Why Did Kyrgyz Voters Give Up Parliamentarism?  – The Diplomat


On  January 10, 2021 Kyrgyz voters elected a new president, Sadyr Japarov, whose meteoric rise to power was prompted by a violent upheaval in October 2020. The same day, voters cast a second ballot in a referendum on constitutional reform initiated by Japarov. In another win for the president-elect, 84 percent of voters approved changes that would give Kyrgyzstan a presidential system of government, effectively reducing the power of the parliament. 

Ten years ago, Kyrgyz citizens voted overwhelmingly in favor of a reform plan that transformed Kyrgyzstan into a parliamentary republic. Held on June 27, 2010, two weeks after deadly inter-ethnic clashes in the south of Kyrgyzstan and two months after the ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the constitutional referendum was designed to bring an end to nepotism, prevent the concentration of power in the office of the president, give voice to the opposition, and turn the parliament into a real decision-making body in the country. 

While 91 percent of Kyrgyz voters backed the parliamentary plan in 2010, its critics inside and outside the country saw a dark future. Acting Defense Minister of Kyrgyzstan Ismail Isakov argued at the time that a parliamentary form of government was alien to the “Kyrgyz mentality and spirit.” Speaking to journalists at the G-20 meeting in Toronto, then-President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev warned of the “chain of eternal problems” – parliamentary reshuffles, elite in-fighting, and the rise of extremism in Kyrgyzstan.

Critics of the parliamentary form of government in Kyrgyzstan were right in naming the symptoms, but not the sources, of woes in the country’s politics. The attitudes of the Kyrgyz electorate toward leadership, authority, state institutions, and public priorities have seen minimal changes in the decade since the parliamentary form of government was introduced. Bakiyev’s presidency, which precipitated the constitutional changes of 2010, was also marked by frequent stand-offs between the parliament and the president, and featured cutthroat political competition with assassinations reaching an unprecedented level in 2005-2006

Presidentialism is favored by Kyrgyz citizens because it offers a simple mechanism for holding the state leader accountable through the threat of violent removal in a system of governance rooted in patronage. To put it simply, it is easier to “punish” the sitting president by removing him from the office through revolt than to deal with the parliament. A revolt against the power-sharing system in the parliament threatens to break the patronage networks cultivated by the ruling elite that many in the population benefit from. Even if dissatisfied, some voters blame other factions for the country’s problem or fear that change will give other factions more power over them.

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With roots in the Soviet era of endemic deficit, red tape, and ethnic privilege, client-patron relations were strengthened in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, giving rise to a deeply entrenched system of patronage. In this system, people pursue their political and economic ends primarily through personalized networks meting out rewards and punishments. In these networks, people’s loyalty and allegiances are exchanged for favors and rewards dispensed by those in positions of power and having access to public resources.

Political and business competition in Kyrgyzstan has taken place through the contest of these patronage networks, involving political, business, and, often, criminal interests. The majority of political parties have been ideologically empty vehicles for institutionalizing the promises of rewards to those at different levels of the patronage networks in exchange for voters’ mobilization. Business success, too, has been conditioned by one’s connections to the state obtained through involvement in and support for the patronage networks: In exchange for financial contributions during election campaigns, business interests can receive seats in the Kyrgyz parliament that come with immunity from criminal prosecution and guaranteed access to the country’s wealth. 

During the Akayev and Bakiyev presidencies, one of the patronage networks connected to the president’s kin managed to consolidate power in the state to the exclusion of other competitive power networks. In both instances, this strategy backfired, leading to intra-elite revolts backed by demonstrations that toppled the presidents. By strengthening the parliament’s powers, the 2010 Kyrgyz Constitution, which was a result of an informal compromise among the representatives of several patronage networks estranged during the Bakiyev presidency, set the stage for a more diffused and pluralistic patronage system. Although, these changes prompted elements of genuine political debate and competition at the national level, they further hollowed formal institutions, eroded good governance, and strengthened reliance on patronage networks in the end.

