Kyrgyzstan will hold a referendum, on December 11, on controversial constitutional changes that have been harshly criticized by opponents (Azattyk.kg, Kloop.kg, Knews.kg, November 8). The country, which faces a presidential election in 2017, adopted the current constitution in June 2010, after the revolution that toppled then-president Kurmanbek Bakiev. In 2010, this constitution was assessed by the Council of Europe’s (CoE) Venice Commission as a shift toward a parliamentary system, and as the introduction of a more balanced distribution of power, a stronger legislature, and an improved section on human rights (Coe.int, August 29).
After six years, despite a moratorium prohibiting any changes to the constitution until 2020, put in place by the Interim Government in 2010, Kyrgyzstanis will be casting their ballots on whether or not to add 26 amendments. The members of that Interim Government, including former president Rosa Otunbaeva, made a joint statement on August 30, 2016, urging voters not to change the current constitution, which they have called a guarantee that the country will not return to an authoritarian regime (Gezitter.org, August 30).
One of the important proposed changes is the repeal of the primacy of international human rights treaties Kyrgyzstan is party to over domestic court decisions (Azattyk.kg, November 1). The suggested amendments to the constitution also include measures to strengthen the position of prime minister. For example, the head of government will be empowered to appoint his or her own ministers, except for the ministers of defense, national security and internal affairs, which will continue to be appointed by the president. Currently, all other cabinet posts are chosen by the parliament. Furthermore, under the proposed amendments, the prime minister will be allowed to maintain his or her seat in the legislature (if this person was an elected lawmaker), even while serving as the head of government. Opponents of these proposed amendments charge that President Almazbek Atambayev may be seeking to move into this more powerful prime minister role after his term ends in 2017 (Azattyk.kg, June 30, 2016). Atambayev is barred by the current constitution from running for a second presidential term when his mandate concludes.
According to parliamentarian Almambet Shykmamatov (of the opposition Ata Meken party), the proposed changes aim to strengthen both the president and the prime minister’s power. “These changes will weaken the parliament and the judiciary system, making them completely dependent on the president and prime minister. For example, the president is taking more power over the judiciary system, [he will be able to appoint and sack judges]. Moreover, the parliament is losing its power to force the resignation of the prime minister. So this means the government will not feel accountable to the parliament, and the prime minister is going to become more powerful” (De-facto.kg, September 30).
The leader of the Ata Meken party, Omurbek Tekebayev, echoes these thoughts, arguing that the proposed changes aim to preserve and strengthen the political influence of President Atambayev and his entourage, even after he leaves office. “The idea to introduce amendments to the constitution and transfer much of the decision making from the president to the prime minister will only lead to authoritarianism. If the president is keen to change the constitution, he should launch a constitutional council to debate all the proposed matters and postpone the referendum until the spring of 2017,” Tekebayev said (Kyrgyztoday.kg, July 29).
On October 11, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of the Kyrgyz Republic concluded that all the proposed amendments up for referendum are not contrary to fundamental human rights or the country’s protected freedoms and civil rights. The Chamber also decided that calling for a popular vote on these changes does not violate Article 114, which lays out the process for amending the constitution. Lawyers and human rights activists called the decision of the Chamber illegal and biased (24.kg, October 12).
International experts have also weighed in negatively on the efforts to change Kyrgyzstan’s constitution. In a joint opinion, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE ODIHR) and the CoE Venice Commission concluded in August that the proposed constitutional amendments “would negatively impact the balance of powers by strengthening the powers of the executive, while weakening both the parliament and, to a greater extent, the judiciary” (Coe.int, August 29). The Venice Commission noted that while some changes were needed to “clarify” the current constitution, “the majority of the proposed amendments to the Constitution would appear to raise concerns about key democratic principles, in particular, the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary.” The president of the Venice Commission, Gianni Buquicchio, suggested that such massive amendments need thorough public discussion (Platforma.kg, August 8)
Kyrgyzstani citizens will have to answer “yes” or “no” regarding the entire slate of proposed changes, instead of being able to decide individually on each of the 26 amendments. This setup for the referendum has been widely criticized. Zholbors Zhorobekov, a Kyrgyz political scientist, says that it contradicts logic and international norms. In his opinion, the authorities should have first asked the people in a referendum whether they would like to see the constitution changed at all—particularly since there is a legal moratorium in place on any constitutional amendments until 2020. “If people support a referendum to make changes, then a special commission consisting of lawyers, civil society and public activists [could be convened to] start consultations” Zhorobekov argued (Azattyk.kg,October 25).
According to the Central Election Commission, Kyrgyzstan plans to spend 67.4 million soms ($980,000) on the December referendum (Kaganat.kg, November 5). But leaving Kyrgyzstan’s structural economic problems aside, it bears noting that this Central Asian republic had already experienced two revolutions within the past decade, which forced out the sitting head of state. This rushed and far-reaching constitutional referendum may upend any semblance of political and economic stability that Kyrgyzstan needs at this moment.