Voters in Kyrgyzstan opted to increase presidential powers in a referendum conducted Sunday in parallel with the snap presidential election that saw the victory of populist politician Sadyr Japarov.
Preliminary results published by the Central Election Commission revealed Japarov to be leading with almost 80 percent of the vote, and his closest competitor Adakhan Madumarov significantly trailing with only 7 percent of the vote.
As recently as October, Japarov was serving an 11-year prison sentence for kidnapping a provincial governor during a political protest in 2013. However, when former President Jeenbekov was accused of having orchestrated vote-buying campaigns, violent protests erupted that forced him to resign. Japarov’s supporters released him from jail and Jeenbekov agreed to his appointment as prime minister and acting president following a parliamentary election.
Kyrgyzstan, a nation that often experiences political volatility, has seen a mixed political system since 2010. Since 2005, it has experienced three extended periods of political unrest, leading to more than three presidents being forcefully ejected from office. However, the referendum conducted in parallel with the presidential election demonstrated that Kyrgyz citizens were in favor of increased presidential power at the expense of the current parliament. Therefore, when a new constitution is passed—as expected later this year—Japarov will be granted unprecedented political powers.
The new constitution, which was first unveiled in November, has raised significant concerns from Japarov’s critics that it will force Kyrgyzstan towards authoritarianism. The new constitution dramatically reduces the power and size of parliament, thus centralizing the nation’s political power with the president. Many critics believe that a parliamentary system is the only way to maintain civil and political balance within the nation. However, since a 2010 referendum favoring a mixed political system, including a president and prime minister, Kyrgyzstan has seen more than 10 prime ministers. This volatility in leadership has meant that, rather than being accountable to parliament, the prime ministerial role has served as a second-in-command to the presidency, such that the president still has a significant role in policymaking. Sunday’s referendum has reflected this volatility. Without a clear understanding of who represents them in parliament, and a constant turnover of political leaders, Kyrgyz citizens expressed their desire to see one tangible political figure hold consolidated accountability for the nation’s successes and failures. Through granting Japarov increased presidential powers with the new constitution, Kyrgyz citizens want to know who is in charge, hoping to rectify years of political unrest, uncertainty and frustration.
However, the increased presidential powers granted by the new constitution have raised concerns. Ambiguity in the constitution’s language and changes to the length of presidential terms, amongst other changes, have raised concerns about the legitimacy of the new constitution and its potential to be manipulated. The increased presidential power, coupled with Japarov’s rapid rise to political power, have attracted significant criticism towards the competency and intentions of Japarov’s presidential office, with critics fearing the potential for authoritarian rule.
Despite concerns raised by Japarov’s critics, he assured voters in his victory speech that his government will be ruled openly and without corruption. Parliamentary elections are also expected to be held later this year.