On 11 April 2021, Kyrgyzstani citizens headed to the polls for the third time in six months to vote on a controversial constitutional referendum that would enhance the political power of the president, allow presidents to run for a second term, and push through initiatives designed to weaken the parliament. It had been a tumultuous half-year in Kyrgyzstan, which has witnessed a seemingly endless series of political crises, including the collapse of the former government, a short period of violent unrest, and the rise of convicted criminal Sadyr Japarov to the country's presidency. Meanwhile, the social, economic, and public health repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to endanger human security in the Central Asian country.
The constitutional referendum saw President Sadyr Zhaparov's powers expanded while allowing him to run for office a second time. According to preliminary results from the electoral commission, about 78% of voters backed the constitutional change. The referendum came three months after the populist leader was elected, following the removal of his predecessor amid protests. The change would shrink the size of parliament by 25%, to 90 seats, and give Zhaparov the power to appoint judges and heads of law-enforcement agencies.
The results of a 10 January 2021 referendum showed that voters in the Central Asian state of some 6.5 million strongly preferred presidential rule, which would grant nationalist politician Sadyr Japarov sweeping powers. According to the official results, more than 80 percent of voters backed a return to presidential rule, while only 10.8 percent supported the current parliamentary system. Nearly 5 percent voted for the third option, "against all." Election officials said the turnout was less than 40 percent but this wasn't expected to impact the outcome, as there is no legally imposed threshold for the presidential vote, while 30 percent is the minimum threshold for the referendum to be considered valid. The vote came after the results of the disputed 04 October 2020 parliamentary elections were annulled after opposition supporters took to the streets to condemn large-scale vote-buying campaigns benefiting parties close to then-President Sooranbai Jeenbekov.
On 10 January 2021, Japarov, newly elected as President, said that if the switch to a presidential system won voter support, the Constitutional Council would resume work on January 11 to prepare a new draft constitution. Critics, including Human Rights Watch and legal experts, said Kyrgyzstan's caretaker parliament did not have the legitimacy to initiate far-reaching constitutional amendments because its term had expired. A second referendum will need to be conducted, tentatively in March, to vote on a new draft constitution.
Kyrgyz lawmakers approved plans to hold a national referendum on 11 December 2016 on controversial constitutional changes. The law setting the referendum date passed the third and final reading by a majority of votes on November 2. If passed, the constitutional changes would strengthen the powers of the prime minister, a move President Almazbek Atambaev's opponents say is aimed at extending his grip on power. The constitution barred Atambaev from running for a second presidential term when his mandate ends next year, and critics say the proposed reform would enable him to become a powerful prime minister. Atambaev's Social Democratic Party quit the ruling coalition because some partners refused to support the proposed constitutional changes. In a joint comment, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe said last month that the proposed amendments to the constitution would have a negative impact on the balance of powers by strengthening the executive's powers at the expense of parliament and the judiciary.
Kyrgyzstan has had a parliamentary form of government since 2011, and changes have been made to the constitution that weaken the office of president in favor of the Parliament and prime minister. Though these measures were taken openly in acknowledgment of the past proclivity for strong, authoritarian presidential rule in Kyrgyzstan, some have viewed it as a maneuver by the incumbent to limit the possibility of a future president diverging from the path set out during his six-year term, while retaining influence through his party’s strong position in the Jogorku Kenesh (Parliament).
The constitution of 1993 prescribed three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial), with the executive being the most powerful. The constitution has been amended several times, in most cases to strengthen the presidency. Kyrgyzstan's current constitution was adopted in June 2010 after mass protests toppled then-President Kurmanbek Bakiev. A clause in the 2010 constitution prohibits making amendments to the text before 2020.
One of President Bakiyev's 2005 campaign promises was that he would propose a new constitution, one that limited the authority of the executive and included better checks and balances between the branches of government. Since that time, several drafts have been prepared. A Constitutional Council produced a draft in June 2005. Various political leaders, including MP Alisher Sabirov and recently Prime Minister Felix Kulov, put forward drafts or suggested amendments. In August 2006, a constitutional working group, appointed by the President and headed by opposition MP Azimbek Beknazarov, proposed three drafts for a presidential, parliamentary, and mixed form of government.
By late 2006 the constitutional reform process had stalled, and there was no clear process established for consideration of proposals or adoption of a new constitution. The three August 2006 drafts were reviewed in September by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, and while it found important improvements with respect to human rights and the independence of the judiciary, it concluded that none of the three was satisfactory in terms of balance and separation of powers. President Bakiyev nevertheless sent the three drafts to Parliament for consideration, and Parliament was scheduled to hold hearings beginning in early November. Many in the political opposition, however, believed that sending the current unsatisfactory drafts to Parliament was a stalling tactic, and they have demanded that the President send the June 2005 draft to Parliament. Parliament lacks the authority to change drafts submitted by the President, and Bakiyev, they say, does not want to go forward with any reform process that could end up weakening his authority.
A new constitution was approved in November 2006 after large-scale protests forced Bakiyev to grant increased power to the legislative branch. In September 2007, the Constitutional Court invalidated the November 2006 and December 2006 versions of the constitution. President Bakiyev then called a snap national referendum on a new version of the constitution, which strengthened the powers of the president and provided for a parliament elected by party lists. The new constitution was approved in an October 2007 referendum that was marked by serious irregularities, including massive inflation of turnout figures. President Bakiyev then dissolved the parliament, calling for new elections.
A provisional government headed by President Roza Otunbayeva took office in April and navigated through brief but intense interethnic clashes in June 2010 to organize a referendum on June 27, 2010, by which voters approved a new constitution. The referendum also confirmed Otunbayeva as President until December 31, 2011. The 2010 constitution is intended to limit presidential power and enhance the role of parliament and the prime minister.
