Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyzstan: President Again?

President’s supporters launch petition to keep him in power.
By Sultan Jumagulov

Supporters of Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev have started a petition to change the constitution so that he can run for another term in office next year – something he is not allowed to do under current rules.


Opponents of Akaev’s government say it is the first clear sign that he intends to stay in power, even if that means changing the statutory limitation of two presidential terms.


On August 24, several public organisations in the southern Osh region announced a campaign to collect signatures calling for a national referendum that would make the required changes to the constitution. As an alternative to allowing Akaev to run for office again, they are also suggesting he could have his current term extended by two years, so the presidential election would not take place until 2007.


The proposal came not from the government but from an ostensibly independent foundation called With The People, For the People, backed by groups such as the regional branch of the Assembly of Peoples of Kyrgyzstan, the Youth Party and the Regional Congress of Women.


They argue that Akaev must be allowed to complete the reforms he has started. “It is thanks to [the president] that we continue to enjoy stability and ethnic peace, and he deserves to remain at the helm,” the foundation’s director Amantai Satybaev told IWPR.


At least 300,000 signatures would need to be collected before a referendum can be held – but the scheme’s backers believe that will be a straightforward task.


Gulshair Sadybakasova, lead singer of the pop group Kyzburak and one of the pro-Akaev campaigners, told IWPR, “People are afraid that Akaev could be replaced by some unpredictable person, or even a tyrant. That is why many will gladly sign our petition.”


If Akaev had the way cleared to run next year, it would be his fourth or fifth term as Kyrgyz president, depending how one counts. He became president of Kyrgyzstan when it was still a Soviet republic in 1990, and elected leader of the now independent country in 1990. He was re-elected in 1995, and later secured a ruling from the constitutional court that this was technically his first term because the country had got a new constitution in the interim.


Even by this way of counting, Akaev has already had his second run as president, beginning with his re-election in 2000. Until now he has indicated that he will not seek a further term. But in the pre-election year there is no clear strategy for succession and no heir apparent.


The president’s opponents see the referendum petition as the first step towards keeping Akaev in power by any means. It is not the first time the idea has been floated by quasi-independent public groups, but if the petition takes off it will be the first concrete step towards changing the rules.


The New Kyrgyzstan and Wake Up Kyrgyzstan youth movements issued a strongly worded statement on August 26 condemning the move as “political crawling” by “bootlickers who thoughtlessly carry out the wishes of the authorities”.


The newly-formed Popular Patriotic Movement immediately passed a resolution declaring any attempt to extend Akaev’s presidency “unacceptable”, as it would violate the constitution.


If the authorities did attempt to change the constitution, Mambetjunus Abylov, leader of the Democratic Party and former chairman of the Central Electoral Commission, warned that a wave of public unrest could ensue.


“Any protest would continue until the head of state leaves his post,” Abylov told IWPR.


Opposition leaders are unanimous in their condemnation of the plans for a petition.


Parliamentary deputy Ishenbay Kadyrbekov dismissed the idea that the movement to extend Akaev’s presidency came from the grassroots. “The work is being carefully planned at the top, and this activity will be stepped up as the elections draw near,” he said.


Omurbek Tekebaev, who heads the Atameken party, suggested that high-ranking officials may be pressing for a third term for the president who appointed them, in an attempt to cling onto the privileges they have enjoyed under him.


“In order to stay in power for as long as possible, they are feverishly launching some dubious initiatives,” he alleged.


As well as domestic critics, Akaev’s entourage will have to watch the reaction of the international community, which is keeping a close eye on Kyrgyzstan in the run up to the 2005 election.


At a July 17 press conference in Bishkek, US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Lee Armitage said he believed the transfer of power following the 2005 ballot should be a democratic one.


This prompted the retort from Akaev, “I have not changed my convictions and I have never given reason to doubt my democratic principles”.


The International Crisis Group, ICG, published a report last month warning that attempts to manipulate the results of the election could lead to unrest – especially in the south of the republic – and that there could also be international repercussions.


ICG’s Central Asia project director David Lewis told IWPR, “I think if the term of the incumbent president is extended, international financial institutions will significantly cut their financial support to Kyrgyzstan, which, as is well known, has a huge external debt."


Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC correspondent in Bishkek.