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

Kyrgyzstan Votes for Stability

Voters confound fears that ethnic unrest had brought their state to brink of collapse.
By Timur Toktonaliev
  • Turnout was high at around 70 per cent in Kyrgyzstan's constitutional referendum. (Photo: Sultan Dosaliev, Kyrgyzstan interim government press service)
    Turnout was high at around 70 per cent in Kyrgyzstan's constitutional referendum. (Photo: Sultan Dosaliev, Kyrgyzstan interim government press service)
  • See-through ballot boxes are designed to make the voting process itself more transparent. (Photo: Sultan Dosaliev, Kyrgyzstan interim government press service)
    See-through ballot boxes are designed to make the voting process itself more transparent. (Photo: Sultan Dosaliev, Kyrgyzstan interim government press service)

The Kyrgyz government’s high-risk strategy of going ahead with a constitutional referendum despite recent bloodshed in the south of the country appears to have paid off. High turnout figures and a 91 per cent approval rate suggest voters were solidly behind the interim administration and its pledges of democratic reform, at a time when some observers were hinting the government was no longer in control. 

What is more, the June 27 vote passed off fairly peacefully. Turnout for Osh region, the epicentre of the violence, was the lowest in the country but still reached 51 per cent, indicating that at least some of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the unrest were able to vote.

The authorities say around 290 people died in clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in an and around Osh and Jalalabad on June 10-14. An estimated 400,000 fled to escape attacks and arson.

Nationwide, turnout was a strong 69 per cent, with nine out of ten who voted saying yes to a new constitution intended to bolster parliamentary democracy and reduce the chances of future presidents accumulating too much power in their hands.

In a single question on the ballot paper, voters were asked whether they approved not only the referendum but also a separate law containing two important changes – appointing the current interim government head Roza Otunbaeva as president for a transitional period until an election can be held next year, and abolishing the Constitutional Court. (Kyrgyz Constitution is Central Asia’s Finest has more on how Kyrgyzstan’s political system is to be reformed.)

The interim leadership, which came to power in April after mass protests ousted Kurmanbek Bakiev as president, breathed a sigh of relief at what amounted to a vote of confidence following the gravest yet challenge to its legitimacy, and announced the next steps towards creating elected institutions.

“The constitution has been passed in the face of fierce resistance,” government head Roza Otunbaeva told a press conference at the end of referendum day. “This referendum has drawn a line under the reigns of two authoritarian regimes. The citizens of Kyrgyzstan voted for democracy and a new country.”

(See Kyrgyz Leaders Press Ahead With Referendum on why the government felt the vote could not be postponed.)

With a parliamentary election now planned for late summer or early autumn – sooner than the October date originally envisaged – Otunbaeva said those ministers in the interim administration who plan to stand as candidates will step down by July 10, at which time a specific date for the ballot will be announced.

Political analyst Tamerlan Ibraimov said the referendum was still the beginning rather than the end of what would be a difficult process.

“The referendum is a first step towards stability, allowing a rewritten constitution to be passed and a caretaker president confirmed, so this chapter is closed,” he said. “But the current government still remains an institution in limbo. The main step towards legitimising it will be the parliamentary election.”

International election observers sent by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, praised the conduct of the referendum

"Considering the extremely difficult environment in which the referendum took place… the provisional government and other authorities should be commended for organising a remarkably peaceful process," said Ambassador Boris Frlec, head of the OSCE observer mission. "The citizens of Kyrgyzstan turned out in large numbers to vote for a new, democratic and peaceful future for their country.”

In Osh, local journalist Isomidin Ahmedjanov told IWPR that many residents felt a referendum was the last thing they needed following the spate of violence. But after officials encouraged them to come out and explained how important the vote was, many changed their minds and did go to the polls. Nevertheless, there were entire streets where people stayed away from the vote for fear of more trouble, he said.

The OSCE and local election monitors noted violations such as cases where voters were not asked for ID or were not checked for the ink marks used to show someone had already voted. The authorities had promised to provide temporary papers for displaced people whose documents were burned in arson attacks on their homes, but the OSCE said not all polling station staff were aware of the correct procedures.

The NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society said the sum total of irregularities “did not significantly affect the outcome of the vote”.

Most observers see the referendum as an unexpected success.

Dinara Oshurakhunova, leader of the NGO Coalition, was in Osh on voting day and said the city was quiet, with squads of armed police and soldiers posted outside polling stations.

Bishkek-based political analyst Pavel Dyatlenko agreed, saying the police were “fairly effective” and ready for any trouble.

He said most political forces in Kyrgyzstan backed the referendum as they realised that if it did not go ahead, “the consequences would be bad for everyone – for society and for them”.

As for the interim government’s diehard opponents who stand accused of masterminding the recent ethnic violence, Dyatlenko said “they had exhausted their resources and strength on the [unrest] and simply didn’t have time to organise something new”.

Ibraimov says it would be wrong to write off these dangerous forces.

“They haven’t given up,” he said, adding that they might change their tactics from inciting violence to funding some of the candidates standing in the forthcoming parliamentary election.

At the same time, Ibraimov is cautiously optimistic.

“I sense a certain easing of the road towards stability,” he said. “I certainly don’t think there is going to be complete calm in this country – political struggle and elections always bring conflict.”

Timur Toktonaliev is an IWPR-trained contributor in Kyrgyzstan.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.