The most controversial changes were designed to give President Almazbek Atambaev a way to stay in power-after his seven-year term ended following the election in fall 2017. Kyrgyzstan is the only country in Central Asia with a single-term presidency. The proposal to strengthen the authority of the prime minister while weakening the president. One proposed amendment would allow the prime minister, with parliament's approval, to appoint and dismiss cabinet ministers -- a power that now rests with the president. ?The wording of another indicates that it would also enable the prime minister to appoint and dismiss local administration chiefs without waiting for a proposal from the local council, which is currently required. And under an amendment to Article 64 of the constitution, the president would no longer chair the Defense Council -- essentially the head of the military and law-enforcement agencies in the country.
The amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman -- a change that would effectively ban gay marriages -- had garnered wide attention. The measure parallels related legislation making its way through parliament that toughens punishments for promoting “a homosexual way of life” and “nontraditional sexual relations.” The bill passed a first reading in parliament but has not been given final approval. While no same-sex marriages have believed to have been recorded by local marriage registries anywhere, some Kyrgyz same-sex couples may have gotten married anyway, through other means.
Kyrgyz election officials said voters overwhelmingly backed amending the constitution to ban same-sex marriage and shift some presidential powers to the prime minister. The two questions were among a package of 26 proposed amendments that voters in the mostly Muslim former Soviet republic were being asked to approve with a simple "yes-or-no" vote on December 11. The Central Election Commission said 80 percent of voters backed the measures and just over 42 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. There were some reports of alleged fraud. Executive branch
The president heads the executive and is the most powerful member of government. Presidents can propose bills to the legislature, appoint the justices to the highest courts (legislative confirmation is then required), and can call referenda. Presidents are popularly elected to five-year terms and are limited to serving two terms. Other executive officials form the president's cabinet and include the prime minister, four deputy prime ministers, 13 ministers, the general prosecutor, and the heads of six national agencies, commissions, and committees.
Beginning in the late 1990s, the regime of the thrice-elected President Oskar Akayev increasingly bypassed democratic processes, despite increasing protests. Constitutional changes concentrated power in the presidency, to the detriment of the legislative branch, and made removal of the president more difficult. Following the March 2005 overthrow of former President Askar Akayev, Kurmanbek Bakiyev won the July 2005 presidential elections with over 88% of the vote, running on a platform that promised constitutional and economic reforms. Following the constitutional reform of 2006, the prime minister was appointed by the party receiving a plurality in the latest parliamentary elections. That reform also deprived the president of the right to dismiss parliament.
Opposition groups held a series of demonstrations in 2006 and 2007 to protest the lack of progress on reforms. Over the next year and a half, President Bakiyev moved to consolidate political power and to divide and suppress the opposition. A Bakiyev-proposed new version of the constitution, adopted through a flawed referendum in October 2007, strengthened the power of the presidency.
Under the 2010 constitution the President is elected by absolute majority vote through a two-round system to serve a 5-year term. The Prime Minister is nominated by parliament to serve a 5-year term. The prime minister is nominated by the parliamentary party which holds more than 50% of the seats. The nomination must then be approved by the president. If no party holds more than 50% of seats, the president may select the party that will nominate a prime minister.
Legislative branch - Supreme Council (Jorgorku Kenesh)
In 2003 a referendum changed the legislature’s structure from bicameral to unicameral, after a referendum in 1994 had established a bicameral legislature in place of the much larger unicameral legislature that had been established by the 1993 constitution. Both changes aimed to increase presidential power at the expense of the legislative branch. Under the 2010 constitution the legislative branch is composed of a 120-member unicameral parliament elected through a closed-list proportional representation system to serve 5-year terms.Judicial branch
Kyrgyzstan's highest courts are the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. The former has the final say on civil and criminal cases while the latter rules on issues of constitutional law. All justices are nominated by the president to 10-year terms and must be confirmed by the legislature. Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, Kyrgyzstan’s court system is widely seen as under the influence of the prosecutor’s office. Low salaries make the bribery of judges commonplace. Most cases originate in local courts; they then can move via the appeals process to municipal or regional courts, with the Supreme Court the final court of appeals. Property and family law disputes and low-level criminal cases are heard by traditional elders’ courts, which are loosely supervised by the prosecutor’s office. Economic disputes and military cases are heard in specialized courts. The constitutional amendments of 2003 expanded the scope of the Supreme Court in civil, criminal, and administrative proceedings. Many protections of Western jurisprudence have not been incorporated into Kyrgyzstan’s system, which retains many features of the Soviet system. The right to counsel and the presumption of innocence of the accused are guaranteed by law but often not practiced.
The republic is divided into seven administrative regions: six provinces and the capital city of Bishkek. The so-called northern provinces are Naryn, Ysyk-Köl, Chu, and Talas, and the southern provinces are Osh and Jalal-Abad. Jalal-Abad was formed out of Osh Province in 1991, largely to disperse the political strength of the south that had become centered in Osh. Each province has a local legislature, but real power is wielded by the province governor (until 1996 called the akim ), who is a presidential appointee. In some cases, the akim became a powerful spokesman for regional interests, running the district with considerable autonomy. Particularly notable in this regard was Jumagul Saadanbekov, the akim of Ysyk-Köl Province. The government reorganization of early 1996 widened the governors' responsibilities for tax collection, pensions, and a variety of other economic and social functions.
Akayev had difficulty in the 1990s establishing control over the two southern provinces. Several southern politicians (the most important of whom was Sheraly Sydykov, scion of an old Osh family that enjoyed great prominence in the Soviet era) have taken the lead in national opposition against Akayev. Sydykov headed the parliamentary corruption commission in 1994, and he headed the influential banking and ethics committees of the parliament elected in 1995.
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