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Kyrgyz Voters To Decide On New Constitution

Opposition rally for constitutional reform (file photo) (RFE/RL) October 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyz voters head to the polls on October 21 to vote in a referendum on a new constitution.

The document aims to balance power more equally, especially between the executive and legislative branches of the government. Many of Kyrgyzstan's opposition groups have been demanding just such a constitution for many months.

Easing Social Tensions

And there is hope the new constitution may ease social tensions more than two years after the country’s so-called Tulip Revolution.

Under the new rules, the number of seats in parliament would increase from the current 75 to 90. Other major changes include the abolition of the death penalty.

Many articles in the new constitution have broad public support. They include an article (Article 18, in Chapter Two, Part One) that says no law can curtail a person's rights and freedoms.

Another article (No 20, in Chapter Two, Part Two) allows Kyrgyz citizens to obtain dual citizenship. Elsewhere (Article 25 in Chapter Two, Part Two), the document says that Kyrgyz citizens may peacefully assemble, rally, picket, or march as long as they advise the authorities in advance. Another article (Article 30) ensures employees' right to strike.

Presidents are limited to serving two full terms (Article 43, Chapter 3, Part One) and must refrain from any activities in a political party or bloc during their term in office (Article 45).

Last November, opposition groups organized the largest rally ever held in the Kyrgyz capital to demand immediate constitutional reforms, something many people had been calling for since mass demonstrations chased former President Askar Akaev from power in March 2005 and installed Kurmanbek Bakiev as leader.

Demonstrators appeared to have gotten what they wanted when President Bakiev signed a hastily prepared version of a new constitution that removed some powers from the presidency and transferred them to the parliament.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Those changes did not last long. On December 30, pro-Bakiev lawmakers pushed through a package of amendments that restored to the executive branch many of the powers lost in the original November document.

Kyrgyzstan's Constitutional Court ruled recently (September) that both the November and December versions of the constitution were illegal and declared the 2003 version to be the acting constitution of the country. That is the same document that demonstrators wanted changed in November.

That was followed by the decision to hold this week's referendum.

But not everyone in the opposition is satisfied with the upcoming referendum.

Temir Sariev heads the Ak Shumkar (White Falcon) party and was one of the organizers of the November rally in Bishkek.

He says the referendum should have been preceded by a procedural law on plebiscites. “The referendum has been declared for a date that contravenes the law,” he noted. “We told the president this. It should have been conducted only after the law on referendums was signed, because this is a requirement of the constitution -- that there should be a law on referendums.”

The opposition Ak Shumkar party on October 18 called on voters to reject the constitution in the referendum.

But the referendum will go ahead as scheduled and voters are likely to approve the new constitution. More than 70 percent of voters who cast ballots in the country's four previous constitutional referendums opted for change.

As in those ballots, voters must vote either "yes" or "no" on the entire package. There is no option of voting "yes" on some changes and "no" on other changes.

Post-Referendum Scenarios

The referendum should be followed by the resignation of Prime Minister Almaz Atambaev's government, which is expected to remain in a caretaker capacity until early parliamentary elections that could come as soon as December.

If passed, the new constitution mandates that parliamentary elections be held solely on the basis of party lists. That requirement has already met with some resistance from sitting deputies.

Lawmaker Isa Omurkulov insists that parliament cannot be dissolved simply on the basis of the outcome of the referendum.

Omurkulov told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that he is not alone in arguing that point. “The deputies don't seem to be in the mood to disband themselves,” he said.

“ The reason is that the majority of the deputies are not members of [political] parties. Many of them don't seem to be willing to join the newly formed party (True Path Popular Party). That is why they are in this mood. It will not be possible to dissolve the parliament, but after the referendum the president will declare early parliamentary elections. It looks like [the situation] will be resolved in that way (through a presidential call for early elections)."

Kubanychbek Idinov, an economics professor at the Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the adoption of the new constitution would require new parliamentary elections. "According the new constitution, it is not possible to dissolve the parliament. But at the same time,” he added, “if the constitution is approved in the referendum, the parliament will become illegitimate because the system will be different. That is why the referendum is likely to hasten the political processes."

President Bakiev, who backs the new constitution, helped found a new political party earlier this week.

The creation of the True Path Popular Party (Ak Jol Eldik Partiyasi) is seen by analysts as one of the surest signs of early parliamentary elections after the passing of the referendum. Bakiev said in September that he hoped to help form a party that could win more than half the seats in parliament, thus giving Kyrgyzstan its first ruling party since independence.

While not agreeing with the decision to hold the referendum, Ak Shumkar leader Sariev indicated that his party has accepted the inevitability of the vote and is looking beyond October 21. Sariev said his party is already negotiating with other opposition groups (reportedly the Ata-Meken (Fatherland) and Asaba (Flag) parties) on possibly merging to increase their chances of winning seats in the parliamentary poll. "There are negotiations going on. It should be said, frankly, that the negotiations are not going easily,” he noted. “All the parties of the oppositional viewpoint agree on the main ideology, the main direction of uniting. But on what conditions we unite -- talks are ongoing on this issue."

What appears certain is that the adoption of the constitution will spark a period of intense political activity culminating in early parliamentary elections. That is supported by Sariev's comments on his party's talks with other parties and also information that some members of pro-presidential parties are in negotiations with the new True Path Popular Party.

An announcement on the date of the early parliamentary vote is expected as soon as next week, shortly after the results of the referendum are announced.

(*Background on the Kyrgyz parliament: Between 2000 and 2005, the legislature was bicameral with a 45-seat upper house and a 60-seat lower house. Between 1995 and 2000 it was bicameral with a 35-seat upper house and a 70-seat lower house. And between 1991 and 1995, the parliament was unicameral, with 313 seat.)

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