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Kyrygzstan’s Constitutional Referendum Causing Civil Society-Provisional Government Rift

Kyrgyzstan’s provisional leaders are counting on an upcoming constitutional referendum to foster stability and legitimize the country’s political transition. But civil society activists are complaining that the provisional government’s referendum approach does more to sow doubts than boost confidence in the process.

The referendum is planned for June 27. In addition to the new constitution, voters will be asked to endorse Roza Otunbayeva, the acting head of the provisional government, as president until the end of 2011, as well as approve the abolishment of the Constitutional Court. All three issues are being bundled together into a single yes-no vote.

Many non-governmental organization (NGO) activists have been critical of constitutional drafting process, contending that it took place without sufficient public debate. Some have gone so far as to distance themselves from the referendum process. For example, Tolekan Ismailova, the head of Citizens Against Corruption, a Bishkek-based human rights organization, declined the provisional government’s request to serve as chair the Central Election Commission.

The one vote-three issues referendum plan is heightening discontent among NGO activists. The Committee of Civic Oversight, an informal coalition of human rights NGOs created in mid-April, came out with a statement May 31 that expressed concern that the bundling tactic might undermine the vote’s legitimacy.

“In case of disagreement with one of the questions [on the referendum ballot], a voter will automatically reject other provisions. Consequently, justified concerns arise over the limitations of citizens’ rights to make free choice and the placement of voters in a difficult situation. Such development can be used by destructive political forces to undermine the referendum,” the coalition statement said.

The coalition also expressed doubt that the plebiscite would be transparent given “the absence of an alternative plan that takes into account the possibility of the referendum’s failure.”

The referendum process has exposed a rift between interim leaders and civil society groups. Prior to the April 6-7 protests that toppled former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, political factions that now form the interim government worked closely with NGOs to oppose the former president’s authoritarian rule. [For background see the EurasiaNet's archive].

In the two months since Bakiyev’s ouster, many civil society leaders have grown disillusioned with their former partners’ governing style. In particular, these activists are dismayed by the provisional government’s dismissal of the parliament and the Constitutional Court, as well as the new leadership’s tepid interest in strengthening public oversight capabilities.

“We don’t have a parliament, we don’t have a judiciary, and we have a semblance of a government. This is a dangerous situation,” one Bishkek-based NGO leader told EurasiaNet.org, tellingly speaking only on condition of anonymity.

The harassment of politicians and businesses with alleged ties to Bakiyev is exacerbating friction. In a May 25 statement distributed via the Kyrgyz news agency 24.kg, the Committee of Civic Oversight accused the interim government of conducting a “witch hunt” against its opponents. Urging a return to the rule of law, the statement claimed that, “authorities themselves are creating precedents for extrajudicial and unfounded reprisals based on various political ambitions.”

Provisional government leaders have repeatedly expressed their intention to hold a free-and-fair referendum. At the same time, they have defended the need to bundle the referendum issues together, citing time and fiscal constraints. In addition, officials in early May lowered the turnout threshold to validate the referendum results to 30 percent from 50 percent. The lowering of the threshold was needed, explained Omurbek Tekebayev, provisional government’s point man on constitutional reform, because a large number of voting-age Kyrgyz are working abroad. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].

Several NGOs have announced intention to monitor the vote and help authorities train electoral officials. Some civil society leaders are quietly hoping that engaging with the provisional government may help strengthen factions that favor cooperation with NGOs, and, ultimately, lead to the creation of a public oversight structure.

Others are more skeptical. “Unfortunately, today the interim government is absolutely ignoring the suggestions of the civil society sector,” Cholpon Jakupova, the head of Adilet, a Bishkek-based human rights organization, told the weekly Obshestvennyi Reiting on May 27. “The agenda and mechanisms of decision-making processes in the interim government remain unclear. The interim government has made numerous mistakes, but the worst thing is that they do not want to correct them.”

Kyrygzstan’s Constitutional Referendum Causing Civil Society-Provisional Government Rift

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