Against the backdrop of strengthened patronalism, presidentialism represents a type of “social contract” between citizens and their president that defines their rights and obligations toward each other, and allows the citizens to remove the president at any point during his tenure through the administration of “electorate justice” if he fails to deliver on the promises to the electorate. 

The challenge for President-elect Japarov is live up to the citizens’ expectations and those of the patronage networks that backed him. Noticeably lacking a political program, Japarov ran on pledges of fighting corruption, pulling the country out of its economic crisis, expending social welfare benefits, and discrete promises to the various elements of his support base, which includes a strong rural following, disenfranchised youth, and Kyrgyz nationalists. Japarov’s fast-track advancement from a prison cell to the prime minister’s chair and the post of acting president wouldn’t have occurred without the backing of powerful patronage networks. Getting all these different networks and constituencies to work in his support instead of against him will be an insurmountable challenge facing the new president.

Kyrgyz voters have learned, and demonstrated repeatedly, that the real power in Kyrgyzstan lies with its people. However, frequent power shuffles reduce people’s respect for the rule of law and for public authorities. This means that any difficulties governing the country and pushing through the needed economic and social reforms will be amplified. The coronavirus pandemic has already pushed Kyrgyzstan to its economic edge and removed the cushion presented by labor migration that mitigated its chronically high unemployment rate. Experts warn of new protests in Kyrgyzstan as early as the spring of 2021.

Mariya Y. Omelicheva is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Kansas.

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Kyrgyz election body calls new presidential vote as police raid


BISHKEK Kyrgyz election officials on Saturday (Oct 24) announced presidential elections for Jan 10 even as police raided their offices, in what appeared to be a power struggle with the country’s acting leader.

The impoverished ex-Soviet state in Central Asia has been embroiled in political chaos since the unrest following the results of parliamentary elections held earlier this month. The Central Elections Committee (CEC) finally annulled them following mass protests.

Sadyr Japarov, a populist politician who had been serving a prison sentence for hostage-taking but who was released during the unrest, is now both acting president and prime minister.

Since Japarov, 51, took power he has promised fresh parliamentary and presidential elections – but only after making changes to the constitution.

He has also called for the elections commission to be disbanded and reformed, saying it was something the people had called for along with the recent resignation of former president Sooronbay Jeenbekov.

The law requires that presidential elections within three months of Jeenbekov’s departure.

But on Saturday morning, police raided the CEC headquarters as part of a probe launched by the interior ministry into alleged voting violations during the now-annulled October parliamentary elections.

CEC member Gulnara Djurabayeva denounced the raid as a form of “pressure on a constitutional body”, during an interview with local media.

CONSTITUTIONAL BATTLE

The results of the Oct 4 vote were cancelled after a protest led by losing parties against vote-buying and other violations escalated into violent clashes pitting protesters against police.

READ: Kyrgyzstan on edge of chaos after opposition storms government buildings

Earlier this week, lawmakers cancelled new parliamentary elections that the CEC had set for Dec 20 by suspending part of the constitution – a move some lawyers and politicians argued may not have been legal.

Japarov himself has proposed a number of changes to the constitution, arguing that citizens should be able to decide whether or not to revert to a presidential system from the current mixed system.

Before protesters freed him this month, the former lawmaker was serving a sentence for hostage-taking dating back to a 2013 incident during a rally for the nationalisation of a gold mine.

Map of Kyrgyzstan locating the capital Bishkek. (Map: AFP)

Russia, which has a military base in Kyrgyzstan and is a destination for hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz migrants, has expressed concern at the unrest there.

Kyrgyz foreign minister Ruslan Kazakbayev and Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov held talks on Friday in the highest-level meeting between the two countries since Japarov became leader.

Japarov has not yet been endorsed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who this week referred to an “unfortunate…seizure of power”. Putin also noted that Russia had done “a lot” to keep Kyrgyzstan “standing” through investments and financial aid.

