A year ago, voters in Kyrgyzstan endorsed an experiment that boldly hoped to change the course of political history in Central Asia. They approved a constitution that ushered in a parliamentary form of government to a country surrounded by post-Soviet strongmen overseeing “super-presidential” systems. Today, the jury is out on whether the move has worked.
On June 27, 2010, over 90 percent of voters favored a new constitution empowering parliament. The referendum also extended provisional President Roza Otunbayeva’s term for an additional 18 months and disbanded ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s compliant Constitutional Court. A rocky year has passed, prompting critics to insist that Kyrgyzstan, which had seen two authoritarian presidents unseated amid mass demonstrations over the previous five years, is simply not ready for a style of parliamentary give-and-take.
Favoring a return to a strong executive, they point to poorly defined checks and balances that have encouraged abuses of power in recent months. The switch to a parliamentary system was “premature,” argues retired Major-General Artur Medetbekov of the State Security Committee (GKNB). He says the ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan shortly after Bakiyev’s downfall demonstrates the danger of decentralizing decision-making. During the violence, “the [interim] government showed us that leaderships based on collective principles don’t necessarily take responsibility for restoring order – rather they refuse it,” Medetbekov told EurasiaNet.org.
Medetbekov, who worked both with Bakiyev and the provisional government, recalls “significant opposition” to the referendum, held just weeks after ethnic strife in southern Kyrgyzstan left over 400 dead. When subsequent elections to the parliament took place last October, voters in Kyrgyzstan’s southern regions overwhelmingly backed parties such as Ata-Jurt, Ar-Namys and Butun Kyrgyzstan, whose parties contain prominent members of Bakiyev’s administration and whose leaders support a return to a stronger executive.
“The reason is simple,” argues Medetbekov. “When a house has one owner as opposed to a few dozen owners, it is easier to rule and take responsibility for ensuring law and order.”
Many political analysts have adopted a wait-and-see approach to Kyrgyzstan’s new government. The five-party legislature, the main beneficiary of Bishkek’s constitutional 180-degree turn, is less than six months old, cautions Sheradil Baktygulov, a governance expert who defends the parliament.
“Effectively, the parliament has only been working for five months,” Baktygulov said. Moreover, “80 percent of the MPs in the parliament are acting as MPs for the first time. In the short-term, they will make mistakes.”
In its brief life, parliament has indulged in passing legislation that critics call frivolous. For example, lawmakers spent weeks debating whether to name a mountain after Russian Premier Vladimir Putin. More recently, some legislation has appeared extralegal – including the banning of a popular media outlet accused of “inciting racial hatred” and declaring persona non grata a Finnish politician who had criticized the government’s response to the ethnic violence. In those cases, it seems deputies engaged in ethics violations. But with the country now without a Constitutional Court, it is unclear how such actions can be addressed.
There have also been positive signs, says Baktygulov, such as the adoption of a recent law encouraging the development of e-commerce and IT parks in the country.
“On a technical level, the parliament is functioning. Committees are coordinating with one another and outside experts are being employed to help in the drafting of laws,” he said. The problem is further up the chain, “at the very top of the executive, legislative and judicial branches, where officials are playing political games, making appointments to satisfy group and clan interests.” Regardless of parliament’s performance, analysts say, fewer MPs seem interested in giving up their powers.
Likewise, returning to a presidential system seems tempting only to those with eyes on the post. Both Askar Akayev, ousted in 2005, and Bakiyev were forced from power as they sought to extend their presidential writ and convert the legislature into a Tashkent- or Ashgabat-style rubber-stamp body. Last year’s April 7 uprising still serves as a warning that the country’s political opposition can call on violent supporters. So as some deputies continue to talk up the benefits of a strong executive ahead of their own presidential campaigns, they are likely to face opposition from an increasingly vocal source – parliament itself.
“They [ordinary deputies] are enjoying their newfound influence,” explained Medet Tiulegenov, who teaches comparative politics at the American University of Central Asia. “MPs are no longer constrained by party dictates. In fact, they aren’t constrained by much at all.”
In April, for example, a group of 10 deputies from the opposition Ar-Namys party tried to join the parliament’s ruling coalition, apparently without the approval of their leader, former Prime Minister Felix Kulov. The episode suggested that even if the party line is pro-presidential – as is Ar-Namys’ and Kulov’s – a lack of intra-party discipline renders the party line meaningless. Similarly, a deputy from Ata-Jurt, another faction that officially backs a stronger executive, recently argued for an extension of parliamentary powers, to include electing the country’s new president without recourse to a popular vote.
“Maybe there will be chaos for a few more years,” said Tiulegenov of the parliamentary experiment. “And after that, perhaps a new person, whether president, prime minister or speaker, will arrive and impose some sort of discipline, or offer a new direction. Unfortunately, that person doesn’t seem to exist yet.”