Proposed Constitutional Reforms Met with Protests, Support from Japarov
On November 17, the Kyrgyz Parliament posted a draft of newly proposed constitutional reforms that would greatly expand the powers of the president. Currently, the executive branch is divided between the elected president and prime minister chosen by parliament. The changes would give the president total control over the executive branch because it calls for the president to be the sole executive. The constitutional alterations would also weaken parliament by shrinking it from 120 to 90 deputies, making it report to a new People’s Kurultai (Council). The People’s Kurultai itself would function under the executive branch. With more executive power, the president would play a stronger role in determining domestic and foreign policy. Additionally, the president would be allowed to run for two five-year terms, instead of the current single six-year term.
After Kyrgyz lawmakers initiated the constitutional changes, hundreds of people rallied against them in Bishkek on November 22. They marched through the capital to the central Ala-Too Square holding signs reading “no to the referendum” and chanting slogans like a “country without a khan.” Critics have even nicknamed the proposed changes as the “khanstitution,” since the changes would also give the president the authority to appoint judges to all the courts, up to and including the Supreme Court, as well as being able to initiate legislation. Committee-93, a new political group, has also started protesting the changes to the constitution. It advocates for the return to the 1993 constitution, claiming that such a turn would help facilitate the independence of the parliament and judicial system necessary for democratization.
Current interim president and prime minister, Sadyr Japarov, has defended the constitutional changes and signed legal changes that postponed new parliamentary elections that had been set for December 2020 to an unspecified date in 2021. Mr. Japarov came to power during the October protests that rocked Kyrgyzstan and led to former President Sooronbay Jeenbekov’s ouster. Because Kyrgyz law prevents an interim president for running for president, Mr. Japarov then resigned both positions in early November in order to run in the presidential election scheduled for January 10, 2021, before the election of a new parliament.
The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled on December 2 that the parliament acted legally when it extended its terms by six months on October 22, meaning that new parliamentary elections might not occur until summer of 2021. The October 4 election should have initiated the end of the current parliament’s term; however, the results were nullified after the political unrest following the election. After parliament extended its term, many of its members supported constitutional reforms giving more power to the president.
Critics of the government view the current parliament as enablers of constitutional changes that would give Japarov more executive control, should he be elected in January, as seems inevitable. Many view a newly elected parliament as the only way toward reform. Leader of the Reforma political party, Klara Sooronkulova, and two lawyers presented a legal petition to parliament to have their power suspended and to hold new elections soon.
Concerns over the rapidity of adopting proposed constitutional reforms are also echoed by the United States. The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek released a statement that welcomed the proposal by some Kyrgyz presidential candidates to delay a referendum on constitutional reform to Spring 2021 or even later. The statement said that delaying the decisions on constitutional changes would allow the presidential candidates to focus on issues such as the pandemic and its repercussions and the fight against organized crime. It also emphasized the need for societal discussion and consensus building among the Kyrgyz public before a referendum would take place and advocated inclusion of diverse voices from civil society, the media, and the opposition on the Constitutional Council.
The U.S. Embassy also noted international partners such as the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe’s willingness to assist in the process of constitutional changes. While this statement emphasizes the United States’ apprehension of sweeping constitutional reforms giving power to the executive branch, the Constitutional Chamber’s upholding the legality of the parliament’s term extension suggests that the reforms might, nevertheless be adopted.