Category Archives: Central Asia

Jessica Fortin-Rittberger – Strong Presidents for Weak Post-communist States

This is a guest post by Jessica Fortin-Rittberger, Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Salzburg. It is based on a chapter entitled  “Strong Presidents for Weak States. How Weak State Capacity fosters Vertically Concentrated Executives” in Philipp Harfst, Ina Kubbe, Thomas Poguntke (eds.) Parties, Governments and Elites: The Comparative Study of Democracy, Springer series in comparative politics.

The link between institutions and democratic survival is at the heart of a vibrant scholarly exchange, debating the virtues and perils of parliamentary and presidential systems. Presidentialism in Latin America, but also in former Soviet republics, correlates strongly with authoritarianism. But what if this correlation is an artefact? What if it is rooted in a constellation of conditions that predate the choice of institutions? In other words, are presidential institutions shallow causes of democratic consolidation? In a newly published paper, I argue that the conditions under which different types of executives are chosen following regime transitions are indeed a key to the puzzle. I propose an explanation that suggests that the intrinsic features of presidential systems are less relevant than the conditions that facilitate the installation of vertically-concentrated executive power.

I focus on a specific form of context: infrastructural state capacity understood as “the institutional capacity of a central state, despotic or not, to penetrate its territories and logistically implement decisions” (Mann 1993: 59). Many of the new states that were born after the 18th century, and especially after World War II, were not consolidated and suffered from limited infrastructural capacity. Interestingly, many of these new states also emerged with vertically-concentrated presidential arrangements: I do not think this is a coincidence. In situations where infrastructural state capacity is most deficient, the vertical concentration of executive power in the hands of a few players becomes more likely.

To look into this relationship, I examined 26 post-communist countries over the period between 1989 and 2009. This set of countries is an ideal testing ground to probe this relationship, since the environment of state capacity is temporally prior to the selection of institutions. Most new constitutions were established in a time period ranging from a few months (Hungary) to up to five years (Ukraine) after the collapse of communism. To capture the level of power concentration in the hands of the executive, I employed two indicators. Table 1 presents the scores of both indicators in the year of the first post-communist constitution. The first encapsulates the formal level of power concentration from Frye, Hellman and Tucker’s Data Base on Political Institutions in the Post-Communist World (2000). In this measurement, powers of popularly elected presidents are scored from (1) to (21), where (1) represents the weakest presidents in terms of constitutional provisions, and (21) the presidents endowed with the most prerogatives. The second indicator taps into informal practices. I used the item called “constraints on chief executive” from the Polity IV dataset (Marshall and Jaggers, 2012). This measures the operational (de facto) independence of the chief executive in relations to other players. The categories range from (1) where the chief executive has unlimited authority, through (7) where the chief executive is at parity or subordination to other institutional players (legislative assembly, prime minister, constitutional court). Harnessing both formal and informal aspects of executive power allows me to grasp the phenomenon of power concentration in an encompassing fashion.

The analyses provide unambiguous support for my core argument that state capacity is crucial to establish executive dominance over other institutional players. State capacity at the onset of independence (or transition) helps to explain the level of executive power concentration in the newly designed constitutions. This means that in environments with weak infrastructural state capacity it is easier for politicians aiming to secure state power or to access to the state’s power resources to push for the adoption of strong, vertical forms of executive power. Once in place, these power structures have proven quite durable, although some countries have recently enacted reforms to curb executive power, at least on paper. This also helps explain why the record of presidentialism has been so dire in the region; it is not the institution of a president per se that is harmful to democracy, rather the extent to which power is concentrated.

Even though I find these strong relationships in my research, there are some important caveats. Many of these institutional setups are static over time, hence my models face difficulties to explain recent occurrences of executive power concentration that were accompanied with democratic backsliding. Turkey is a case in point, where we can observe the demise of a democracy in a brazen power grab at the hands of a leader seeking to establish a presidential vertical. Yet, the state was not weak at that point. Hungary is another example, with the authoritarian tendencies of its government, and Prime Minister, to curtail political rights and freedoms, as well as dilute institutional checks and balances. Hungary is particularly problematic for my argument, since it should have been a least likely candidate for such a reversal.

