Uncertainty Over Security Mounts as Kyrgyz Citizens Head to the Polls
After three months of protests following Kyrgyz parliamentary elections tainted by allegations of vote buying and candidate intimidation, Kyrgyz citizens will head to the polls on January 10 to vote for a new president and a referendum on amendments to the constitution. October’s elections witnessed Sadyr Japarov’s release from prison and sudden rise to acting president and prime minister.
Preparations in accordance with public health and safety measures will be taken to ensure the security of the vote and citizens. At a government meeting on January 6, Central Election Commission Chair Nurjan Shaildabekova said each polling station will have two automated ballot boxes: one for the presidential election and the other for the constitutional referendum. In total, 5,700 ballot boxes have been prepared and tested, 900 of which are in reserve to be distributed between polling stations or used to replace ballot boxes in the case of technical issues. In addition to in-person voting, Deputy Foreign Minister Azizbek Madmarov reported that 49,479 citizens will be voting abroad. Three hundred and sixteen international observers have been accredited for the upcoming elections, including a team of 25 individuals from 12 member states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE ODIHR). To ensure public safety and order during the elections, Kyrgyz Interior Minister Ulan Niyazbekov said that the police force will be on “raised alert” starting January 8. Over 11,000 police officers will be mobilized with 5,000 stationed at polling locations.
Despite efforts to create a secure voting environment, Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Commission launched an investigation after Jalpy Ish (Common Case) NGO reported that residents of the Kara-Suu district of Osh had been intimidated by young men threatening violence if they did not vote for Japarov. The Commission also informed the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor-General’s Office. However, on January 5, the Osh police department reported that they had checked the NGO’s claims and found them baseless. Protests have also continued since the October 4, 2020, parliamentary vote through which subsequent protests sparked then-president Sooronbai Jeenbekov’s exit from power, the call for new elections, and Japarov’s rise to power. Protests since the end of November, however, have been primarily in opposition to the referendum, because the constitutional reforms proposed by parliament would greatly expand the president’s power. Currently, the executive power is divided between the elected president and prime minister chosen by parliament. The reforms would eliminate the position of prime minister and give the president complete power over the executive branch. Additionally, parliament would decrease from 120 to 90 deputies and report to the People’s Council, which would be controlled by the executive branch. Under the new constitution, the president would be able to appoint judges to all courts, including the Supreme Court, and initiate legislation. The reforms also expand the president’s term limits from the current limit of a single six-year term to a new limit of two five-year terms.
Demonstrators were quick to protest the proposed constitutional changes and advocate for a parliamentary system. In late November, protestors gathered in Bishkek’s Ala-Too central square to protest the reforms, carrying signs reading “no to the referendum” and “no to dictatorship.” Protests have continued throughout December and into the new year. On January 5, about 200 people rallied in Bishkek to oppose the referendum led by Adakhan Madumarov and Kanybek Imanaliyev, two of the 17 presidential candidates. In Madumarov’s speech, he emphasized that after the October elections, people came out against the parliamentary election results, citing violations and did not advocate for a complete change of power. He also expressed the view that the referendum that only offers three options — a parliamentary system against the reforms, a presidential system supporting the reforms, and an “against all options” choice — was not enough.
Lawmakers, independent observers, and the U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan have all expressed concern with the upcoming referendum held on the same day as the presidential election. Saniya Toktogaziyeva, a representative of the Lawyers of Kyrgyzstan Association, argued that the sixth convocation of parliament no longer retained the right to propose extraordinary measures like constitutional referendums. She said that constitutional reforms could be proposed legally at the seventh convocation. Other lawmakers and independent observers say that deputy of the sixth convocation of parliament Akylbek Japarov (no relation to Sadyr Japarov), who alone initiated the referendum, did not have the authority to propose the vote and violated the constitution by doing so. Other lawmakers and independent observers say that deputy of the sixth convocation of parliament Akylbek Japarov, who alone initiated the referendum, did not have the authority to propose the vote and violated the constitution by doing so.
With Sadyr Japarov slated to win the presidential election and the passing of the constitutional referendum, Kyrgyzstan’s political system would change into a presidential republic, guaranteeing the president concentrated power to greatly influence policy making and judicial appointments. Although allegations of voter intimidation were rejected, this election could be met with similar or more backlash by opposition parties than the October elections, considering the continual protests against the referendum and in support of parliamentarism. Japarov’s ascension to executive powers and swift proposal of constitutional reforms after the removal of the previous president are a clear indication of Kyrgyzstan’s ongoing struggle with democratization.
As Kyrgyzstan’s efforts for democratization continue, it is clear that the outcome and aftermath of the upcoming presidential election and constitutional referendum will have profound consequences for the success of such endeavors. Japarov, the once-jailed former MP, could wield significant power over the government. If Kyrgyzstan votes in favor of the constitutional changes, the current mixed parliamentary-presidential republic would change into a presidential republic, guaranteeing the president concentrated power to greatly influence policy making and judicial appointments. Although allegations of voter intimidation were rejected, this election could be met with similar or more backlash by opposition parties than the October elections considering the continual protests against the referendum and in support of parliamentarism.
Japarov’s rise to power and swift proposal of constitutional reforms after the removal of the previous president illustrate Kyrgyzstan’s ongoing struggle with election-driven transitions. As Kyrgyzstan’s efforts for democratization continue, it is clear that the outcome and aftermath of the upcoming presidential election and constitutional referendum will have profound consequences for the success of such endeavors. The occasional designation of Kyrgyzstan as Central Asia’s “only democracy” hangs in the balance.