Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

Presidential or Parliamentary? What Kind of Government Should Kyrgyzstan Have?

With new presidential elections set for January and parliamentary elections sometime before June 2021, the debate over what kind of government Kyrgyzstan should have is critical.

Catherine Putz
Presidential or Parliamentary? What Kind of Government Should Kyrgyzstan Have?
Credit: Kyrgyzstan Presidency Press Office

This week in Kyrgyzstan, Omurbek Tekebayev, the leader of the Ata-Meken party, came out strongly against comments made by Prime Minister and Acting President Sadyr Japarov that Kyrgyzstan ought to go back to a presidential system of government. 

Tekebayev said that returning to a presidential system — which Kyrgyzstan had up until a referendum in the wake of the 2010 revolution — would set the country back 30 years and put it on the path to authoritarianism. Without independent states and independent courts, or real freedom of speech, Tekebayev said, only a parliamentary system could keep the balance in Kyrgyzstan.

In reply, Galina Baiterek, Japarov’s press secretary, said the people were demanding constitutional reform. She said the parliamentary system had become ineffective. In Osh, Japarov criticized the country’s party system, expressing interest in an individual-mandate system over the use of party lists in elections.

After a full month of political turmoil, Kyrgyzstan continues to wrestle with myriad political questions, not the least of which concerns what kind of system would serve the country best. 

On Twitter, Kyrgyz researcher Asel Doolotkeldieva commented that the major players aiming to run for president in January 2021 are all in favor of constitutional change. “The question at stake [is:] does Kyrgyzstan wants to go back to strong presidentialism or continue experimenting with parliamentary system?” she asked, adding that “Unhappiness with the current constitution is widespread and was in the air for quite some time.”

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“Right now Kyrgyzstan has a de facto presidential system masquerading as a parliamentary system,” Jennifer Murtazashvili, director of the Center for Governance and Markets and associate professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, told The Diplomat. “The country has a weak parliamentary system that is neither a full parliamentary system nor a full presidential system. It is mixed.” 

Stressing that the matter is complex, Murtazashvili explained that Kyrgyzstan has one of the weakest parliamentary systems in the world.

Since December 2010 Kyrgyzstan has had 10 prime ministers (not counting acting prime ministers and counting Almazbek Atambayev just once) under two presidents (not counting acting presidents). This constant churn hasn’t helped improve governance in the country. “When people are not in power for long (and don’t expect to be) this increases opportunity for plunder of the public purse,” Murtazashvili said.

“Although the prime minister is technically responsible to the parliament, the office of the prime minister has become de facto subordinate to the president’s office,” Murtazashvili noted, also pointing out that control over the so-called power ministries (police, military, intelligence) under the 2010 constitution remained in the hands of the president.

“The change to a parliamentary system without substantially weakening all the authority of the president led to a kind of institutional path dependence whereby citizens and lawmakers continued to look to the president for policy guidance and enforcement,” Murtazashvili explained. And so, Kyrgyz presidents have continued to hold a strong position within the parliamentary system.

The parliamentary system is weak in other ways, too. For example, in its current form the parliament lacks constituencies, Murtazashvili said. “[T]his parliamentary design does not give voters an MP that represents their district,” she explained. Kyrgyz vote for parties in parliamentary elections and the parties, via ranked lists, decide on the members that fill seats.

This, Murtazashvili commented, “decreases accountability between politicians and citizens. Citizens do not know who in parliament represents their interests. Parties have been weak and fragmented, so people rely on other identity factors to vote.”

Doolotkeldieva touched on this topic, too, on Twitter. “But what people long for, outside of bright elites and a political vision, is the possibility to hold someone responsible for failures and mistakes. Paradoxically, a presidential system allows for that, hence our famous revolutionary slogans ‘Out with Akaev!’, ‘Out with Bakiev!’” 

Kyrgyz citizens overthrew the country’s first two presidents in street revolutions. Sooronbay Jeenbekov, president since 2017, resigned last month in the face of the ongoing political turmoil, too. These revolutions have served as a last, dramatic, check on the power of Kyrgyz presidents. But counting on a revolution — rather than an election — to achieve accountability isn’t a stable way to run a country.

Meanwhile, shifting allegiances amid a constantly churning sea of parties has rendered parliamentarians invincible to certain degree. Voters can’t punish parties at the ballot box if politicians keep changing shoes — a local idiom for party switching.

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“A presidential system would consolidate accountability. People would know who is in charge,” Murtazashvili said. “On the other hand, a parliamentary system would allow for more representation of societal interests if the country moves to a more conventional parliamentary system.”

There are worries that returning to a presidential system would be, in reality, a step toward a dictatorship. In the last month alone, Japarov rose from prisoner to parliament to president and has declared his intention to step down in mid-November in order to run for president in January. Japarov is pushing for a more powerful president while hoping to be that president, making his critics nervous. 

Back in 2016, when last Kyrgyzstan held a constitutional referendum, then-President Atambayev sought to strengthen the prime minister in addition to seeking other changes to the constitution. At the time, the belief was that Atambayev had hopes of becoming prime minister after safely seeing an ally succeed him in the 2017 presidential election. That’s not how things ultimately turned out. The 2016 referendum was approved by 80 percent.

The current system — a hybrid — seems untenable in the long run, Murtazashvili concluded. “I see advantages to both a presidential and parliamentary systems, but right now Kyrgyzstan has the worst of both.”