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Majlis Podcast: Kyrgyzstan's Referendum -- The Controversy And Consequences

Kyrgyz will go to the polls on December 11.
Kyrgyz will go to the polls on December 11.

Kyrgyzstan's December 11 referendum on amendments to the constitution has been a contentious issue since plans to hold it were announced this last summer, and it appears it will be an issue in the coming months as the country prepares for the presidential election late next year.

To look at the problems this referendum has caused and the fallout that might soon follow, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, or panel, to discuss the possible motives for conducting the referendum and what it might mean for Kyrgyzstan in 2017.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From Bishkek, Edil Baisalov, longtime political figure in Kyrgyzstan and also chief of staff in former Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbaeva's administration, joined the Majlis. From the United States, one of the leading authorities on Kyrgyzstan, Erica Marat, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Regional and Analytical Studies at the National Defense University's College of International Security Affairs, participated. I had my hands full trying to keep up with those two, but I said a few things also.

There are 26 proposed amendments to Kyrgyzstan's constitution. Panelists pointed out the referendum was pushed through hurriedly, leaving a lot of questions about the reasons for the changes.

Baisalov said, "I don't really think people have a very good idea of what these amendments are supposed to bring, what kind of changes."

Marat commented on the haste with which the referendum was passed and a date named for the vote, saying, "the way the constitutional referendum was imposed just shows that political process doesn't really matter, and whatever the changes in the constitution, it will benefit the political class who is in power, who wants to rule the country according to what they see as appropriate for their political interests."

That view is shared by some in Kyrgyzstan, especially those who, like Baisalov, believe that "this current constitution has built not a democracy, not a parliamentary democracy, but a very oligarchic system."

Marat went a bit further and said that "the constitution that was approved in 2010 tried to eliminate the importance of an individual and give more powers to the parliament," but "Atambaev still wanted to impose his own vision, and in the future political leaders that will replace Atambaev...can still use the constitution or interpret it the way they want."

In any case, Baisalov said, "I would not overdramatize the significance of this vote in terms of transfer of any constitutional powers from the president to the prime minister."

Baisalov, who was part of the efforts to draft the current constitution in 2010, mentioned that parts that give the prime minister more power at the expense of the presidency are natural.

"According to the current constitution, the prime minister is supposed to be the most powerful politician and leader in the country, we modeled the prime minister to be on par with the chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, or the British prime minister," he said.

That cuts to the heart of the matter going forward. If the current constitution had genuinely created a parliamentary system in Kyrgyzstan, next year's presidential election would not be terribly important.

But as it stands now, "our future depends on who is going to win the presidential election," Baisalov said.

That almost guarantees that next year's presidential campaign will be energetic and controversial and many of the complaints likely to be heard will stem from the December 11 referendum.

The Majlis looked into these issues in greater detail and also discussed other proposed amendments to the constitution, such as who can legally get married or what Kyrgyzstan's obligations to international conventions on human rights will be, or ecocide, and why these changes were included in the package voters will be asked to approve at polling stations.

Here is the full audio recording of the discussion:

Majlis Podcast: What Is Kyrgyzstan's Constitutional Referendum About?
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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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