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Constitutional Clash: Date Set for Referendum in Kyrgyzstan

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Crossroads Asia

Constitutional Clash: Date Set for Referendum in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz will consider a package of constitutional changes on December 11. What are they?

Constitutional Clash: Date Set for Referendum in Kyrgyzstan
Credit: Catherine Putz

It’s settled: Kyrgyzstan will have a referendum to amend the constitution on December 11. This week the bill to hold the referendum passed in its third reading, with 89 parliamentarians voting “for” and, according to, only 16 voting “against” (leaving 18 MPs unaccounted for). 

Amusingly, Omurbek Tekebayev, the leader of the Ata-Meken faction and a staunch opponent of the referendum, accidentally voted “for” and asked for the record to corrected. “I beg you, put on a revote, [be]cause it will remain in the history.”

The ruling coalition broke in late October when the Social Democratic Party (SDPK) withdrew over disagreements with the leaders of two of its coalition partners, Onuguu-Progress and Ata-Meken. The flashpoint seems to have been the constitutional referendum. This week a new government formed, with SDPK keeping Kyrgyzstan (the party) in the coalition and bringing in Bir Bol from the opposition. SDPK holds 38 seats, Kyrgyzstan 18, and Bir Bol 12 — meaning, as before, SDPK can collapse this coalition anytime it pleases.

The opposition isn’t exactly united. The leader of Respublika-Ata Jurt, which holds 28 seats, officially refused to enter into the coalition, but nonetheless espoused support for the referendum. reported that an unnamed parliamentary source said, “Respublika-Ata Jurt will be [an] obedient opponent and always support the coalition at a critical moment. Moreover, they will take the key committees that the opposition controls.”

SDPK has its coalition and, if’s source is to be believed, a loyal-enough opposition — and the referendum is set.

Much has been written about why it’s troubling that the Kyrgyz are pushing through with this referendum. The Venice Commission says the changes would “negatively impact the balance of powers.”

Margarita Meldon’s article on ConstitutionNet (a project dedicated to, you guessed it, constitutions), this week provides an accessible dive into some of the issues with specific amendments that are being proposed. The referendum will be a straight up yes/no vote, but there are more than 30 changes in the package.

“Among the principal questions raised are the broadening of the powers of the prime minister, changes to the judicial branch, with the critical weakening of the Constitutional Chamber, and the infringement of human rights through supremacy of ‘supreme system of values,’” Meldon says.

With regard to empowering the prime minister, she notes, “the proposed amendments specifically enhance the authority and influence of the prime minister,” for example granting budgetary oversight powers and requiring a supermajority for a no-confidence vote.

“Perhaps potentially most damaging to democratic governance,” Meldon says, are changes to the judicial branch, which could “effectively turn the Constitutional Chamber to a merely advisory organ,” by reducing the parliamentary majority required to unseat judges and setting a supermajority requirement for court decisions.

In sum: more votes would be needed to unseat a prime minister and fewer to dethrone a judge.

The changes may upset the present system of checks and balances and, Meldon writes, the “positive impact of the proposed amendments to the people of Kyrgyzstan and to the political system is unclear.”

The “last hurdle” is the vote itself. The referendum will need a 50 percent turnout, and a majority in favor, to pass. It will matter that, as Meldon writes, Kyrgyz may view the referendum as a bit of political jockeying and naught much else: “the Vox popoli does not seem too concerned.”

Furthermore, “[p]opular opinion in the country holds that winter is not a good time for social upheavals in Kyrgyzstan as the population is too busy fighting the heating bills to analyze closely the controversial aspects of the constitutional amendments.”

Should the referendum pass, opposition may not sound loudly until spring, Meldon suggests.

In October 2017, Kyrgyzstan will hold its next presidential election. Atambayev cannot legally run and critics say the ultimate motive for the constitutional hijinks is to secure Atambayev a powerful premiership to step into. Atambayev has denied he’s interested in the job. Given the SDPK’s prominence, the next president very well may be from the party, but even if it doesn’t supply the next president Atambayev has an interest in making sure his parliamentary allies are empowered.