Kyrgyzstan’s flawed referendum

The political atmosphere that surrounded the constitutional referendum in Kyrgyzstan shows that the country’s crisis is not over, says Sureyya Yigit in Bishkek
Sureyya Yigit
2 July 2010

The result of the Kyrgyz constitutional referendum on 27 June 2010 was never in doubt. After all, the outcome of every election in independent Kyrgyzstan has been known before the votes were counted. So it was no surprise that on the very evening of the vote, the authorities declared an overwhelming endorsement both of the proposed constitution (with its move from a presidential-style to a parliamentary republic) and of the interim leadership which had come to power in the uprising of 6-7 April 2010. The nation that lifted the new leaders to power now, it was said, had chosen to legitimise them. 

The faults or merits of the new constitution aside, what can be said is that the nightmarish violence that had scarred the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad the previous week did not prevent the referendum process from being conducted peacefully (but fairly? see below). As the sleepy schools in the leafy streets of Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek welcomed leisurely voters under a hot sun, the tragedy of murder and ethnic cleansing seemed far distant. But beyond such surface realities, the referendum was surrounded by at least five serious defects.

The process

First, a constitutional moment requires the government of the day to respect neutrality, and to seek inclusiveness and fairness in the process. This requires fair and independent coverage by the media (especially the public media), advertising and campaign funding, and the right to demonstrate and protest. In practice, very little of this applied in the Kyrgyz referendum: the balance of advantage - political, financial, media - was all on the side of supporters of the new constitution. There was, for example, no balanced campaign material made available to electors on both sides of the argument. This was especially the case in the south of the country. A one-sided campaign all but guaranteed the outcome.

Second, there were doubts over the voting and counting procedure. Polling stations did not include representatives of both supporters and opponents of the new constitution, and international observers had a very limited presence; the OSCE withdrew 300 short-term observers before the vote. Kyrgyz state television broadcast scenes of mobile ballot-boxes being taken to private homes on referendum night. This irregular action should have been allowed only under very strict conditions that avoided all risk of fraud. The counting was not transparent. It was all too reminiscent of the Stalin-era dictum that it is not important who voted and how they voted, but rather who counted and how they counted.

Third, there were also flaws in the civic atmosphere and administration of the campaign. The vital freedoms of expression, media, assembly, association and movement were in various ways restricted; and there was no truly impartial body in charge of organising the referendum, from the national level down to the polling-station level.

Fourth, the Jogorku Kenesh (parliament) was unable to give a non-binding opinion on the referendum text, for it had been shut down after the unrest in April. The interim government’s decision to hold the constitutional referendum made parliament’s opinion all the more relevant, yet it was unheard.

Fifth, the referendum should not have called on electors to answer several questions simultaneously. Many, after all, could have been in favour of one proposition and against another; for example, for a new constitution but preferring Temir Sariev or Azimbek Beknazarov instead of Roza Otunbayeva as president.

The judgment

A few hours after the polling-booths closed, the head of the interim government Roza Otunbayeva signed a decree extending the state of emergency in the country’s south until 10 August. The conditions include a 10pm-5am curfew in the whole of the Jalalabad oblast, in the city of Osh, and in the Uzgen, Karasuu, and Aravan regions of Osh oblast. Otunbayeva also expressed gratitude to all international observers from the Commonwealth of Independent states (CIS) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), those regional bastions - but hardly of freedom and democracy.

All these circumstances reveal the absence of participatory democracy, the rule of law and the national interest surrounding the referendum. They point to two conclusions. First, the referendum should not have been held at this time. Second, the country’s crisis is not over. Kyrgyz summers are usually very hot; this year will by far be the hottest yet.

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