Challenges amid Kyrgyzstan’s return to presidential politics

Asia Politics World

Author: Matteo Fumagalli, University of St Andrews

Landslide victories in the Kyrgyz election and referendum held on 10 January 2021 give President-elect Sadyr Japarov a strong mandate to change the foundations of Kyrgyzstan’s constitutional order. The election was held after former president Sooronbay Jeenbekov was forced from power in the crisis following the rigged parliamentary elections on 4 October 2020.

People attend a rally to demand the resignation of President Sooronbai Jeenbekov in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 14 October, 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Vladimir Pirogov)

People attend a rally to demand the resignation of President Sooronbai Jeenbekov in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 14 October, 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Vladimir Pirogov)

Japarov received 79 per cent of votes, with runner-up Adakhan Madumarov receiving a mere 6.7 per cent. In the constitutional referendum, 81 per cent voted in favour of a presidential system over a parliamentary one.

Japarov’s victory was widely expected. But the scale was impressive and, for once, defies the facile north–south reading of Kyrgyzstani politics. Apart from tepid support in the capital Bishkek (52 per cent), Japarov did well everywhere, including his native Issyk-Kul region (93 per cent), Osh city (77 per cent), Osh region (82 per cent), Jalal-Abad (87 per cent) and in Madumarov’s stronghold Batken (74 per cent).

Japarov’s performance has to be put in context. Voter turnout was 39 per cent — far below the 55 per cent turnout of the 2017 presidential elections.

Kyrgyzstan has often been an outlier in Central Asia, home to a more open, pluralistic and competitive political environment, vocal media and a vibrant civil society. The constitution introduced in June 2010 — which is set to be substantially amended — produced a radical shift in the distribution of power between the legislative and executive branches of power, and within the executive.

Although the prime minister, the cabinet and the parliament’s position had been strengthened, the president, whose mandate was cut to a single six-year term, retained some important powers, such as the right to veto legislation and appoint the heads of ministerial state agencies. Legislation introduced in 2011 clarified that the president would steer the country’s foreign policy.

If confirmed, the constitutional changes in the 17 November 2020 draft will allow Japarov to further entrench his power and diminish the strength of other institutions like the parliament and the judiciary.

There are three key proposed changes. First, the head of the executive branch is to shift from the prime minister to the president. Second, a People’s Kurultay, or congress gathering, of 2500 people is set to meet annually in the capital Bishkek to propose policy to government, de facto introducing another informal and parallel vehicle for legislative initiative. Third, the single six-year mandate is replaced with the possibility of two five-year terms.

As announced by Japarov, a constitutional convention will revise the 2010 constitution and introduce these key changes. The changes would substantially rework the balance of power between the three branches of government.

Will this make a difference to Kyrgyzstan’s pluralism and political system? Yes and no.

The effects of different forms of government — whether a presidential–parliamentary system (as currently advocated) or the soon-to-be-replaced premier–presidential system — on Kyrgyzstan’s political trajectory are far from inconsequential. The openness of the political system, its institutions and the accountability of its leaders have been negatively affected by swings towards presidentialism. It is reasonable to expect them to suffer again.

The risks are all the more poignant in light of Japarov’s approach to politics, built on violence and — at best — a majoritarian understanding of democracy. At a news conference after the results were declared, he claimed that the ‘minority should submit to the majority’. This does not bode well for the country’s future.

Many of Kyrgyzstan’s challenges (corruption, organised crime, the unregulated politics–business nexus, and extensive patronage) predate Japarov’s rise and are likely to survive him too. But through its alternations and swings, the system has remained fragmented and presidential power is regularly contested — a testament to the resilience and resolution of Kyrgyzstani society.

Why did voters vote for Japarov?

He has a genuine appeal for certain segments of Kyrgyz society. He built solid anti-establishment credentials and a reputation as a ‘patriot’, boosted by his earlier efforts at nationalising the Kumtor gold mine. Japarov deployed a powerful multi-pronged election strategy, including an impressive social media campaign, intimidation of opponents, abuse of administrative resources and lavish spending. Local surveys reported a demand for political stability. There was fatigue with the messiness of parliamentarism and wide support for the clarity of a system centred around a strong presidency.

Japarov and his allies are now responsible for a country mired in a COVID-19-induced health and economic crisis. Both external partners and investors are spooked by Japarov’s power grab and his political biography.

In the near term, Japarov’s powerful position will be strengthened in the May parliamentary elections where his Mekenchil (Patriotic) party is expected to do well. If approved later this year, constitutional changes will further consolidate his power. Accountability of the president and the authority of the prime minister and parliament will be diminished.

A fragmented political system has survived strong presidential power before. Vested private interests will continue to undermine governance, regardless of the form of government.

Elite in-fighting and popular protests have become the modal form of leadership change in Kyrgyzstan. Japarov will have to deliver fast, or find out that the fate the Kyrgyzstani people reserved for his predecessors may turn out to be his own too. The economy is in dire straits and Japarov will seek to persuade China to grant some debt relief and possibly consider using natural resources to pay off part of that debt, as some of Japarov’s statements in recent months suggest. This will not be smooth sailing, given widespread Sinophobia among the public and China’s own concerns over the attacks on Chinese-owned businesses which have intensified of late, including during the October protests.

Matteo Fumagalli is a Senior Lecturer in the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews.