching problem lied in the ambiguity of the constitutional design: it raised the status of the prime minister without fully diminishing the powers of the president. Both in letter and spirit, the constitution prescribed ample powers and functions for the president to influence the direction of the state’s domestic and foreign policy. Combined with informal influence, these formal levers allowed first Atambaev and then Sooronbay Jeenbekov to re-establish the presidential office as the focal point, towards which all the other political institutions gravitated.
Neither did the constitution encourage any of the major political actors to carry out long overdue reforms. First, the single mandate tenure provided the president scant incentives to endorse reforms in a bid to seek re-election. The absence of a scheduled election further meant that there was no way to hold the president accountable. Second, the unstable nature of Kyrgyzstan’s coalition governments undermined the position of the prime minister, who faced the threat of removal from the outset. During the past decade, Kyrgyzstan’s prime ministers, on average, remained in office for less than a year. Finally, the parliament filled up with roving deputies, jumping from one party to another. Consequently, Kyrgyzstan’s elites collectively operated according to a short-term decision-making horizon, primarily engaging in a struggle to control and amass the country’s resources during the limited time available to do so. Naturally, this was not a conducive environment for long-term policy development.
Kyrgyzstan’s weak and fragmented political parties placed at the heart of the political system were ill-equipped to serve as a channel between the citizens’ and policymaking. For example, the shift from majoritarian single districts to proportional representation based on party lists severed the ties between politicians and their local constituencies. In the past, there had been a direct linkage between politicians and the people: members of parliament resolved their issues by mobilizing their supporters for protests, and in return the latter knew whom to turn to with their grievances. Admittedly, these elite-led protests created much instability. But replaced by an abstract and immature party system with little to offer in terms of concrete policy, the gulf between the political elite and the people widened.
This was not the only way that the state-society relationship weakened. Growing parts of the population are economically active in the domestic informal sector while many others are guest workers abroad. This economic disengagement in state-society relations has significantly weakened the demand for truly national legislation as large parts of society operate outside of the formal reach of the state. Conversely, political elites prospering from informally “taxing” economic flows along the new Silk Road have little interest in establishing mechanisms of accountability, including a formal tax contract with the population.
The composition of the empowered legislature determined its subsequent behavior. Ahead of parliamentary elections, the major political parties auctioned off slots in their party lists. The practice approximated a formal contract between candidates and party leaders, specifying both the sum a candidate must contribute to party funds and how many votes the same candidate is expected to bring the party from his or her local stronghold. As parliamentarians entered office after having made financial contributions in the amount of several hundreds of thousands of dollars, they had strong incentives to get their money back. Accordingly, the national parliament became the primary marketplace for transacting corrupt deals.
All of this led to a loss of faith in the post-2010 political leadership and the system it came to represent, leaving a political void to fill. The man who came to fill this void was Sadyr Japarov, a charismatic politician sprung from prison by supporters following the protests against the October parliamentary vote. While mistrusted among parts of the political establishment and feared for his alleged ties to organized crime and past links with the brutal Bakiyev regime, Japarov has gathered an unusually wide following even transcending the traditional north-south divide in the country. His support base includes overlapping categories of rural followers, youth, labor migrants and nationalists.
More than anything, he has emerged as the ultimate symbol for a nationalistic current in Kyrgyz politics and society that has been on the rise in Kyrgyzstan since 2010. This is not unique for Kyrgyzstan; it can be seen in many other countries around the world. At the heart of this sentiment is a perceived need to preserve and safeguard the traditions, culture and values of the Kyrgyz people from real or imagined enemies within and outside the country. In Kyrgyzstan, no party has advocated the nationalistic agenda more consistently than the Ata Jurt (Fatherland) party and its successor party Mekenchil (Patriots), which Japarov is closely associated with. The political programs of Ata Jurt/Mekenchil have consistently emphasized an aversion against parliamentarism and advocated a return to a strong presidential system, with a subordinated parliament and a formalized role for the traditional Kyrgyz form of assembly – the Kurultai.
These traditional and nationalist-oriented values find resonance among a large group of Kyrgyz citizens, particularly in rural areas, where the old secular Soviet values are a thing of the past and where liberal, pluralistic influences never have taken hold. Given the overwhelming support that Japarov enjoys at the moment, it seems highly probable that the parliamentary election scheduled for May will consolidate this value system as the dominant paradigm in Kyrgyz politics. However, given that the January 10 referendum simply affirmed a change to a presidential form of government, the step before that will be for the new authorities to present a draft presidential constitution for the electorate to approve in another referendum. This vote is likely to be hold in conjunction with the April 11 elections for local councils.
CONCLUSIONS: What will or can Japarov do with all the powers he is all set to concentrate in his own hands? His presidential campaign program was full of lofty goals and priorities. Buzzwords, such as fighting corruption and preserving national unity and stability, featured prominently, as did pledges to strengthen social welfare benefits and create jobs. With the helping hand of the parliament, he has pushed through a law that grants economic amnesty for individuals with illegally obtained financial assets in exchange for compensating the state some amount of their theft. Such shortcuts might give him some respite in the short-term. Addressing Kyrgyzstan’s many challenges, however, require a grounded reform program. Yet, on matters of policy, Japarov’s program appears conspicuously hollow.
This is particularly the case regarding the most pressing issue of how to try to pull the country out of its economic crisis, the extent of which can hardly be exaggerated. First, according to the National Statistical Committee, GDP dropped by 8.6 percent last year; the biggest decline in the country since 1994. Second, with weakly developed domestic production sectors, Kyrgyzstan is dependent on remittances sent by its labor migrants, particularly from Russia and Kazakhstan. These remittances have provided the country with an alternative social security net and alleviated poverty. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, these remittances dried up. Given the continuing havoc wreaked by the pandemic the prospects look anything but certain. Third, direct investments have likewise been in decline. Thus far, the new leadership has not presented any concrete proposals for how to attract much-needed foreign investment. Finally, there is the issue of repayment of Kyrgyzstan’s $1.8 billion public debt to China. Unlike other foreign creditors, China has been reluctant to suspend debt service payments, leaving Kyrgyzstan with a possible risk of defaulting on its debt.
The main challenge for the President-elect will be to live up to the high expectations. Given the magnitude of the problems facing the country, this is an unenviable task. If he fails to meet expectations, the most likely outcome is that Kyrgyzstan enters another cycle of authoritarian rule coupled with social resentment. In that case, sooner or later, a fourth major revolt is waiting to happen.
Johan Engvall, Ph.D., is a researcher at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI), and a non-resident senior fellow with the Central-Asia Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center. He is the author of the book The State as Investment Market: Kyrgyzstan in Comparative Perspective, published by University of Pittsburgh Press.
Image Source:United States Department of State via Flickr. Accessed 1.21.2021