Crossroads Asia

Kyrgyz Soundly Pass Constitutional Changes in Referendum

Recent Features

Crossroads Asia

Kyrgyz Soundly Pass Constitutional Changes in Referendum

Kyrgyz voters cast ballots Sunday to approve constitutional changes that have many observers worried.

Kyrgyz Soundly Pass Constitutional Changes in Referendum
Credit: Catherine Putz

Sunday’s constitutional referendum in Kyrgyzstan passed with a reported 80 percent of voters casting ballots in favor of making a host of changes to the constitution. According to the Central Election Commission’s preliminary data, 42 percent of eligible voters cast ballots (nearly 1.2 million people). Regional turnout varied with a low of 28.4 percent in Osh city (though 43 percent in the oblast) and a high of 48.4 percent in Talas oblast.

Much has been written about the constitutional changes (here, here, here, and here) and the motivation behind President Almazbek Atambayev’s strong support. The changes included a rebalancing of power between the president and the prime minister, but also the removal of a major human rights clause and the definition of marriage as strictly between a man and woman. Kyrgyz voters were asked to approve or reject the changes en masse so judging the overarching motivation for widespread support may be difficult.

For many observers, the changes which rebalance power between the president and the prime minister are deliberate. Either, some argue, Atambayev is interested in a Putinesque term as prime minister when his single presidential term concludes in fall 2017; or he is interested in, as bne Intellinews put it, staying “in power as a ‘shadow king’ by installing his own loyal prime minister.” With this interpretation in mind, the vote fits into a troubling pattern of democratic reversal.

It also points to the growth of conservatism — expressed both through nationalism and Islamism — in the country. For example, the previous constitution stipulated only that those getting married must be adults, but few, if any, same-sex marriages have been registered in Kyrgyzstan owing to overall societal distaste of homosexuality.

The clause in the previous constitution which enabled Kyrgyz to seek redress for human rights violations in international bodies and obligated the Kyrgyz state to respect those decisions was billed by nationalists as the selling of the state’s sovereignty to international bodies. The case of Azimjon Askarov exploded the conversation. Last April, the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled that Askarov’s human rights had been violated by the state and called for the quashing of his conviction and immediate release. Instead, the Kyrgyz gave Askarov a new trial. It’s unclear specifically how the change in the constitution — nullifying the legal motivation for an extra appeal — will bear on his ongoing trial.

The referendum vote was monitored by observers from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as well as the Commonwealth of Independent States, but not the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Predictably, both the SCO and CIS observers praised the vote — calling it open and transparent. The OSCE, as reported by, had “officially refused to send observers to the elections in Kyrgyzstan” because of “financial difficulties” and the recent presidential election in Uzbekistan.

But, the situation is likely more complex (and the line about “refusing” to send observers should be read with a grain of salt). The OSCE was criticized by Kyrgyzstan for allowing Kadyrzhan Batyrov, an ethnic Uzbek from Kyrgyzstan who fled prosecution linked to the 2010 violence, to speak in late September. The Kyrgyz government thereafter declared that it intended to change the status of the OSCE in the country. As Kanykey Bayalieva-Jailobaeva wrote recently for New Eastern Europe, the downgrading (the specifics are unclear) of the OSCE’s status in the country may “mean that some of [its] activities might be pressured to stop which could have negative repercussions on the security, capacity building, and cooperation in the region.”

Perhaps the OSCE neglected to send observers because its typical dry but comprehensive election observation reports could further irritate the state and limit the organization’s access.

While SCO and CIS observers had few criticisms, local activists pointed out potential problems. Azmat Adilov, the head of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, a group of Kyrgyz NGOs, said the buying of votes was an issue.

In a bizarre episode, apparently Prime Minister Sooronbay Jeenbekov could not be found on the voter lists in Bishkek because he’s registered in Osh. (Voting 101: Vote where you’re registered!)

Now that the vote is over, implementation lies ahead. As Kyrgyzstan heads into an election year, the ultimate impact of the constitutional changes will become more clear. It will be important to watch what Atambayev does as the election looms and the direction his political career takes after the election.