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Kyrgyzstan Review, 10 years ago

[06.02.2OO3] Kyrgyz President Scores Landslide Victory in Referendum

In a nationwide referendum on 2 February, voters in Kyrgyzstan approved a package of constitutional reforms by a large margin, according to official results. The most important of the reforms are the abolition of the current two-chamber legislature and the creation of a unicameral one, the abolition of party-list voting for parliamentary deputies, and immunity from prosecution for former presidents and their families. The electorate also confirmed that President Askar Akaev should remain in office until his term expires in December 2005 in order to preside over the implementation of the constitutional amendments, which are generally expected to bolster the president's power at the parliament's expense.
Meanwhile oppositionists accused the authorities of falsifying the outcome of the referendum. They alleged vote fraud on a huge scale, and said they would soon be issuing an independent report exposing the government's cheating. Thus, ironically, an exercise that was originally conceived as a way to improve relations between the president and his opponents - Akaev promised constitutional amendments last summer in order to staunch a political crisis following the March 2002 riots in Aksy Raion - has left the two sides as divided and distrustful as ever.
Central Election Commission (CEC) Chairman Sulayman Imanbaev announced on 3 February that 75.5 percent of voters said "yes" to the proposed changes to the constitution, and 78.7 said "yes" to Akaev serving out his term in office. Although it was widely anticipated that both motions would pass, few observers had foreseen that the government would achieve such a landslide victory.
Akaev's opponents did not believe that it had. Whereas the CEC maintained that over 86 percent of the 2.5 million eligible voters participated in the referendum, the opposition Public Headquarters for Monitoring the Referendum said that only about 40 percent of the electorate participated nationwide. Since a minimum of 50 percent turnout was necessary to legitimize the referendum, the opposition said the results were invalid. It also held that the government's figures from around the country had been greatly exaggerated - that is to say, faked. For example, whereas the CEC reported 57 percent turnout in the capital Bishkek, the opposition estimated that no more than 30 percent had voted. In Aksy Raion, where feelings against the president are strongest, the CEC acknowledged the turnout was the lowest in the country at only 31.2 percent. But the opposition reported that no more than 20 percent of Aksy voters cast ballots. Meanwhile the Aksy authorities assured journalists that fully 60 percent of voters in the region had taken part in the referendum. Faced with such divergent accounts of voter participation, many analysts have been left believing none of them and suspect that the truth lies somewhere between the government's high figures and the opposition's low ones. Whether the turnout nationwide really exceeded the crucial 50 percent mark, however, we shall probably never know.
Presidential administration officials said that no incidents marred the voting. The authorities hailed the referendum results and said they would set Kyrgyzstan on a new, stable course. In Akaev's words, reported by Kyrgyz TV on 2 February after he cast his ballot in Bishkek, "The new version of the constitution will create an excellent opportunity for our political system to develop in a stable way, and for improving harmony and cooperation between the branches of power."
But opposition representatives alleged widespread irregularities, fraud, and government interventions that rendered the referendum neither free nor fair. A statement distributed by the anti-Akaev Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights (KCHR) said that students at the State National University were threatened with expulsion unless they voted "yes" in the referendum and cast multiple votes in different districts. KCHR also alleged that police bussed the same people to different polling stations where they voted repeatedly, and added that most voters cast ballots without being registered. Furthermore, election officials supposedly carried ballot boxes door-to-door to boost turnout totals - an old Soviet trick - although Kyrgyz law forbids citizens to vote from home without a written medical excuse.
In Bishkek on 1 February, police arrested people handing out leaflets urging voters to boycott the referendum. (CEC head Imanbaev had announced on Kyrgyz TV on 24 January that anyone trying to stop the referendum going ahead would face up to three years in prison.) Yet pro-government activists were distributing their own flyers on 2 February, although the CEC had warned that electioneering on the day of the referendum was illegal, KCHR said. Moreover, pro-Akaev activists were allegedly engaged in vote buying. But then again, Akaev seems to have done some vote buying of his own. That at least would be the cynical interpretation of a presidential decree, signed on 31 January, raising pensions by 20 percent as of the beginning of April.
The authorities also appear to have harassed and hampered self-appointed election observers. The head of the Public Headquarters for Monitoring the Referendum, Omurbek Tekebaev, who is also Socialist Ata-Meken (Motherland) Party chairman, and two companions were taken into custody late on 2 February while observing the voting in Bishkek after the police told them that the car they were using had been used in a kidnapping. The three men were released four hours later, by which time they had missed the most crucial referendum procedures. The alleged kidnappers, it transpired, were themselves: Tekebaev and his colleagues are presently under investigation for supposedly kidnapping a man on the day of the referendum and forcing him to give written testimony about violations during the vote. Opposition spokesmen denied that anything of the sort happened and called the police's actions politically motivated.
Another referendum observer on 2 February, Januzak Abdrasulov from the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, was beaten up by unidentified assailants after a monitoring mission in the outskirts of Bishkek. Opposition representatives also complained they were barred from observing voting in southern Jalal-Abad Oblast on the grounds they lacked proper permits. An observer from the International Foundation of Election Systems, Chedomir Flego, told AP on 3 February, "This was not a referendum that you could say conforms to international standards."
The Public Headquarters for Monitoring the Referendum has said it would publish its report on the referendum on 6 February. Although opposition forces are powerless to force Akaev to overturn the referendum's results, they can try to discredit it to the point where it discredits Akaev himself, making it harder for the president to exercise the expanded powers the constitutional amendments are supposed to give him. The odds are against the opposition, though, given that Akaev has already emerged relatively unscathed from one highly flawed referendum to confirm his powers in 1994 and a rigged presidential election in 2000.
How, then, is Akaev likely to use his new mandate? Local experts predict his first move will be to neutralize his political enemies by dissolving the present bicameral parliament and manipulating the creation of a new unicameral legislature to pack it with his supporters. Officials dismiss this scenario as nonsense. Akaev himself has pledged that the planned reform will not take effect until 2005, when the current parliamentary term ends. Opposition politicians do not believe that he will keep that promise, however - and they point to the fact that a number of pro-government deputies, presumed to be privy to information from the top, are already quietly sending around their resumes to other organizations.

Eurasianet, February 6, 2003

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