The Kyrgyz government has lost its constitution. No, not figuratively, but literally. While debating whether or not to hold a referendum that would amend the current constitution, they discovered that no one actually knew where the original version of the document is stored. The presidential administration had assumed that the original was held by the Justice Ministry, and the Justice Ministry had assumed that the original was held by the presidential administration. So the government of Kyrgyzstan seems to have found itself in a humorous situation. Yet the context in which this discovery was made—the debate over possible changes to the missing constitution—is by no means a laughing matter.
Yesterday, when it was realized that the constitution was missing, the Kyrgyz parliament voted to hold a referendum on December 11. The purpose of the referendum is to seek popular approval of proposed changes to the current constitution. These changes would weaken the office of the president and strengthen the office of the prime minister.
Kyrgyzstan is governed by a political system under which the president is the head of state and the prime minister is the head of government. In practice, this means that the president is already much weaker than in other central Asian states where the leader is free to exercise autocratic power. Unlike the autocratic political systems of its neighbors, the Kyrgyz political system was completely redesigned in 2010 with the objective of preventing the rise of an dictator.
The reason that Kyrgyzstan weakened its presidency in 2010 was that it had recently experienced months of ethnic violence following the ouster of its previous president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has seen little progress and has remained impoverished. In 2010, the people became disillusioned by what they perceived as the increasing authoritarianism and corruption of the Bakiyev administration. As the cries of the protesters grew louder, Bakiyev tendered his resignation and fled to Kazakhstan. His supporters in the southern Kyrgyzstan became infuriated. This infuriation was heightened when the new interim government appealed to the sizable Uzbek minority of southern Kyrgyzstan. As a result, the Kyrgyz and Uzbek inhabitants of the region turned against each other, resulting in catastrophic ethnic violence.
It was in this context—of violent ethnic instability—that the 2010 constitution was promulgated. Bakiyev had previously expanded his own powers in 2007, prompting accusations that he was turning towards authoritarianism. Thus in 2010, a constitution was drafted that would prevent the same thing from happening again. The 2010 constitution created a semi-presidential system under which the president was limited by the power of the parliament and prime minister. In 2011, Almazbek Atambayev was elected the president. Since then, the country has been free from the violence that brought it to the brink of civil war in 2010.
Why, then, after years of stability, is Kyrgyzstan again fiddling with its constitution? And why would it weaken an already weak office? Well, it turns out that the answer to the first question goes a long way in explaining the second. Next year, Kyrgyzstan will hold a presidential election. That is why the changes are being made now. Atambayev is not allowed to run for a second term, but he is allowed to become prime minister. As a result, his opponents assert that he is attempting to strengthen the powers of the prime minister so he can take up that role after he leaves the presidency.
The same trend has been seen in Russia and Turkey. When Vladimir Putin was barred from running for president in 2008, his closest political ally, Dmitry Medvedev, was elected president. This meant that, behind closed doors, it was Putin who continued to pull the strings as prime minister until he was eligible to run for president again. When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was prime minister, he was the most powerful politician in Turkey. When he was forced into the presidency, however, Turkey transitioned to a presidential system.
Thus Atambayev’s opponents accuse him of going in the same direction as the autocratic Presidents of Kyrgyzstan’s central Asian neighbors. Instead of becoming an autocratic president, however, they accuse him of trying to become an autocratic prime minister. Despite the fact that the prime-ministership was originally strengthened to weaken the pre-2010 presidency, a further weakened presidency would create a prime-ministership that approaches the power of the pre-2010 presidency. Atambayev, however, has denied that he will attempt to become prime minister.
In truth, the changes to the constitution will likely have little effect on Kyrgyzstan’s political culture. Why? Because the proposed changes are meant to facilitate the very same political jockeying that characterizes the current system of government. According the Freedom House, “political parties [in Kyrgyzstan] are primarily vehicles for a handful of strong personalities, rather than mass organizations with clear ideologies and political platforms.” Thus Kyrgyzstan’s political system is dominated by a group of individuals who are all vying for the top position. It is based on a mutual recognition that the power of the leader is limited in order to give everyone a chance to become the leader. Whether that leader is called the president or the prime minister is of little consequence to whoever reaches the top.
The reason that the distinction between president and prime minister matters lies with the parliament. The difference between a president and a prime minister is that a president is elected by the people while a prime minister is appointed by parliament. Thus the true function of the constitutional changes—and the reason why it is backed by a healthy majority of the parliament—is to take the power of choosing the leader out of the hands of the people and into the hands of the political elite. Since the semi-presidential system is designed to open the top spot to every ambitious politician, the political elites want to mitigate the risk of a violent political fight by bringing that fight out of the streets and into the chambers of parliament.
The post-2010 political system was not intended to save the people from a dictator; it was intended to save the political elite from a dictator. As a result, the changes are not likely to usher in an autocracy. They are, however, likely to facilitate the political elite’s game of thrones. Thus it’s no surprise that Kyrgyzstan’s parliament only discovered that its own constitution was missing when they tried to change it. Kyrgyz politicians are motivated and limited not by a constitution, but by their own ambitions and and the competing ambitions of their opponents. For that reason, they don’t really care about what’s written in the constitution until they see an opportunity to achieve their own political aims.