On January 10, 2021 Kyrgyz voters elected a new president, Sadyr Japarov, whose meteoric rise to power was prompted by a violent upheaval in October 2020. The same day, voters cast a second ballot in a referendum on constitutional reform initiated by Japarov. In another win for the president-elect, 84 percent of voters approved changes that would give Kyrgyzstan a presidential system of government, effectively reducing the power of the parliament.
Ten years ago, Kyrgyz citizens voted overwhelmingly in favor of a reform plan that transformed Kyrgyzstan into a parliamentary republic. Held on June 27, 2010, two weeks after deadly inter-ethnic clashes in the south of Kyrgyzstan and two months after the ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the constitutional referendum was designed to bring an end to nepotism, prevent the concentration of power in the office of the president, give voice to the opposition, and turn the parliament into a real decision-making body in the country.
While 91 percent of Kyrgyz voters backed the parliamentary plan in 2010, its critics inside and outside the country saw a dark future. Acting Defense Minister of Kyrgyzstan Ismail Isakov argued at the time that a parliamentary form of government was alien to the “Kyrgyz mentality and spirit.” Speaking to journalists at the G-20 meeting in Toronto, then-President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev warned of the “chain of eternal problems” – parliamentary reshuffles, elite in-fighting, and the rise of extremism in Kyrgyzstan.
Critics of the parliamentary form of government in Kyrgyzstan were right in naming the symptoms, but not the sources, of woes in the country’s politics. The attitudes of the Kyrgyz electorate toward leadership, authority, state institutions, and public priorities have seen minimal changes in the decade since the parliamentary form of government was introduced. Bakiyev’s presidency, which precipitated the constitutional changes of 2010, was also marked by frequent stand-offs between the parliament and the president, and featured cutthroat political competition with assassinations reaching an unprecedented level in 2005-2006.
Presidentialism is favored by Kyrgyz citizens because it offers a simple mechanism for holding the state leader accountable through the threat of violent removal in a system of governance rooted in patronage. To put it simply, it is easier to “punish” the sitting president by removing him from the office through revolt than to deal with the parliament. A revolt against the power-sharing system in the parliament threatens to break the patronage networks cultivated by the ruling elite that many in the population benefit from. Even if dissatisfied, some voters blame other factions for the country’s problem or fear that change will give other factions more power over them.
With roots in the Soviet era of endemic deficit, red tape, and ethnic privilege, client-patron relations were strengthened in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, giving rise to a deeply entrenched system of patronage. In this system, people pursue their political and economic ends primarily through personalized networks meting out rewards and punishments. In these networks, people’s loyalty and allegiances are exchanged for favors and rewards dispensed by those in positions of power and having access to public resources.
Political and business competition in Kyrgyzstan has taken place through the contest of these patronage networks, involving political, business, and, often, criminal interests. The majority of political parties have been ideologically empty vehicles for institutionalizing the promises of rewards to those at different levels of the patronage networks in exchange for voters’ mobilization. Business success, too, has been conditioned by one’s connections to the state obtained through involvement in and support for the patronage networks: In exchange for financial contributions during election campaigns, business interests can receive seats in the Kyrgyz parliament that come with immunity from criminal prosecution and guaranteed access to the country’s wealth.
During the Akayev and Bakiyev presidencies, one of the patronage networks connected to the president’s kin managed to consolidate power in the state to the exclusion of other competitive power networks. In both instances, this strategy backfired, leading to intra-elite revolts backed by demonstrations that toppled the presidents. By strengthening the parliament’s powers, the 2010 Kyrgyz Constitution, which was a result of an informal compromise among the representatives of several patronage networks estranged during the Bakiyev presidency, set the stage for a more diffused and pluralistic patronage system. Although, these changes prompted elements of genuine political debate and competition at the national level, they further hollowed formal institutions, eroded good governance, and strengthened reliance on patronage networks in the end.
Against the backdrop of strengthened patronalism, presidentialism represents a type of “social contract” between citizens and their president that defines their rights and obligations toward each other, and allows the citizens to remove the president at any point during his tenure through the administration of “electorate justice” if he fails to deliver on the promises to the electorate.
The challenge for President-elect Japarov is live up to the citizens’ expectations and those of the patronage networks that backed him. Noticeably lacking a political program, Japarov ran on pledges of fighting corruption, pulling the country out of its economic crisis, expending social welfare benefits, and discrete promises to the various elements of his support base, which includes a strong rural following, disenfranchised youth, and Kyrgyz nationalists. Japarov’s fast-track advancement from a prison cell to the prime minister’s chair and the post of acting president wouldn’t have occurred without the backing of powerful patronage networks. Getting all these different networks and constituencies to work in his support instead of against him will be an insurmountable challenge facing the new president.
Kyrgyz voters have learned, and demonstrated repeatedly, that the real power in Kyrgyzstan lies with its people. However, frequent power shuffles reduce people’s respect for the rule of law and for public authorities. This means that any difficulties governing the country and pushing through the needed economic and social reforms will be amplified. The coronavirus pandemic has already pushed Kyrgyzstan to its economic edge and removed the cushion presented by labor migration that mitigated its chronically high unemployment rate. Experts warn of new protests in Kyrgyzstan as early as the spring of 2021.
Mariya Y. Omelicheva is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Kansas.