Former president Jeenbekov is the third leader to step down amid political chaos in the ex-Soviet country since independence in 1991.



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Protesters and vigilantes scuffle in Kyrgyz capital as political crisis festers



Demonstrators stand atop a vehicle during a protest against the results of a parliamentary election in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, October 6, 2020. REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov

October 7, 2020

(Reuters) – Anti-government protesters scuffled with vigilante groups in Kyrgyzstan’s capital of Bishek overnight, after authorities in the Central Asian nation annulled parliamentary election results, local news website 24.kg reported.

Opposition groups took control of most of the government apparatus on Tuesday after storming buildings during post-election protests, but President Sooronbai Jeenbekov clung to power as unrest risked tipping one of Russia’s close allies into chaos.

Late on Tuesday, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament agreed to nominate opposition politician Sadyr Zhaparov – freed from prison by protesters just hours earlier – for prime minister, but an angry mob then broke into the hotel where it convened, forcing Zhaparov to flee through a back door, according to Kyrgyz media.

Bishkek residents, who went through violent revolts followed by looting in 2005 and 2010, quickly formed vigilante neighbourhood watch units to reinforce police.

The vigilantes scuffled with protesters who tried to force their way into government buildings or attacked businesses such as shops and restaurants, according to the 24.kg report.

On Wednesday morning, news website Akipress quoted Bishkek police as saying that the situation in the city was calm.

Protests broke out on Monday after early results showed two establishment parties, one of them close to President Jeenbekov, had swept Sunday’s parliamentary election, in a contest that was marred by allegations of vote buying.

Authorities annulled the results on Tuesday, necessitating a rerun of the vote in the nation of 6.5 million which borders China and hosts a Russian military airbase and a large Canadian-owned gold mining operation.

Making a late night appearance on television, PM nominee Zhaparov said he would propose a constitutional reform before holding presidential and parliamentary elections in two to three months.

However, Zhaparov said he did not yet have the backing of the coordination council formed by several major opposition groups, suggesting there were tensions between the allies. It was unclear when parliament could convene to approve his appointment as prime minister.

(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)





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Kyrgyz Police Disperse Bishkek Post-Vote Protest With Stun Grenades


Riot police in Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek used water cannon, stun grenades and tear gas to disperse protesters at a rally against the results of a parliamentary vote late Monday. 

Dozens of demonstrators scaled gates guarding the house of government after thousands gathered to protest the results of Sunday’s vote that was marked by allegations of vote-buying and left two parties close to President Sooronbay Jeenbekov dominating the parliament.

Police repulsed the protesters’ attempt to storm the seat of government and pursued them, forcing them to scatter in different directions through the capital.

Eyewitnesses told an AFP correspondent that shop owners in the vicinity of the protest had begun removing goods from their stores in anticipation of possible looting.

Looting was a feature in two popular uprisings that overthrew authoritarian presidents in 2005 and 2010, but the former Soviet country has enjoyed relative stability for the last decade.

Dissatisfaction with corruption and the domination of politics by powerful clans has increased with the economic challenges of the coronavirus fallout. 

The protest led by losing parties that say they were muscled out of the legislature by the larger parties’ vote-buying campaigns saw calls for 61-year-old Jeenbekov to resign.

“Jeenbekov out, Jeenbekov out,” the crowd shouted.

The rally had previously been peaceful with popular artists from the Central Asian country singing and addressing the crowd. 

Singer Mirbek Atabekov was one of several popular artists to attend the protest that began in the early afternoon and continued as the night drew in. 

He told the crowd that “politicians put money above everything.”

“We came out against that,” he said, warning the crowd not to “rise to provocations.”  

Birimdik and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, two parties that favour deeper integration with Moscow, scooped a quarter of the vote each, according to the preliminary count.

Birimdik includes the president’s younger brother Asylbek Jeenbekov, while Mekenim Kyrgyzstan is seen by critics as a vehicle for the interests of a powerful clan. 



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