Doubts About Kyrgyz Political Reform Plan

Analysts are sceptical that new institutions will make for more democratic decision-making.

Doubts About Kyrgyz Political Reform Plan

Analysts are sceptical that new institutions will make for more democratic decision-making.

A plan to make sweeping changes to the way Kyrgyzstan is governed has left local analysts divided over whether is it is a genuine response to changing times, or merely an attempt to shore up support for President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

Central to the changes are two new consultative bodies, the Presidential Council and the Supreme Kurultay, which are notionally designed to give the public a direct line to the president and a real say in decision-making.

Critics, however, fear that the two institutions might provide the president with an excuse to fast-track decisions without engaging in wider consultation.

The government reform package is currently being fleshed out by a working group which was set up on September 4, and is expected to deliver its report as early as September 22.

Announcing the changes at the opening of the autumn parliamentary session on September 1, Bakiev said the Presidential Council would be “a platform for dialogue, and for balancing out the interests of various groups – youth, business, employees, industry and agriculture”.

The Supreme Kurultay, meanwhile, will be a kind of assembly or congress in which Bakiev says Kyrgyzstan’s “regional, religious and ethnic communities” will be represented.

The president suggested that the real thrust of the changes had more to do with economics than with politics – to get his administration into shape to embark on much-needed economic reforms. Bakiev won a second term as president in July, in a year in which Kyrgyzstan has been hurting badly from the effects of global economic downturn.

Government will be made more efficient by streamlining agencies that duplicate one another’s work, and certain powers currently exercised by the presidential administration will be delegated to the cabinet.

Avtandil Arabaev, a member of parliament from Bakiev’s Ak Jol party, is among the supporters of the changes, and told IWPR, “This is a timely initiative from the president. We need to define strategic guidelines. Kyrgyzstan has now been a market economy for 20 years, and the role of the state has changed.”

Political analyst Kubanychbek Omuraliev agrees that reforming the institutions of government makes sense.

“We’ve continued to operate according to the old Soviet system, and that’s a brake on economic development,” he said. “It is right that reforms should start with the presidential administration.”

While Bakiev’s opponents condemn the changes as a backward step for democracy, others remain unconvinced of the need for them.

In his speech to parliament, Bakiev suggested that the two assemblies would generate new policies based on “the people’s will”, which he would then sign off on.

Analyst Jyrgalbek Turdukojoev is dismissive of what he sees as a false exercise in consultation.

“These reforms are just a smokescreen to demonstrate to the nation and the international community that his power is legitimate and that he consults the public in his decision-making,” he said.

Topchubek Turgunaliev, coordinator of the non-government Congress of Central Asia, is among those who believe Bakiev is trying to bolster his position.

Like his predecessor Askar Akaev – ousted in a popular uprising in 2005, Bakiev has “devalued the concept of reform”, Turgunaliev said. “Both of them used ‘reforms’ to create authoritarian regimes. Establishing the Supreme Kurultay and Presidential Council is merely a manipulation of public opinion.”

Cholpon Nogoibaeva, director of the Institute for Policy Studies, sees the reforms to government as merely a rearrangement of the current situation, noting, “The institutions that exist now are already charged with the functions that are to be assigned to the Supreme Kurultay and the Presidential Council.”

According to political analyst Mars Sariev, two different scenarios could emerge, depending on how the new institutions develop.

One disastrous possibility would be a situation like that in Turkmenistan under its late president Saparmurat Niazov, where the supreme legislative institution was a national assembly whose 2,500 members were hand-picked and turned up merely to rubberstamp their despotic leader’s decisions.

More hope is offered by a scenario where the Council and Kurultay gain genuine authority by attracting figures of substance – intellectuals, business leaders, clerics, and people with a strong local power-base.

Even then, though, Sariev believes the president would use this expansion in his support to call an early election, bring several strong and loyal parties into parliament and “consolidate his position as president for the long term”.

Sariev sees the reform project as an ambitious attempt to bring as many of Kyrgyzstan’s multiple political groupings as possible under one roof.

“All the fractured groups like clans and regional groupings that play a major role in the country’s politics will be brought together in the Kurultay and they’ll be able to engage the authorities in dialogue,” he predicted. “The problem at the moment is that not all the clan groupings are represented in government; there’s a preponderance of southern clans.”

Regional, tribal and clan allegiances remain an important factor in Kyrgyz politics, with a particular rivalry between the broader northern and southern groupings whenever one or other is perceived to be dominant.

Since his first election in 2005, shortly after President Akaev’s hurried departure from office, Bakiev has gradually strengthened his position, curtailing parliament’s powers in favour of his own, and securing a landslide victory for the then newly-created Ak Jol party in a 2007 election.

Bakiev swept to victory in July with 76 per cent of the vote, compared with his nearest rival, opposition candidate Almazbek Atambaev, who got eight per cent. The opposition said the election was deeply flawed with numerous cases of fraud.

The president’s tactic now may be to coopt political opponents instead of confronting them.

“This is the first time a governing administration has sought to absorb opposition forces into its own structures,” said Sariev. “But if it succeeds in creating these structures, it’s going to control them as well.”

Ainagul Abdrakhmanova is an IWPR-trained journalist in Bishkek.

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