Amid intense opposition to a constitutional referendum, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has formally notified the Kyrgyz government that it will not dispatch an observer mission to monitor the vote. Meanwhile, Central Asian commentators are expressing concern about Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev’s ability to stabilize the country's domestic political situation.
Suleiman Imanbayev, the chairman of Kyrgyz Central Election Commission (CEC) told journalists on January 21 that the OSCE had declined Kyrgyzstan's monitoring request, citing a lack of time to prepare a monitoring mission. Originally scheduled for December 22, Akaev has postponed the referendum twice already, with the poll now slated for February 2. OSCE officials reportedly said they needed at least two months' advanced notice to organize a monitoring mission, but only received a formal request from Kyrgyz officials a month ago.
Also on January 21, the president's expert commission, charged with providing a legal review of the draft constitution, called for the withdrawal of a controversial amendment that would grant the president broad powers to veto legislation. The expert commission also revised a section concerning the judicial process, extending to all Kyrgyz citizens the right to appeal a judicial ruling to the country's constitutional court.
Akaev has portrayed the referendum as an effort to promote reconciliation in Kyrgyzstan, which was riven in 2002 by political and social discord. The draft constitution as it is now framed seeks to expand legislative power at the expense of the executive branch. For example, the draft would give parliament a larger role in the formation of governments. Another change would expand the authorities of local elected bodies. Among other notable provisions is a clause that would extend immunity from prosecution to presidents after they leave office. Also, the draft calls for a unicameral parliament.
Constitutional reform is aimed at "strengthening the democratic norms of the state and public life," Akaev said in a nationwide radio address January 18.
Most opposition leaders and non-governmental organization activists have opposed plans for a referendum virtually from the moment Akaev announced his desire last August to revamp the country's Basic Law. They assail Akaev, saying that the president is pushing for a constitutional overhaul in an undemocratic fashion. They cite the fact that the 17-member expert commission, formed by Akaev in early January, is packed with presidential allies.
A statement issued by opposition members of the Kyrgyz Constitutional Council, which was created last summer to oversee the revision process, said the draft prepared by the council bears little resemblance to the text that will be voted on in the referendum.
"With the help of a specially created expert group, which in fact replaced the Constitutional Council, the president has put a new edition of the text … up for referendum," said the statement, a full version of which was published by the AKI press web site on January 16. Saying the draft is designed to "enhance the absolute power of the president," the statement urges voters to reject the draft.
A separate opposition statement on January 16 asserted that Akaev, in submitting an entire draft constitution for popular consideration, is violating the terms established in his August 26, 2002 decree. That edict established a constitutional council to develop only "amendments and addenda, and not drawing up a new edition of the Basic Law." The statement concluded by urging yet another postponement of the referendum.
Government officials have dismissed opposition concerns about the process. On January 18, Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev called on local government leaders to take steps to prevent "illegal actions," such as boycotts, on referendum day.
Some regional analysts say the opposition has little faith in Akaev’s desire to implement constitutional reforms. Many opposition leaders believe Akaev may try to dissolve parliament following the vote. "The opposition thinks that these [constitutional] changes are purely cosmetic, and also believes that there is no guarantee that President Akaev will not stand in the [presidential] elections in 2005," said a commentary published by the newspaper Panorama in neighboring Kazakhstan. Current Kyrgyz law bars Akaev from seeking another presidential term.
The commentary suggested Akaev was seeking to "fill in the gaps in his own legitimacy" with the referendum, adding that the president's chances of realizing his aim were low. "The resistance by Kyrgyzstan's political class … makes such a prospect not very likely," the January 17 commentary said.
"There is almost no doubt that in the event that a referendum is held, Akaev will achieve the necessary results, since all referenda in the former Soviet Union have yielded success to the initiator so far," the commentary added. "But if the referendum is to be accompanied by tough polemics, then there will be virtually no chance that the political situation in the country will really stabilize after the referendum."
Eurasianet, January 22, 2003