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Kyrgyzstan: President Sets Referendum Date On New Constitution

Bakiev addresses the nation in Bishkek (AFP) September 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev gave his annual address to the nation today amid a growing conflict between the country's parliament and the Constitutional Court.

After several months of relative calm in Kyrgyzstan, a new crisis began when the Constitutional Court last week ruled that amendments to the constitution approved last November and December were illegal because they were passed without following the correct processes. The court decided that the acting constitution of the country is the February 2003 version, a decision parliament almost immediately rejected.

Bakiev said that the decision to overturn the two sets of amendments "means only one thing: the constitutional reform has reached a deadlock."

"I will speak frankly; it was hard for me to hear this news," he said. "We sent a protest to the Constitutional Court over the virtual abolition of the constitution. However, having studied the materials and conclusions provided by the Constitutional Court, we have no choice but to accept the rule of law."

'The Demand Of The People'

President Bakiev seems to have resolved that issue today by announcing that a national referendum on a new constitution will be held on October 21.

"The establishment of a democratic political regime is impossible without revising the previous [2003] constitution and making it more democratic," Bakiev said. "This is the demand of the majority of the people, civil society, and public and political figures. Essentially, the March [2005] revolution was carried out precisely under these slogans. And I intend to meet this demand of the people."

Bakiev also announced that the new constitution would contain changes to the way parliament is elected, providing for the formation of the parliament -- the Jogorku Kenesh -- on the basis of party lists.

That change was already part of the amendments passed in 2006 that did away with single-mandate districts -- but that version of the constitution was ruled invalid by the Constitutional Court last week.

Bakiev also hinted he would form a new political party.

Opinions on Bakiev's move today varied. Former Foreign Minister Alibek Jekshenkulov told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the referendum is the correct move. "If the president creates his own party, and elections to parliament are held according to party lists, this would be a great step forward for the new political structure of Kyrgyzstan," he said.

Lawmaker Melis Eshimkanov told RFE/RL that Bakiev's decision is an important step toward ending a long political fight. Bakiev "doesn't have any other alternative," Eshimkanov said. "Bakiev today put an end to the political fights of the last two years on the streets very well. But this is only the beginning."

The chairman of the presidential administration's commission on human rights, Tursunbek Akun, reluctantly accepted Bakiev's plan, saying that he will have to follow the decree regardless of his personal opinion. "As I've told the presidential chief of staff already, I'm against holding a referendum. In general, it's a dangerous action. If we hold a referendum, some 90 percent of the people will support it. And we will be criticized for using administrative resources. All local governors will be working hard on it. We'll have one of Akaev's referendums and it will create a presidential state," Akun said.

Too Many Issues, Too Little Time

Lawmaker and former parliament speaker Omurbek Tekebaev told RFE/RL that Bakiev's plan to hold a referendum takes a page from the era of former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, who held several referendums during the 1990s and in 2003 that gradually increased presidential powers.

"This is a stab in the dark," Tekebaev said. "In just a month a referendum will be held. People won't be able to grasp the full measure of this document in one month. In my opinion, this is like the time of Akaev, a referendum with manipulations and serious violations. And meanwhile these two laws are declared to be adopted."

Tekebaev was joined in this view by parliament deputy Iskhak Masaliev, the head of Kyrgyzstan's Communist Party, who is also regarded as a Bakiev ally.

"Frankly speaking, taking this kind of major law to the referendum was the wrong idea from the beginning. Because you have to give one answer: 'yes' or 'no'. There could be 100 questions, and if I support 99 of them except one, I can still only say 'yes' or 'no'" to all the points, Masaliev said.

That was certainly true of Akaev-era referendums when citizens were asked to vote "yes" or "no" on a package of issues like private land ownership and increasing the powers of the executive branch.

This October's referendum will have two questions: "Do you accept the law on the new version of the constitution?" and "Do you accept the law on the new version of the electoral code as proposed by the president for referendum?"

Bakiev's announcement that he will form his own political party will likely spark a flurry of political bargaining among the country's more than 90 registered political parties and movements.

Deputy parliament speaker Kubanychbek Isabekov responded to Bakiev's speech by saying parliament could be dissolved.

But if the new constitution is passed, there will definitely have to be new parliamentary elections. Bakiev indicated he is not content with the means by which many of the current deputies obtained their seats in parliament.

Bakiev said the single-mandate system of electing deputies had failed and that the 2005 parliamentary elections and subsequent by-elections to fill empty seats were characterized by problems "connected with buying votes, pressuring election commissions, and even seizing judicial facilities."

Bakiev noted that in some cases armed conflict had broken out between supporters of rival candidates and, as a result, "deputies of parliament owe allegiance to no one and are beyond control."

Analysts are already predicting new parliamentary elections in early 2008 due to the referendum on a new constitution.

(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)

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