A strong state is therefore no guarantee against executives engaging in power grabs; a weak state simply makes it easier.

Works cited:

Frye, T., Hellmann, J. S. & Tucker, J. 2000. Data Base on Political Institutions in the Post-Communist World, unpublished, Columbia University.

Mann, M. 1993. The Sources of Social Power, Vol. 2: The Rise of Classes and Nation States, 1760-1914, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Marshall, M. G. & Jaggers, K. 2012. Polity IV Project: Political Regime Characteristics and Transitions, 1800-2012. The Polity IV dataset

Petra Stykow – Turkmenistan: The 2016 Constitutional Reform

This is a guest post by Prof. Dr. Petra Stykow of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany

During the last couple of years, presidents of authoritarian regimes in Central Asia and the Caucasus have been busily engaged in constitutional reforms. Praised as major steps toward the “perfection” and “further democratization” of the political system, such reforms are mostly cosmetic. However, most of the time, from behind the mixture of minimally re-edited phrases and copy-pasted international standards of civic and human rights some important details peer out. Typically, they legalize the president’s stay in office beyond term limits or regulate questions of a looming succession in power. This also holds for the 2016 reform of the Constitution of the Republic of Turkmenistan, one of the most closed countries in the world.

Turkmenistan’s first constitution was embraced in May 1992, being the first new basic law across the territory of the former Soviet Union. It created a system of government that has been qualified as “presidential” in the literature, but was of a very special kind. It perfectly matched the preferences of President Saparmurat Niyazov who had led the Turkmen Soviet Republic as the First Secretary of the Communist Party since 1985. The head of state and chief executive and the Mejlis as “a legislative organ” were but constituent parts of an “ultimate representative organ of popular government,” the “People’s Assembly” (Halk Maslahaty). In addition to the president and the cabinet ministers, the members of the assembly and the top office holders of the court system, this Assembly included representatives of local assemblies and heads of administrative units, and—after 2003—also the leadership of political and social organizations, eventually reaching the impressive number of 2507 persons. It was the Assembly that “convinced” the Turkmenbashi (“Leader of all Turkmens”) in 1999 to accept the presidency for the rest of his life, approved his proposals about laws, such as seven-generations-background checks for aspirants of the public service or the renaming of all days of the week and months of the year[1], lauded the president’s achievements, awarded him medals, etc.[2]

Niyazov suddenly passed away in 2006. A few days later, the People’s Assembly stripped the parliamentary speaker—who was to replace the president according to the constitution—of his immunity (making his arrest possible) and abolished the ban on an acting president to run for the presidency. This cleared the way for Health Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. In 2008, he launched a new constitution, abolishing the People’s Assembly and consolidating the presidency as the lynchpin of the political system. While the president has extensive nonlegislative and legislative powers, making him one of the strongest presidents worldwide,[3] the Mejlis, in turn, is one of the weakest assemblies in the world, barely fulfilling the role of a rubber stamp to the president’s will. A peculiar feature of all editions of the Constitution consists of the lack of an impeachment procedure. Instead, “in case of violation of the Constitution and laws,” the Mejlis may express “no-confidence” in the president by a vote of “at least three-fourth” of the 125 deputies. In this case, a national referendum ultimately decides on whether the president has to quit.

A constitutional amendment to the 2008 Constitution was drafted by a president-led Constitutional commission since May 2014 and subjected to public discussion in March 2016. On 14 September 2016, the reform was unanimously adopted by the advisory Council of Elders and the legislature. After the president’s immediate signature, the Amendment entered into force the same day.[4] It addressed a total of 107 articles, of which 24 were newly added and four extensively revised. Further, a section was introduced that codifies “Economy and Financial System,” based on the “principles of market relations.”

