A political showdown is brewing in Kyrgyzstan over constitutional reform. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev is intent on retaining a presidential republic, while his political opponents are pushing for a system that enhances parliament's authority. Developments in the next 10 days could go a long way toward determining the outcome of the constitutional debate.
The constitutional reform question has become entangled in a power struggle pitting the executive branch against parliament. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. On October 23, representatives of the For Reforms coalition, which comprises many of the president's leading critics, announced that they were prepared to hold talks with Bakiyev to settle their political differences. Only two days earlier, coalition leaders had canceled a scheduled meeting, explaining that negotiations would be "fruitless." Bakiyev, meanwhile, has accused his opponents of "speaking the language of ultimatums."
When he was a member of the opposition, Bakiyev was a strong supporter of placing stronger restraints upon presidential authority. Now, as the head of the executive branch, he exhibits far less enthusiasm for altering the political status quo. "He strongly wants there to be a presidential form of government, but the political parties and opposition won't give it to him," said Azimbek Beknazarov, the chair of the president's working group on constitutional reform, and a leading opposition member of parliament.
The president's backers say he is merely promoting a healthy, public debate so that the best possible document is produced. "We have not yet achieved perfection," said Makhamadjon Iminov, a presidential aide for legal affairs. "One can always perfect more and more."
Several of the changes being debated the official status of the Russian language, for example are controversial, but none so much as the question of how to balance power among the branches of government. With the executive excesses of former president Askar Akayev fresh in their minds, many Kyrgyz favor a shift to a parliamentary republic. In contrast, Bakiyev on September 28 confirmed his desire to retain the strong executive branch, hinting that the question could be put to a nationwide referendum.
A tangled chain of councils, working groups, and parliamentary hearings have wrestled with the constitutional-reform question since Akayev's ouster in March 2005. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The first body to tackle reform issues was the Constitutional Council, whose 114 members were drawn from government, academia and the non-governmental sector. [For background see the Eurasia insight archive]. The body, charged with developing a plan for the redistribution of powers, quickly became bogged down in divisive debates. When it finally produced a draft constitution, Bakiyev appeared to dislike several provisions, including one limiting presidential tenure to a single, five-year term and others enhancing parliamentary power.
In response, Bakiyev embraced stalling tactics, playing for time as he searched for a way to obtain a draft more to his liking. "He began to drag out the situation in various ways," said Asiya Sasykbaeva, a key civil society figure in the council who is now a member of the For Reforms coalition.
After the Constitutional Council submitted its initial draft, Bakiyev more than doubled the size of the body, apparently hoping that the new members would dilute the pro-parliamentary provisions. When that tactic didn't work, the president created a much smaller working group, headed by Beknazarov. The working group was charged in March with outlining three systems of government: presidential, parliamentary, and mixed. Despite being led by an opposition member, a majority of the working group members were government officials.
After the working group delivered three drafts on July 27, Bakiyev passed them on to parliament for hearings. According to Iminov, these hearings may lead to further adjustments, and possibly a nationwide referendum.
The Council of Europe's Venice Commission, which advises countries on constitutional reform issues, gave the trio of drafts a mixed review in preliminary comments issued September 28. "In the areas of human rights and the judiciary, the [new] drafts are better than earlier drafts," said Thomas Markert, Deputy Secretary of the Venice Commission. But, he added," for the system of government, on the whole, I think that the draft done by the Constitutional Council was better, so what we are suggesting is to try to combine these drafts."
The Venice Commission's comments provide some ammunition to each side in the Kyrgyz debate. In general, the commission's findings support the presidential view that more deliberation is necessary before the new constitution is adopted. However, Bakiyev's opponents are encouraged by the commission's preference for the Constitutional Council's method of balancing power, diminishing the president's power, enhancing the prime minister's, and strengthening parliament's oversight authority.
To further complicate matters, Feliks Kulov, a former political adversary of Bakiyev's who now serves as prime minister, has weighed in with comments that seem to favor a parliamentary system. As quoted by RFE/RL on October 12, Kulov said, "the party that wins [parliamentary elections] should decide [the] government we must have, and the government should, in turn, be in charge of everything personnel issues, economic issues, and so on." Parliament Speaker Marat Sultanov made a similar endorsement for a parliamentary republic on October 18.
Given the lingering dissatisfaction with the working group's three drafts, Kulov on October 9 submitted his own reform proposals for consideration. Bakiyev, as well as members of parliament, were also reportedly developing additional proposals. Bakiyev has announced he will outline his constitutional vision to parliament on October 30.
As the pile of drafts continues to grow, the For Reforms coalition, which unites several opposition political parties and civil society groups, has set a deadline of November 2 for decisive action. Coalition leaders say that if they do not see reform progress by that date, they will launch an ongoing protest in Bishkek's main square, seeking the resignations of Bakiyev and Kulov. The opposition has staged such protests before, and although each sparks memories of the March 2005 Tulip Revolution, the effect of recent protests on government policy has been limited. They have drawn sparse crowds, and have failed to achieve the intended goal of intimidating authorities into taking reform action. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"Constitutional reform is in the hands of the president," said Beknazarov. "Society is ready, parliament is ready, but he will not decide."
Dan Sershen is a freelance journalist based in Bishkek.