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Kyrgyzstan: Does New Constitution Strengthen Democracy -- Or President Bakiev?

President Kurmanbek Bakiev (AFP) October 22, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Following a national referendum on a new constitution, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev is moving quickly.

Today, just hours after the results of the referendum on October 21 were announced, Bakiev addressed the nation on state television and radio.

"I have made the decision to dissolve parliament," he announced. "I will speak frankly. The outgoing parliament has not had an easy life. You remember that its existence was called into question in the very first days after the elections. Many people called for the dissolution of parliament -- which was elected with so many gross violations -- but we didn't do it, understanding that those deputies were, after all, elected by the people and thousands of voters trusted them."

As Bakiev said, his relationship with parliament was rocky from the start. It was the parliamentary elections of February-March 2005 that sparked the widespread protests that chased former President Askar Akaev from office on March 24, 2005.

The "Tulip" or "People's" revolution was hailed as a victory for democracy and a continuation of the "colored" revolutions that took place in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine.

But the deputies who were elected in what many Kyrgyz viewed as rigged elections stayed in office and challenged Bakiev on many issues in a battle between the legislative and executive branches of power.

As they battled, reforms were left for a later date and demonstrations against the government continued.

Bakiev justified his move by saying that parliament had become more concerned with affairs other than those of responsibly governing the country.

"I asked members of the Jogorku Kenesh [parliament] many times to shift their focus from political struggle to establishing a good legislative base for the development of the country," he said. "However, most often, [members of] parliament had different priorities, thinking the battle for expanding their own authority was more important. Interference in the work of other branches of government became widespread and unacceptable."

Legality Questioned

Early results show that some 75 percent of voters approved the new constitution.

According to outgoing parliament speaker Marat Sultanov, Bakiev's dissolution of parliament takes advantage of a closing window of opportunity to do so. Once the new constitution comes into effect, Bakiev will not be able to do what he did today.

Bakiev had threatened to dissolve parliament several times since becoming president. The adoption of a new constitution and election law that abolishes voting in single-mandate districts and changes the number of seats in parliament merely gave Bakiev a legal reason to do what he promised to do for so many months.

But the decision is not sitting well with some lawmakers. "The decree [about dissolution] contradicts the constitution," Azimbek Beknazarov, a veteran opposition deputy, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. "It's illegal. But President [Bakiev's] abuse of his power to dissolve this parliament will get legal backing for sure, as [opposition lawmaker and former speaker of parliament Omurbek] Tekebaev once said. Nevertheless today, since this decree is released already, in this situation, we have no choice but to dissolve."

The new constitution better balances the distribution of power in the government after a series of referendums in the Akaev era consolidated power into the executive branch.

But voters in the referendum also backed changes to the election law that could benefit Bakiev's new party.

Under the new election law all of the 90 deputies in the next parliament will be elected on the basis of party lists. Last week Bakiev helped form a new political party -- the True Path Popular Party -- that he hopes will win an outright majority in the coming elections.

If Bakiev's vision of a parliament packed with deputies from the party he recently helped create comes true, then he may still be able to govern Kyrgyzstan as he wishes, knowing that his political moves will find support in a parliament friendly to the president.

However, that was not how Bakiev portrayed a new parliament today. "I believe that [parliamentary elections] will be completely different [from previously elections] -- absolutely democratic and clean elections -- through which, as is envisioned in the law, the country will receive a parliament comprised of worthy people elected for their ideas and not for their money," he said.

Deja Vu All Over Again?

The adoption of a new constitution does resolve one of Kyrgyzstan's most burning issues over the last two years.

Parliamentary elections may also put an end to fighting between the executive and legislative branches of government. This brings the possibility that stability will be restored in Kyrgyzstan, but also raises questions about what happens next.

Kyrgyzstan has maintained the image as the most democratic of the Central Asian states because of the participation of genuine opposition parties in government, a strong civil society, and the lack of a ruling party.

But the opposition has criticized Bakiev numerous times for simply being a new version of the former authoritarian president. These most recent events in Kyrgyzstan and the elections to come will be seen by some as taking the system of government implemented by former President Akaev to a new level, where presidential decisions are validated instantly by a compliant parliament with the opposition losing much of its voice in the affairs of government.

Parliament met for the last time today. Deputies played the Kyrgyz state hymn before closing their final session.

The prime minister is also expected to announce the resignation of his government soon, but Bakiev is expected to ask them to stay on as a caretaker government until parliamentary elections. In the meantime, Bakiev will govern the country practically alone.

Parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan have traditionally been held in February-March, but there are reports that the next elections could come before the end of this year.

Outgoing speaker Sultanov said the elections must occur within 60 days of the dissolution of parliament, and forecast that they will be held between December 9-16.

(Tynchtykbek Tchoroev and Venera Djumataeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)

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