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Central Asia: Are Two Chambers Of Parliament Better Than One?

  • Gulnoza Saidazimova --> Will President Askar Akaev will enjoy even stronger ties with Kyrgyz lawmakers? (file photo) On 27 February, Kyrgyzstan is set to hold elections for a legislature that at the same time will go from having two chambers to one. Uzbekistan did just the opposite in its parliamentary elections in December, moving from a unicameral legislature to a bicameral one. Tajikistan made the same switch some five years ago. Why are the countries of Central Asia changing the form of their parliaments?

Prague, 3 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Is there any direct connection between a country's parliamentary system and the health of its democracy? Some experts say no.

Bicameral parliaments -- those with an upper and lower chamber -- can be found in countries with some of the most democratic systems and with some of the least.

The United States, Britain, Canada, India, and France all have bicameral legislatures. So too do Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan -- and now, Uzbekistan.

Single-chamber parliaments can be found in politically repressive countries like China and Iran. But they can also be found in Denmark, Sweden, Israel, Greece, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

What determines what kind of parliament a country will have? Gregory Gleason, who teaches political science at the University of New Mexico, said the form of a country's legislature has more to do with its history than its democratic development.

"There is no necessary correlation between a bicameral legislature and a more democratic legislature," Gleason said. "If the formula is accurate in representing the real constituency, and the real interest groups in the country, a unicameral legislature is perfectly adequate from the point of view of democratic theory. It's a question of the historical circumstances and of the relationships among the various constituencies."

Gleason said that bicameralism has proven effective in big countries with diverse societies. A two-chamber parliament -- which in theory creates a greater balance of powers -- gives different factions a better opportunity to air their views through their parliamentary representatives.

Many countries with single-chamber parliaments are by contrast small, mostly homogenous states with less need for political diversity.

Gleason said that many former Soviet republics adopted one or the other system not according to their needs, but according to the foreign model they most wanted to emulate. The result, he said, is a number of bicameral legislatures with closer ties to the executive than to the public.

"In Kazakhstan, in Kyrgyzstan, in Tajikistan, [which currently all have bicameral parliaments], the formula for the establishment of the legislature does not reflect a real competition among groups, rather it reflects an assessment of what that competition should look like," Gleason said. "As a result, what you see is that the legislatures do not have a closer link with the people they represent -- their constituencies. But they have a closer link with power, with the executive authority in the states."

Kyrgyzstan is about to shed its bicameral system and replace it with a single-chamber parliament. Does this mean President Askar Akaev will enjoy even stronger ties with his lawmakers?

David Lewis, who heads Central Asian projects for the International Crisis Group, said that Akaev's control is contingent on pro-presidential candidates winning a clear majority on 27 February -- and may explain why a number of opposition candidates have been prevented from running.

"I think in Kyrgyzstan the upper house was never terribly effective. And there was a move -- there was a good deal of support -- for getting rid of the upper house, which was seen as a not very democratic institution, and moving to all-elected lower house," Lewis said. "But within that, of course, there have been a lot of political games played in terms of the presidential administration trying to create a pro-presidential majority in the parliament."
Despite Central Asia's string of parliamentary overhauls, none of the countries should expect to see their political systems change radically.

Tajikistan switched from a unicameral to an elected bicameral parliament in 2000. But Lewis said it has remained a largely ineffectual body.

"The role of parliament in Tajikistan is even weaker than in Kyrgyzstan. It hasn't really changed very much in the past five years," Lewis said. "It doesn't play a big role in policy making and there is very little connection between parliamentarians and their constituencies. In Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, there is no real need for them to gain electoral support. It's very much a top-down formation of a parliament. It has very little to do with the electoral process."

Uzbekistan held parliamentary elections last December, with 120 lawmakers elected to the newly formed lower house in two rounds. In January, the 100-member upper house was formed, with 16 senators elected by President Islam Karimov and the remaining 84 chosen by local municipalities.

Karimov initiated the change in 2002, saying a bicameral parliament would mark significant progress toward democratization. But Gleason said that Karimov's move was more cosmetic than substantive.

"It is a step that establishes a new format for representation," Gleason said. "But I think that the history of Uzbekistan's political development demonstrates that it's a highly centralized system -- it's a presidential system. And it is this authority that legislature is responsive to, rather than being responsive to the constituents."

Some observers say that Karimov, by altering the parliamentary system, is looking to ensure his long-term security if and when he steps down from the presidency. Uzbek election laws provide for the president to become a senator-for-life at the end of his term -- a position that grants life-long immunity from criminal or legal prosecution.

Lewis said that despite Central Asia's string of parliamentary overhauls, none of the countries should expect to see their political systems change radically.

"In all the countries we're talking about, political power is not based in the parliament -- political power is based in the presidential administration," Lewis said. "Until that area of political power is reformed, you wouldn't see a very strong parliament emerging in Central Asia."

A more substantial change, experts say, has been the creation of a full-time parliament in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. This has allowed legislators more time to study bills and hold in-depth discussions of issues not related to presidential power. Those issues, for now, are too sensitive to touch.