Kyrgyzstan’s Referendum: A Vote for Continuity and Tradition

Kyrgyzstan’s voters will head again to the polling stations this weekend for a constitutional referendum intended to rebalance powers between the president and the prime minister, as well as enshrine several conservative norms aimed at pacifying the country’s traditionalists.

The December 11 referendum is being pushed through in the teeth of resistance from opposition parties and nongovernmental groups, earning them contempt from President Almazbek Atambayev.

The main amendments concerning the running of the country will bolster the role of the prime minister, who will be able to hire and fire ministers and local government leaders. Proponents of the amendments say the increased authority of the prime minister will ensure continuity and put an end to the regular turnover of heads of government that has been the trademark of Kyrgyzstan’s politics.

Critics maintain, however, that this tinkering is all about Atambayev and his associates clinging onto power. Atambayev is constitutionally required to step down when his single term ends and to give way to the president elected in October 2017. The argument of the revamped constitution’s opponents is that the current elite is rearranging the furniture to ensure they remain in charge even after the presidential transition.

There are multiple other changes, however, that will have a more direct impact on citizens.

One regards a change to rules on the appointment and rotation of judges of local courts, whose position will now be determined by the president, upon advice from the Council of Judges. Critics of this change, which include Venice Commission, an advisory body to the European Council that rules on matters of constitutional law, worry about its detrimental impact on the independence of judiciary.

Another measure is intended to avoid a repeat of the situation with jailed ethnic Uzbek rights activist Azimjan Askarov, whose case is currently being reviewed at the behest of the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Under the amended constitution, Kyrgyzstan will no longer submit to legal reviews at the instigation of international bodies.  

Advocates of this change, like political analyst Toktogul Kakchekeyev, accuse the international community of smuggling the existing provision into the constitution following the 2010 revolution, when former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was toppled.

“When they published the constitution, I was opposed,” Kakchekeyev told state news agency Kabar. “What I read there was that with this constitution they were putting us under somebody’s subordination.”

While the amendments to the constitution being put to the referendum have been greatly watered down from what was proposed earlier in the year, the direction of travel is fundamentally the same. Kyrgyz authorities are increasingly bristling at international rights rhetoric and are seeking to impose their own vision of correct human values in line with a more traditional and hierarchical view of society.

The main sop to the nationalist-conservative lobby is in the adjustment of language about marriage, which is defined categorically as being between a man and a woman. This is intended as a clear snub to the country’s fledging and increasingly beleaguered lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) community.

The constitution should in theory be viewed as a foundational document conceived outside specific political contingencies, but it is evident that the amendments have very much been designed with the current situation in mind.

One point, specifically, revokes the statute of limitations for what it terms as the offense of “ecocide.” Even the state news agency makes no secret this is likely tailor-made to address the unending crisis around the high-altitude Kumtor open-pit gold mine, which has been at the heart of a long-term dispute between the government and the international company operating it.

All in all, despite the heated arguments that have been sparked by the constitution referendum, the changes are less dramatic than were first envisioned. The full implications of the reforms, however, will remain something of puzzle until they are in place.

Kyrgyzstan’s Referendum: A Vote for Continuity and Tradition

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