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Kyrgyz Leader Pushes for More Power

Is President Bakiev sidelining debate in order to fast-track constitutional changes that will benefit him?
By Leila Saralaeva

Members of a committee charged with drafting changes to the Kyrgyz constitution were shocked to receive a ready-made version from the office of President Kurmanbek Bakiev last week. Improving the constitution is central to the current government’s reform programme, but many fear that the process is being manipulated to increase the president’s powers.

Many politicians are deeply disturbed at what they see as an attempt to use the 289-member Constitutional Conference simply to rubberstamp the changes the president wants, instead of as a genuine forum for democratic consensus-building.

The Constitutional Conference was set up on April 25, a month after the revolution that ousted Askar Akaev. It has since undergone a series of modifications so that it contains a broad selection of representatives drawn from the authorities, political parties, pressure groups, and the general public. It is chaired by President Bakiev, who led the interim government and was then elected Kyrgyz leader in July.

There is general agreement that the current constitution is in need of substantial improvement, and the original plan was to remove some of the powers that allowed Akaev to rule by decree, and instead increase the role of parliament, and possibly the government too.

In practical terms, work on the revised constitution has been done by a drafting committee, consisting of 49 people, whose job it is to produce a draft which will then be made public for an open consultation process. It is not yet clear how the document will then pass into law – it could go through parliament or, given the magnitude of the issue, it could be put to a national referendum.

The first signs that the process might be going badly wrong came on November 5, when Daniyar Narymbaev, one of Bakiev’s allies in parliament and also a member of the drafting committee, made statements suggesting that the president planned to take the lead in deciding what went into the final document.

“I would ask certain politicians not to do their utmost to force through their own amendments,” Narimbaev told a meeting of the Constitutional Conference, “Instead, I would ask my colleagues… to make proposals as early as possible and to leave the right of final choice to the president.”

At the same meeting, President Bakiev proposed that Bektur Zulpiev, the executive secretary of the Constitutional Conference who is also the head of the legal policy department in the presidential office, write the definitive final version that would be then opened up for public discussion.

“Once the public discussion is over, we will gather again to discuss the final draft of the amendments and changes to the existing constitution,” said the president, who promised participants, “Before taking a decision I will consult with you once more.”

Those remarks angered drafting committee members who feared they were going to be railroaded into agreeing Bakiev’s preferred draft without having adequate time to discuss it, and they expressed their concerns at a November 8 session of the conference.

However, Bakiev’s plan seems to have gone ahead anyway, and on November 10 committee members found themselves presented with a new document drafted by Zulpiev.

Kuban Mambetaliev, who heads a national journalists’ association, insists that the draft is full of positive changes.

“The president has the right to remain in his position for only two terms of five years each…. [and he] does not have the right to extend his powers through a referendum,” he said.

Mambetaliev says another proposal, to downgrade the constitutional court into a chamber within the supreme court, will eliminate the current situation where effectively there are two potentially conflicting courts at the top of the judicial system. In addition, search and arrest warrants will no longer be issued by the prosecution service but rather by the courts.

Another plus, he says, is that the position of State Secretary, which carried wide-ranging but vaguely defined powers, will be abolished.

But members of the drafting committee reacted furiously, sensing that they had been sidelined in an effort to fast-track a package of changes that would enhance the president’s constitutional powers. Just over half - 26 of 49 - dissociated themselves from the draft altogether.

“The things we proposed in April and May have vanished. There will only be a few cosmetic amendments, while the principal changes that we proposed will not be there,” said Iskhak Masaliev, a member of parliament who is part of the Constitutional Conference.

The result has been to water down the original intention behind changing the constitution, said Masaliev, noting that “after March 24, we should have changed the constitution radically, ruling out the possibility that power is concentrated in the hands of one person”.

Parliamentary deputy Sultan Urmanaev, another Constitutional Conference member, says he has read Zulpiev’s draft and failed to find anything new in it, “This is just like Akaev’s constitution. If Bakiev needs this constitution, then why did he gather us together?”

Other politicians see parallels with the past in the use of public consultation exercises and possibly a referendum – methods they say former president Akaev employed to sidestep the normal legislation by gathering a spurious show of popular support for decisions.

“By supposedly referring to the people, they want to pass a constitution which will give all the power to Bakiev,” said Bolot Baikojoev, an ex-parliamentary deputy who has been strongly critical of the constitutional reform process. “Bakiev has caught the Akaev disease.”

One of the dissident committee members, Omurbek Abdrakhmanov, says an attempt to curb the president’s powers was deliberately ignored in the final draft, “We had agreed that the president could be elected for two terms, but we inserted a particular clause point that he is absolutely forbidden to stay on after two terms, even be calling a referendum. But unfortunately, this clause was not included in the new draft.”

Abdrakhmanov thinks the final step could be to put the document to a referendum. Trying to get it through parliament would fail, he argues, as not one of the suggestions made at the Constitutional Conference has been reflected in Zulpiev’s draft.

“If this draft is submitted to parliament, deputies will not pass it because it is no different from the constitution of Askar Akaev,” he said.

One Constitutional Conference member, Asiya Sasykbaeva, who heads the non-government group Interbilim, believes there is still time to fight the changes, “We have another month and we will not allow the constitution to be passed in this form.”

Like other critics of the process, Sasykbaeva argues that the sheer size of the Constitutional Conference was an obstacle to productive work

“Such a large number of participants were unable to reach a common decision,” she said. “There was no discussion, only speeches - and God alone knew whether the drafting committee would take your speech on board or not.”

Conference member Karganbek Samakov does not object in principle to having broad participation, but argues that too few intellectual heavyweights were included.

“There aren’t enough lawyers in the conference,” he said. “It’s certainly right to bring in people from rural areas. But they really don’t understand a great deal when the law is being discussed. Better-qualified experts should have been included, for instance lawyers and economists.”

Those participants in the process who are more supportive of Bakiev say the disagreement and criticism is all part of a healthy debate.

“It’s normal for participants to express a variety of opinions. That’s why the conference was called, so that the president could take into account all the proposals made by participants,” said Bakiev’s deputy as chairman of the Constitutional Conference, Aidarbek Kerimkulov.

He added, “I have said several times that responsibility for the final version should be taken by the person who takes responsibility for the fate of the nation, for the fate of the people. But that doesn’t mean he won’t be taking all opinions and proposals into account.”

Kerimkulov said the national debate fostered by publication of the draft constitution in the press should spark “many interesting, practical proposals” from members of the public, “Then, after summarising these proposals, we will return to the discussion, and if necessary the president may convene the conference again.”

On November 14, President Bakiev issued a decree ordering a national debate on the proposed changes to the constitution, which will continue until December 15. Local government has been instructed to arrange public hearings.

Leila Saralaeva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek, Cholpon Orozobekova is a correspondent with Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL.

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