Uzbekistan’s 2011 Constitutional Reforms and Succession

Tinkering with constitutions in authoritarian nations rarely draws much attention,  and understandably so. In 2011, when Uzbekistan overhauled its constitution, the reforms appeared formal and cosmetic, since whatever the changes, President Islam Karimov remained firmly in control.

At least nominally, however, the reforms were a move toward some form of democratic transition. These were different times. Kyrgyzstan had been roiled by a revolution the year before, putting the region’s hard-men on edge, and the notion of Karimov’s now-disgraced eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, possibly being made prime minister was still considered within the realms of reason.

The aim of the constitutional fix was to balance power between the offices of the presidency, the legislature and the executive, as well as to strengthen the role of political parties. Since those four branches of influence all pulled in one direction — to support Karimov — the reform seemed like a cheap way of earning international brownie points while changing little.

Specifically, the president was stripped of the right to form Cabinets and lead them, as well as the right to appoint and dismiss deputy General Prosecutors. The president would henceforth be authorized to appoint or dismiss regional governors and the mayor of Tashkent at the suggestion of the prime minister.

The prime minister was in turn to be nominated by the political party with the greatest representation in parliament or a coalition of parties constituting a majority.

Another novelty was the introduction of a no-confidence mechanism designed to resolve stand-offs between the prime minister and parliament. In that event, parliament had to vote by two-thirds to pass a motion of no-confidence that would require the president to fire the premier and his entire government.

Yet more amendments to the constitution in 2014 further — if only on paper — broadened the powers of the prime minister and parliament. 

The significance of all this may only become pertinent now. The question that arises is whether the presidency should be considered a reduced office and whether the jostling for it may not be as heated as many observers imagine.

Karimov’s authority has long been derived first and foremost not from his office but his person. He is the man who led Uzbekistan to self-determination, steered it through the dangerous, early years of independence and, in the telling of state propaganda, developed an economic model of self-reliance that has delivered impressive growth year after year.

Nobody else among Uzbekistan’s current elite enjoys anything near that kind of history-begotten stature. And one interpretation for the reforms of 2014 was that the president wished to see blame for the government’s shortcomings also being shared by leading figures like the prime minister. That office has been held since 2003 by Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who is, as chance would have it, being talked up as Karimov’s most likely successor. Mirziyoyev will be perceived as a lesser figure not just by his peers and the international community, but also the general population. Even in a country as authoritarian as Uzbekistan, public image matters, and Mirziyoyev or anybody else taking over from Karimov will have to work hard and fast to ensure they are taken seriously.

And yet the cards are stacked against any would-be successor. The economy continues to struggle — a fact feebly concealed by the implausible official growth figures but starkly exposed by the numbers of Uzbeks that seek to travel abroad for work.

Is the presidency a poisoned chalice and could an ideal succession solution possibly entail its de facto abolition? 

There are any number of factor that would militate against such assumptions. Central Asia remains in thrall to the appeal of rule by a single strongman and government by elite consensus is something hard to conceive working in Uzbekistan as things stand.

Still, recalling how the different parts of the government machine fit together in Uzbekistan should be a salutary reminder of the fact that the process of succession need not move in a straight line.

Uzbekistan’s 2011 Constitutional Reforms and Succession

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