After months of political unrest and the worst violence in the country’s post-Soviet history, Kyrgyz voters are set to either endorse or reject a new constitution and a new president on June 27. Turnout in the looming referendum will be a test of confidence in Kyrgyzstan’s provisional leaders.
The choice appears simple: a yes vote will provide for a constitution that diminishes presidential powers and strengthens parliamentary authority, and confirm provisional leader Roza Otunbayeva as acting president for 18 months. A no vote, meanwhile, would create uncertainty, and, likely, further turmoil. The two issues are bundled on the ballot. Voters will simply check one box -- yes or no – to answer both questions.
International donors are pushing for the referendum to go ahead, hoping it will legitimize a provisional government that has ruled tenuously since protests forced former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev from power in early April. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive]. Yet many local analysts express concern that violence, or a low turnout in the South -- where violence in mid June left hundreds dead and forced hundreds of thousands to flee – will discredit the referendum, and potentially prompt further chaos. Many say that holding the referendum now is merely the lesser of two evils; that the choices are “bad” and “very bad.”
Otunbayeva’s shaky coalition is doing whatever necessary to get voters to polling stations. Last week, the interim leader altered legislation to allow the vote to proceed even if parts of the country were still under a state of emergency. The state of emergency in Osh currently runs through June 25, with a curfew in effect from 2200 to 0500 hours. Officials are also trying to set up polling stations at refugee camps in Uzbekistan, where approximately 80,000 ethnic Uzbeks fled.
With participation expected to be low in the South, turnout is especially important in the North, in and around Bishkek, the capital. “The government is counting on [getting] the referendum [approved] using the North,” said Nur Omarov, head of the Association of Political Scientists of Kyrgyzstan. “But even the North does not have an unambiguous attitude to the referendum. People understand that there has been a tragedy in the South.” Many are unhappy with the provisional government’s handling of recent events and thus may not vote.
Polls opened early in Osh, center of the recent bloodletting, on June 24, with up to 3,500 police and military service members voting, the mayor’s office said.
Security is still a major hurdle. The Osh mayor’s office said officials had to replace the town’s elections chief five times before finding someone who would work despite security concerns, local news agencies reported. Moreover, five ethnic Uzbek election officials were briefly kidnapped and then released unharmed there on June 23.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) withdrew most of its election observers due to security concerns, prompting analysts to underscore the lack of oversight. Even so, OSCE officials are pushing for the referendum to go ahead as planned. "If Kyrgyzstan is not to hold a referendum, the situation will get worse," the Special Representative of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Finnish MP Kimmo Kiljunen, said at a news conference in Bishkek on June 23, the 24.kg news agency reported. The European Union has also urged Bishkek ahead.
Privately, however, western diplomats are concerned country is not prepared for the vote and that officials will be tempted to tinker with the results, thus falling into the same trap that caused so much grief to the country’s previous administrations.
Omarov, the political scientist, said that though the referendum is necessary to “legitimize the ruling power,” he would like to see it postponed because it is “basically impossible” to hold a legitimate referendum in the South now. There, “the work of the executive and legislative bodies is paralyzed, people are living in fear, and many people have left,” he said.
“A parliamentary republic is just not viable in Kyrgyzstan. It just won’t work,” Omarov continued. “Most of the population has a hazy idea of what a parliamentary and presidential form of rule is. […] They may not understand what they are voting for.”
Dinara Oshurahunova, head of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, countered that the vote is necessary to help restore order, cautioning that the provisional government could collapse, if there was a referendum delay. “We really need to get a legitimate government, because there is also a danger that army and security forces might get out of control. They have all the weaponry in their hands, there should be one legitimate structure they should obey,” she said.
Looking at other countries that have been in similar situations, such as East Timor and Kosovo, academics doubt Bishkek can use a vote to resurrect stability without outside – preferably UN – peacekeepers. It is “naïve” to assume Kyrgyzstan’s constitutional referendum “will help legitimize the government amid the continued violence and refugee situation,” said Graciana del Castillo, a scholar of post-conflict crisis at Columbia University in New York.
“The 2009 presidential elections in Afghanistan show how difficult is to hold free, fair, and credible elections in a country with high levels of insecurity and ethnic violence, where a large part of the population will not have the opportunity to vote because of the violence. The Interim Government in Kyrgyzstan may gain more legitimacy by solving the security situation first, […] and then holding the referendum,” del Castillo told EurasiaNet.org.
In Osh, where turnout will be a test of this government’s appeal and locals’ perceptions of security, opinions remain divided over whether to vote.
Adil, a retired military officer from a neighborhood that largely remained untouched by the recent violence and destruction said “of course” he would vote. He is in favor of the new constitution because “in a country where there are lots of ethnic groups, you need a parliamentary republic.”
But Azamat Komilov, an elderly man who was left homeless after his house in the Arygali Niyazov neighborhood was torched, said he would not vote. “Of course I’m not going to vote,” he said. “It makes no difference whether I vote – they’ll register my vote anyway in favor of the government.”
David Trilling is EurasiaNet’s Central Asia news editor. Joanna Lillis contributed reporting.