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Kyrgyzstan: Opposition Slams Referendum

Akaev's opponents rubbish his claim that plebiscite results reflect public trust in his

By Sultan Jumagulov in Bishkek (RCA No. 180, 6-Feb-03)

Blatant coercion and electoral irregularities effectively secured President Askar Akaev greater powers in a plebiscite last weekend, opposition figures have claimed.

Seventy-six per cent of the electorate approved a new constitution that his opponents believe will strengthen Akaev's authority and 79 per cent agreed that he should stay in office until his mandate expires in three years' time, according to the Central Election Committee.

The results did not come as a surprise to the opposition, which had never doubted the outcome of the referendum. A number of analysts had warned in advance that the president would "pull out all the stops" to get his new constitution approved.

Opposition leaders had earlier called on their supporters to boycott the February 2 poll, which they claim will provide a legal basis for Akaev to quash dissent.

President Akaev made a televised address to the nation on February 5, in which he said that the poll result showed that the Kyrgyz people trusted their head of state to lead the republic forward and continue the reform process.

However, the high turnout recorded for the ballot - 86.6 per cent of electorate - has been

disputed by the Public Headquarters for Observing the Conduct of the Referendum, PHOCR, a

monitoring committee made up of civil activists, opposition leaders and allied NGOs. They

maintain the real figure was less than the 50 per cent required for it to be declared valid.

Another opposition group, the NGO coalition For Democracy and A Civil Society expressed grave doubts about "the reliability of voter turnout figures in many regions of the republic".

Edil Baisalov, president of the alliance, told IWPR that the referendum result was "a foregone conclusion", as the election commission had been brought under executive control beforehand, in violation of electoral law.

Akaev announced on January 13 that he planned to hold a plebiscite asking the Kyrgyz people to approve a new constitution and confirm they wanted him to continue in office until the end of his term in December 2005.

Making no secret of his annoyance with an opposition clamouring for his resignation, he claimed the future of his reforms would have to be decided by a popular vote.

The proposed reforms to the constitution are widely expected to strengthen the president's authority at the expense of the assembly and other civic institutions. They include a proposal to reduce the bicameral parliament to a single chamber, a move which the opposition claims will leave it with a merely consultative role.

The new constitution is the product of a so-called "expert group" of presidential aides, who

were brought in to replace allegedly uncooperative opposition members in the redrafting process in early January.

The government has mounted a concerted campaign to win over voters, and Central Election Committee chief Sulaiman Imanbaev is adamant that the referendum was a runaway success.

"Our people showed an unprecedented level of political activity," he told IWPR.

The international observers present - mainly representatives of Russia, Armenia, Belarus and other CIS states - also insisted the poll had been conducted with the utmost fairness and objectivity.

But the opposition claims that the government used underhand tactics. PHOCR alleges that the

turnout figures were boosted through coercion, and claims to have statements from people who

were forced to vote several times at different polling stations.

According to the group, the government's intimidation was not reserved for voters. Two of its leaders, opposition chiefs Omurbek Tekebaev and Emil Aliev, were arrested on the day of the ballot as they were driving to a polling station to observe the count.

However, Bishkek police claimed in turn that the duo had kidnapped a member of the public and forced him to write a statement alleging that the vote was falsified.

Jypar Jeksheev, deputy head of the opposition party, Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan, accused the government of buying votes by dishing out honours on the eve of the election. He claimed that this harks back to "the best traditions of the Soviet era, when medals were handed out left, right and centre before significant political events".

The head of the Erkindik opposition party, human rights activist Topchubek Turgunaliev,

dismissed the referendum as "a disgrace for the government".

According to Turgunaliev, only a handful of people turned out to vote in the densely-populated Aksy district of the Jalal-Abad region, in the south of the country, mainly because they were "under threat of losing their jobs".

Aksy provided a rallying cry for the opposition after six people demonstrating over the jailing of local deputy Azimbek Beknazarov were shot dead by police in March 2002.

The Aksy protest sparked national unrest, which forced the president to agree to a number of

reforms in consultation with the opposition and civil society representatives. But opposition figures say Akaev redrafted the reforms in January before asking the public to vote on them in last weekend's plebiscite.

Beknazarov, the spokesman of the opposition movement, For the Resignation of Akaev and Reforms for the People, which was formed after the Aksy shootings, told IWPR that "the referendum was flawed and will only increase anger and resentment amongst the people".

Vowing to continue the fight for the president's resignation, Beknazarov says the poll has

again shown "that the government is prepared to do anything to increase its power and enrich

itself at the expense of the people and foreign creditors".

However, Akaev's supporters believe the referendum has shown instead that the opposition has lost the trust of the population - as the electorate ignored its calls for a boycott and turned out in large numbers.

Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC stringer in Bishkek