Kyrgyz citizens will vote for a new President on 10 January 2021. Protests have caused the annulation of the parliamentary elections of 04 October 2020 which resulted in a series of high-ranked officials’ resignations and the third ouster of a President in the country’s recent history. Since then, the political landscape is changing quickly. Recent developments, including an initiated constitutional reform process, cast doubts on the future democratic path of Kyrgyzstan.
Parliamentary elections amidst the Covid-19 pandemic
On 4 October 2020, a new parliament (Jogorku Kenesh) was elected in Kyrgyzstan amidst the coronavirus pandemic. 16 parties competed for seats and four of them got elected. On election day, videos showing vote-buying circulated on social media. Protests started to unfold shortly after the official results had been declared, resulting in the resignation of the President of the parliament and the ouster of the recent President Sooronbai Jeenbekov.
Out of the four elected parties, three were associated with Jeenbekov: Birimdik (Unity Party) had the President’s brother, among other well-known politicians, running on its list. Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (My Homeland Kyrgyzstan) is linked to Raimbek Matraimov, a Kyrgyz politician and businessman, who is considered close to Jeenbekov and suspected of large-scale corruption. The third largest Kyrgyzstan party is also considered pro-governmental. Only Batun Kyrgyzstan (United Kyrgyzstan) is not linked to the ousted President. Out of the 120 seats in parliament, 46 seats were reached by Birimdik, 45 seats by Mekenim, 16 seats by Kyrgyzstan party and 13 seats by Batun Kyrgyzstan, leaving out any major opposition party from parliament and, consequently, providing the President with a strong majority.
The Parliament of Kyrgyzstan is elected in a single nation-wide constituency every five years. Since the 2010 constitutional reform process following the ouster of President Bakiev, Kyrgyzstan has experienced a transition process from a presidential to a semi-parliamentary system. Kyrgyzstan is considered as partly free by Freedom House. Kyrgyz elections are generally highly competitive, yet not free and fair. In this regard, the most controversial points are, inter alia, the 7 percent barrier for parties to enter parliament and the voting Form No 2. The threshold for parties to enter parliament was amended several times over the last years, from 5 percent in 2007, to 9 percent in 2017 and lowered back again to 7 percent before the parliamentary elections in 2020.
The threshold prevented at least two parties from being elected at the most recent parliamentary elections. With a 5 percent threshold, the parties Mekenchil (Patriotic) and Respublika, two opposition parties, would still have been admitted to parliament. Already before the elections, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and smaller political parties expressed concerns that well-established and resourced parties will institutionalize vote-buying through the abuse of Form No. 2, a form that allows voters to temporarily change their voting address and register at another polling station before the election day. Indeed, around 441,000 voters made use of Form No. 2 at the 2020 parliamentary elections.
Postponing elections and initiating a constitutional reform process
After the election, results indicated that only pro-governmental parties will enter parliament and none of the established opposition parties would pass the 7 percent threshold. Protests started immediately. One day after the elections, on 5 October, all of the 12 opposition parties declared that they would not accept the election results and accused the pro-governmental parties of vote-buying and intimidation. On the same evening, protesters broke into the parliament building and demanded new elections. During the tumults, protesters also freed two well-known politicians from prison, former President Atambayev and Sadyr Japarov, a lawyer, politician and former leader of the nationalist Meckenchil party which is one of the opposition parties that did not pass the 7 percent threshold.
Atambayev was returned to prison a few days after. However, Sadyr Japarov, who was actually sentenced for kidnapping of a political rival, made a fast-track high level political carrier: On 6 October, the Central Election Commission (CEC) declared the elections to be annulled. After the resignation of Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov together with several cabinet members and other officials, Japarov got elected as new Prime Minister in a highly disputed election session with only a small fraction of the remaining parliament being present. When Jeenbekov resigned as President on 15 October, Japarov managed to position himself as acting President as well. This is a novum in the history of Kyrgyzstan. For the first time, one man holds the power over the parliament and is acting President and Prime Minister at the same time.
Shortly after taking office as Prime Minister, the newly appointed government under Japarov started an anti-corruption campaign, which included the detention of the business man Raimbek Matraimov, among others. However, several critics consider these actions to be rather an instrument for distraction amidst recent political developments as Matraimov was shortly released again after paying a bail and put under house arrest. Initially, parliamentary elections should be rescheduled for no later than 20 December 2020 (within two months), however, elections are now suspended to June 2021. At the same time, the acting President declared his intention to run for the then scheduled presidential elections in January 2021. The constitution limits the term of presidency to one time only and does not foresee a current President to run for office again. To be able to run as presidential candidate, Japarov signed some legal changes in order to postpone parliamentary elections. At the same time, he initiated a constitutional reform process in order to implement substantial amendments to the political system of Kyrgyzstan to be in place before the next parliamentary elections. This process differs significantly from the previous major constitutional reform process in 2010 when a referendum was held for the new constitution and the acting President resigned before the renewed parliamentary elections.
The current draft addition to the constitution with more than 60 amendments propose to re-establish a presidential system. The power of the parliament would be significantly limited, its seats reduced and the President would be able to supervise the government, while presidential powers would be widened and a new executive body, the People’s Kurultai (congress), would be established. Both, parliament and the government, would need to report to the congress. When, how and by whom those amendments were written remains nebulous. Several oppositions members and CSOs criticize the amendments for installing an authoritarian presidential system. Afterwards, they reported to having received threats for their critique. However, and despite their protests, the parliament already approved the proposed legal amendments in a first reading.
The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan called the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission for a legal assessment of Japarov’s recent actions. Their assessment concludes that suspending the elections to an unnecessary lengthy-time period and introducing amendments to the constitution during this period certainly lacks democratic justification. It is particularly controversial and indeed overstretches parliaments‘ functions to approve extraordinary decisions during a prorogation period. Furthermore, the draft constitution is not put for public scrutiny before the presidential elections in January 2021.
What’s at stake in the January 2021 presidential elections?
Kyrgyzstan is currently left in a political vacuum and a legal limbo – with renewed elections forthcoming of both the parliament and the President. On 10 January 2021, the President will be elected together with the voting on the proposed amendments to the constitution. Until now, no public debate and consultation on these amendments were initiated. One can doubt that this is about to change in the coming weeks with a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic rolling in.
Traditionally, incumbents have better chances to win the race. Japarov, who is now considered official presidential candidate, is disputed in the country. However, even though Kyrgyz law prohibits acting Presidents to run again for office, the Central Election Commission confirmed his candidacy. The protests and the subsequent resignations of some of the political elite have thrown the country into a political crisis. People took to the streets protesting against electoral fraud, corruption and misrepresentation in the newly elected parliament. The way in which the upcoming elections are scheduled and the constitutional reform process is pushed forward certainly lacks democratic foundation, and with its current design waters down the established Kyrgyz check-and-balance system. In any case, if upcoming elections will be held based on these recent legal amendments, Western observers and institutions should question its legitimacy in general.