Making Kyrgyzstan's Constitutional Reform Stick

The new constitution offers a real prospect of more accountable government, but political leaders may try to undermine the reform.

Making Kyrgyzstan's Constitutional Reform Stick

The new constitution offers a real prospect of more accountable government, but political leaders may try to undermine the reform.

Nearly two weeks after Kyrgyzstan’s constitution came into force, rushed through in a deal between the government and its opponents, people are waiting to see whether it will bring a close to a prolonged period of political instability.

Some opposition politicians worry that the country’s leaders show signs of carrying on as if nothing has really changed.

The constitution, signed into law by President Kurmanbek Bakiev on November 9, was a compromise between the authorities and the opposition forces which had held a week-long rally demanding fundamental changes to the way the country is run. The document was drafted by pro- and anti-Bakiev factions in parliament as the street demonstrations threatened to tip over into violence, with riot police using batons and tear gas to separate rival groups of protesters.

The new constitution curtails some of the powers of the Kyrgyz president, and for the first time allows the dominant party in parliament to choose a prime minister and government. Parliament itself grows from 75 to 90 seats, half of them filled by proportional representation rather than the first-past-the-post system, a change the opposition sought as a way of reducing the chance of fixing elections in advance.

The peaceful resolution to what looked like a dangerous confrontation has been welcomed by many in Kyrgyzstan.

“This new constitution is far from ideal, but in the circumstances it represents two steps forward,” said Asiya Sasykbaeva of Interbilim, a non-government group. “Everyone is happy that the conflict was resolved in a positive manner and without bloodshed.”

Sultan Urmanaev, a member of the opposition Movement for Reforms, agreed, saying, “I believe that the constitution will take the country out of crisis. It’s a step towards democracy. It’s given us a strong government. Whereas in the past the government always looked to the president before doing anything, now it is like a bird that has broken free.”

However, the rushed drafting process has also led to claims that the constitution contains inconsistencies and leaves unresolved questions about who has the right to do what in the political structure. This is all the more true since it was decided that in the interests of stability, the current government should stay on and parliament should see out its term, so that neither body reflects the constitutional arrangements that so far, exist only on paper.

Amangeldi Muraliev, a former prime minister, argues that further tensions are inevitable.

“New conflicts are to be expected now that the constitution has been passed,” he said. “According to the constitution, there should be a change of government to fit with the new structure, yet it’s been agreed that all these top officials should remain in situ until 2010. But will the nation put up with them until then? And more importantly, will they be able to put up with each other?”

At the moment, both sides appear to be still recovering from their confrontation and coming to terms with the surprise deal that ended it.

“The battle between the [two] forces has not stopped,” said Kubatbek Baibolov, leader of the opposition Union of Democratic Forces. “Those who didn’t want this new constitution are probing for its shortcomings and inconsistencies, while those who did want it are looking for its good points.”

Baibolov includes President Bakiev among those reluctant to accept constitutional reform. “He wanted to live and rule like [Askar] Akaev,” said Baibolov, referring to the former president ousted in March 2005 by an opposition movement that included both Bakiev and his current opponents - many of who have defected from his administration over the last year, disappointed at what they saw as his failure to tackle key reforms.

“We forced him into this, and now a reassessment is taking place inside Government House. Many people there do not want to live under this constitution but are forced to do so, and they don’t know how.”

Another opposition leader, Melis Eshimkanov of the Movement for Reforms, complained that the text of the constitution had not been published. “There’s talk that it’s being changed. I don’t believe it can take that long to correct grammatical mistakes,” he said.

Eshimkanov added, “I fear that the president, who never wanted this reform at all, is now deliberately flouting the constitution.” As evidence of this charge, he cited a November 13 decree from Bakiev sacking Turgunbek Kulmurzaev as governor of Chui region and replacing him with Kubanychbek Syydanov. Kulmurzaev had taken part in the opposition’s street protests.

According to Eshimkanov, the president can only make this kind of personnel change on the instructions of Prime Minister Felix Kulov. “We’ve made enquiries, and there’s been no such order,” he said.

Edil Baisalov, another Movement for Reforms member, believes the Bakiev administration has not woken up to what the constitutional changes mean, and may seek to circumvent them when they do.

“I suspect that when the president and his team find out they’ve been deprived of numerous powers, they will look at various ways out of the situation,” he said. “One possible option is that matters are brought to a head, a new reform is launched, and a referendum held…. Another is that they delay the passage of laws, the president rules [as before] and says which laws are to go through, and when.”

Erkindik party leader Topchubek Turgunaliev, who aligned himself with the president during the recent turmoil, agrees with those opposition politicians who argue that signing up to the constitution merely marks “the start of a new phase in the struggle for power”.

But in contrast to their views, Turgunaliev accuses the opposition, not the president, of continuing to stoke tensions.

At the start of the November 2-8 rally, the opposition called for the resignation of both Bakiev and Kulov. As Turgunaliev noted, the pressure seems to be off the president at the moment.

“The opposition is seeking the resignation of the government, and after that it will pursue the removal of the president again,” he said. “It’s a very difficult situation. The opposition isn’t going to stop. Constitutional reform may prove to have been a pretext for a bid for the presidency.”

The Movement for Reforms called on Kulov to step down on November 14, arguing that his government should have the support of most members of parliament.

Baibolov told IWPR that he wants to see the government step down to make way for a new line-up that “enjoys the nation’s trust” – although he accepts many of the existing faces would reappear in a new cabinet.

“We are not demanding resignations, but the government does need to undergo significant changes,” he said.

The prime minister is understood to be preparing a new cabinet list which would go to parliament for approval.

Many analysts believe Kulov will survive – not least because Bakiev’s administration is founded on the “tandem”, the sometimes difficult political coalition the two men have forged.

Tamerlan Ibraimov, director of the Centre for Political and Legal Studies, made the point that there is currently no dominant political party in parliament that could take on the role of choosing a cabinet, so that technically President Bakiev still has the final say over the selection.

On November 21, RFE/RL reported that the NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society issued a renewed call for the constitution to be published. The hold-up is said to be in translating the document from the Russian original into Kyrgyz, the state language.

Cholpon Orozobekova is a correspondent for Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL.

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