Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

What’s in Kyrgyzstan’s Proposed ‘Khanstitution’?

Kyrgyz are set to vote on a controversial new constitution and for a new president on the same day, January 10.

Catherine Putz
What’s in Kyrgyzstan’s Proposed ‘Khanstitution’?
Credit: Kyrgyzstan Presidency Press Office

It’s been another busy week in Kyrgyz politics. The system is in flux from top to bottom, and it’s not clear what legitimacy means anymore. 

On Monday, Sadyr Japarov who has been serving as both prime minister and acting president since October, resigned his posts in order to run for president. On Tuesday, Kyrgyzstan’s expired parliament published for public review a draft constitution that has kicked up a new tempest within Kyrgyzstan’s already boiling political sea, now dotted with at least 60 presidential hopefuls eyeing the January 10 early presidential election.

According to 24.kg, January 10 as also been set for the referendum on the constitution. 

The Kyrgyz media outlet noted that the impetus for constitutional change came from Japarov but was taken up by the parliament, itself no longer quite firmly legitimate. The parliament’s term expired on October 28, but because the October 4 election failed, with the results swiftly annulled, it’s the only parliament Kyrgyzstan has to work with for the time being. And given its own decisions in late October — to prioritize constitutional reforms — the parliament won’t see elections until sometime before mid-2021. The country’s Central Election Commission had hoped to run a re-do of the parliamentary polls in December but wasn’t able to; at the same time, the January 10 date for an early presidential election appears to be holding.

Japarov became prime minister on October 14 and acting president shortly thereafter. He had been in jail until the post-parliamentary election unrest spilled into the morning of October 6 with a series of jailbreaks, including his. But while most of the other politicians busted from jail were soon returned — former President Almazbek Atambayev, for example — Japarov has risen to the pinnacle of power. In stepping down, Japarov is avoiding the current Kyrgyz Constitution’s stipulations that acting presidents can’t run in elections they oversee. But as Eurasianet chronicled recently, Japarov used his brief acting presidency for a whirlwind tour of the country making big promises.

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For the time being, Japarov’s longtime ally and current speaker of parliament, Talant Mamytov, will be acting president. Mamytov became speaker earlier this month when Kanat Isayev stepped down, also in order to run for president. Isayev, who constitutionally should have become acting president when Sooronbay Jeenbekov resigned in mid-October, took a pass on the post and Japarov stepped into the roll.

Japarov had initially hoped to ram through constitutional changes before a presidential election, but it seems now that on January 10 Kyrgyz will get to vote on whether to change their constitution and on who will head their government at the same time.

On social media, the draft constitution has been dubbed a “Khanstitution” given the immense powers it shifts into the hands of the president.

Controversy emerged immediately, over both the contents and the process. At least one of the listed 80 co-signers — Emil Toktoshev — told RFE/RL he didn’t support the draft, saying it wasn’t even clear who worked on it. “I thought we would discuss it first but that never happened, and I was wrongfully cited as an author of the text that was quickly made public without taking into account lawmakers’ opinions,” he said. 

Then it was noted that the Russian and Kyrgyz versions of the draft did not match, with different wording regarding whether a president could serve two terms or not. Under the current constitution, presidents are limited to a single six-year term.

Other proposed changes include slimming down the parliament from 120 to 90 members and shifting responsibility for the executive branch from the the prime minister to the president. The draft also aims to create a People’s Kurultai (Congress). In ancient history, kurultai were gatherings of Mongol khans. In the modern version aspired to in the draft, an ad hoc body would use the format to gather members of the pubic to comment and propose policy to the government. 

One former lawmaker, Sadyk Sher-Niyaz, got right to the contradictory heart of the draft in comments to RFE/RL: “I realize that many lawmakers have not even seen the text of the draft constitution that would take us back 20-30 years. My question is: Why our parliament, elected by the people, must be controlled by the People’s Congress? To impose a supervising organ over lawmakers, in my opinion, is a way of establishing a totalitarian regime, a dictatorship.”

Yet another change makes a totalitarian shift even more worrisome. The draft includes an article under which content or events regarded as contravening the “generally recognized moral values and the traditions of the people of Kyrgyzstan” would be banned. What those moral values are remained undefined in the draft, but the March mob of men that disrupted a rally protesting violence against women probably has ideas.

It should be important, amid all this chaos, to return to the reasons people took to the streets on October 5 in the first place. The public perceived an election massaged by those in power to benefit themselves. The parties that came out overwhelmingly on top were aligned with a government Kyrgyz were generally unhappy with. Kyrgyzstan has myriad problems its people would like the government to do something about: a pandemic, a severely strained health system, serious unemployment, and corruption, which serves to make every single problem that much worse.

But now Kyrgyzstan has an essentially unelected government making huge, consequential decisions that look set to concentrate power in the hands of a single person. The parliament has put forward a draft constitution the now former acting president, Japarov, clearly desired which, if approved, would merely serve to neuter the parliament and establish a khan-like presidency. A presidency that Japarov hopes is his come January.

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The presidency has been dropped and passed around like a grenade; no one wants to be holding it when the timer goes off but paradoxically everyone wants to seize the office. That itself seems insane: Don’t they know what happens to Kyrgyz presidents? 

In order, since independence: Forced out, forced out, fine; left office to be arrested, resigned, resigned. (Akayev, Bakiyev, Otunbayeva; Atambayev, Jeenbekov, Japarov.)