Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

Goalposts for Kyrgyzstan’s Constitutional Referendum Shifting 

Two months out from unrest sparked by parliamentary elections, Kyrgyzstan’s political future remains uncertain.

Colleen Wood
Goalposts for Kyrgyzstan’s Constitutional Referendum Shifting 
Credit: Pixabay

While the power vacuum following Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary elections on October 4 has more or less died down, the country’s political future remains tenuous.

To recap, in just two months, the country is on its fourth prime minister and third president. Parliamentary elections were annulled, rescheduled for December, then delayed until next year. Meanwhile, on November 17, parliament rushed through a proposal to overhaul the constitution (though at least one deputy listed as an initiator told the media they had not, in fact, supported the reforms, let alone read the full list of proposed changes). 

The problems with the draft constitution have been discussed at length already: Catherine Putz gave a thorough overview of the proposed amendments, and legal expert Saniya Toktogazieva explained the illegality and illegitimacy of the document. In brief, the sixth convocation of parliament – whose term of office technically expired on October 15 – lacks a mandate to govern, let alone make sweeping changes to Kyrgyzstan’s political institutions.

Moreover, while parliament has the right to amend the constitution, it cannot legally replace it entirely. Several civic groups, including the legal clinic Adilet and the new organization Community of Lawyers of Kyrgyzstan, have argued that the proposed shift from semi-presidentialism to superpresidentialism is too dramatic to be considered just an amendment. 

Sadyr Japarov – former acting president and prime minister, who stepped down in mid-November to compete in the upcoming presidential elections – may have made these critiques moot, however. On November 23, in an interview with Channel 7, Japarov called attention to Prosecutor General Kurmankul Zulushev’s proposal for a broad referendum on Kyrgyzstan’s form of government. “Let’s ask the people first. What form of government do people want?” Japarov said. “This bill proposes two forms of government – parliamentary and presidential. I would add a mixed one, presidential-parliamentary.”

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This pivot should not be read as a victory, though, as major procedural and normative concerns remain with this proposed referendum.

As Saniya Toktogazieva, a legal expert who has emerged as a prominent voice on Kyrgyzstan’s political unrest, explained in a Facebook post on November 24, a referendum on a new form of government “weakens representative democracy, undermining the role and importance of elected representatives.” The nitty-gritty details of institutional design have consequences beyond the symbolism of representing the people’s will, and the work of sorting out these details should lie with legal experts and elected officials. 

Toktogazieva also argued that “a referendum is a way for authorities to avoid responsibility for taking an unpopular position on a controversial issue.” While the 61 amendments contained many problematic proposals – including limitations on media freedom and the removal of prohibitions on human trafficking and degrading punishment – putting the broad question of Kyrgyzstan’s form of government up for referendum is in some ways more worrying. Results of the referendum can be held up as a blank check mandate for whoever wins the presidential election in January.

Japarov’s rhetorical maneuvering around support for various reforms and referenda is enough to induce whiplash. While this may be an effective strategy to outpace criticism and confuse watchdogs, it hints at future instability in governance. Japarov’s brief stint as acting president and prime minister revealed how the work of running the country resembles throwing spaghetti at a wall and waiting to see what sticks.

Recent analysis has focused primarily on Japarov’s prospects for holding onto and consolidating presidential power, but it’s important to remember that other institutional checks and balances have yet to play their cards. The Reforma party submitted an appeal of the constitutionality of parliament’s decision to postpone new elections until mid-2021, and the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court will convene to discuss the appeal on December 2. The potential for the Constitutional Chamber to decide that parliamentary elections must be held before any discussion of a referendum would reshape the strategic calculus that’s emerged around Kyrgyzstan’s political future. 

As always with Kyrgyzstani politics, anything is possible.