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Kyrgyzstan power play culminates in Sunday constitution vote

President Japarov poised to gain virtually total control in 'huge shift'

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov takes part in his inauguration ceremony in Bishkek in January. Just a few months earlier, he was in a jail cell.   © Reuters

BISKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- Kyrgyzstan heads to the polls on Sunday for a constitutional referendum, the final act in a power play that has elevated former prisoner Sadyr Japarov to president.

The referendum on changes to the charter is expected to pass easily, bookending a dramatic six months for the impoverished Central Asian nation that began last October with protests over a rigged parliamentary election.

It was during the unrest that Japarov was sprung from his prison cell, where he was serving a 10-year sentence on kidnapping charges. Within days the sitting president, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, was forced out and Japarov was at the helm.

The populist Japarov went on to win 80% of the vote in January's presidential election, albeit on a low turnout of under 40%. Now he is consolidating his control with a revised constitution that will concentrate total power in the hands of the president, returning the former Soviet republic to strongman rule amid widespread disenchantment with the political class and its decade-long experiment with a parliamentary system.

"I'm for presidential rule. How many years has parliament been failing? Perhaps there will finally be some changes," Ainura, a homemaker in her 50s who was enjoying the spring sunshine with her daughter and grandchild in a park in the center of the capital Bishkek, told Nikkei Asia. "We hope for that -- hope dies last, as they say."

Ainura went to explain what she would like to see from Japarov. "We hope this person will change something, put things right, so that life becomes a little better -- even if he does 50% of what he promises that would be good."

Not everyone is happy with the proposed changes. Observers and rights groups have criticized the constitutional reform for the sweeping powers it will give the president at the expense of parliament.

Human Rights Watch expressed concerns in a March 5 news release about the blurring of the lines between the different branches of government. "Provisions in the draft constitution regarding the role of the executive and of the legislature erode the constitution's current system of checks and balance," HRW said.

Bishkek-based political commentator Azim Azimov expressed similar sentiments.

"There's going to be a huge shift, not only from the parliamentary democracy form of rule, but also from any sort of separation of power," Azimov told Nikkei.

"It means that all the power, obviously, is going to be concentrated in the hands of the president, Sadyr Japarov," he said. "But besides that I think that this whole thing will result in shifting toward a more authoritarian type of rule in our country."

A woman waves the Kyrgyz national flag as Japarov supporters rally in Bishkek back in October.   © Reuters

The new constitution will overturn one adopted in 2010 that strengthened the powers of parliament. Kyrgyzstan is the only country, in a region dominated by authoritarian rulers, to have experimented with this system of governance.

The proposed constitution has been dubbed by some critics as a "khanstitution" -- a play on the idea that the plan would grant the president the free rein enjoyed by the Central Asian khans of yesteryear.

Under the new document, the president will be able to introduce laws and referendums, formerly the preserve of parliament, while maintaining veto power over proposed legislation. The president will also have the power to appoint and dismiss cabinet members, judges, the prosecutor general and other key positions in the state apparatus.

The number of lawmakers in parliament will be reduced from 120 to 90 and many of its powers will be ceded to a Kuraltai -- an unelected people's council with appointed delegates.

Despite widespread objections from civil society groups over the lack of public consultation, the vague nature of some articles in the document, and the speed of the process, the government pushed the bill for the changes through parliament in March, paving the way for the upcoming referendum.

One obstacle remains to final approval of the vote -- turnout. It must exceed 30% for the outcome to be considered valid.

"All the polls and surveys have indicated that generally the majority of Kyrgyz citizens are more inclined toward having the presidential rule rather than the parliamentary rule so the only thing that may fail this upcoming referendum is turnout," Azimov told Nikkei.

Given the traumatic political landscape of the past six months in Kyrgyzstan, Azimov is not surprised that people are feeling "emotional burnout," which has led to a decrease in political engagement. But while this may keep some voters at home, hoping for a low turnout to scupper the changes could be a long shot.

A recent opinion poll conducted for the International Republican Institute in Kyrgyzstan found 70% of respondents approving of the direction that the country was heading, up from 41% last August.

If the authorities can turn this approval into votes on Sunday, then the radical changes to Kyrgyzstan's constitutional order should pass comfortably.

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