Most changes result from a minor editing of the text. In addition, there are some subtle, rather symbolic amendments. For example, the principle of neutrality in foreign affairs, which is the cornerstone of the country’s foreign policy since 1992, is now enshrined in a separate article (art. 2), after having been pooled with the principles of democracy, legalism and secularism (art. 1) in the previous version. Other amendments are influenced by consultations with the UN, the OSCE, the German aid society GIZ, or have been suggested during the public debate on the Draft Constitution, so at least officials have claimed. Thus, a number of human rights provisions have been adopted. The president became the guarantor of “rights and freedoms of people and citizens” and was granted the right to nominate a candidate for the soon-to-be-established post of a Commissioner for Human Rights.

The ODIHR/OSCE Comments on the 2016 Draft Amendment consists of a long list of recommendations for the adjustment of provisions that do not meet international standards.[5] Sometimes, the final document seems to respond, but this does not necessarily solve the issue in question. A telling example is a clause that can be found in the 1992 and 2008 constitutions as well as in the 2016 Draft. In full agreement with the traditional Soviet understanding, it is stated that “the exercise of rights and freedoms shall be inseparable from the performance by a person and a citizen of their responsibilities toward the society and the state.” In the final version of the 2016 Amendment, this sentence has been eliminated. However, what remains is Article 30 claiming that “the exercise of rights and freedoms must not violate the rights and freedoms of others, as well as the requirements of morality, law, public order, or cause damage to national security.” This preserves wide scope for interpretation.

Other OSCE suggestions about issues such as institutional mechanisms ensuring separation of powers or counter-balancing “the quite extensive presidential powers” have been ignored by the regime—which is no wonder, if we assume that even dictators tend to use constitutions as “operating manuals” for the daily functioning of the regime. An example is the regulation of political pluralism. The 2016 revision of the Constitution introduces an explicit commitment to “political diversity and party-based pluralism,” obliging the state to ensure an “enabling environment for the development of the civil society.” This is mostly “cheap talk,” but it also fits Berdymukhammedov’s engagement in controlled party- and NGO-building, a strategy he shares with much of his colleagues in Eurasia. However, the Constitution restricts the right to form political parties, banning not only violent organizations but also parties “encroaching on the health and morality of the people” and “parties with ethnic or religious attributes.” This clause has neither been welcomed by the OSCE in 2008 nor in 2016 but remains unchanged since 1992.

The huge cosmetic part of the 2016 Reform almost conceals the single most important change. It consists of a small omission concerning presidential tenure in office. While the Turkmenbashi had scrapped the typical post-Soviet re-election restriction—“nobody shall be elected for more than two consecutive terms”—as early as 1999, Berdymukhammedov has now removed the last hurdle to lifetime presidency. Aged 60, he foresightedly lengthened the presidential term from five to seven years and removed the age-70 cap for candidates.

The 2016 reform also tinkers with provisions regulating the question of succession in power. As a measure of precaution against the premature removal by a rival, all versions of the Turkmenistani Constitution prohibit an interim president from running for office. Since 2008, this interim president had to be chosen by the Security Council from the no less than ten deputy chairmen of the cabinet. Now, it is—as it was from 1992 to 2007—the speaker of the Mejlis who temporarily stands in for an ill or dead incumbent. Thus, it seems as if a deputy chairman, even if he competes with nine colleagues, is considered to be more dangerous for a sitting president than the speaker of a toothless assembly. After all, a deputy chairman is responsible for a certain policy, such as Economy and Finance, or Oil and Gas. This grants him access to important resources on which to build power against the incumbent.

Against this background, the newest proposal of the President is worth attention. In his inauguration address on 17 February 2017, Berdymukhammedov who had won his third election against eight government-nominated “competitors” by 97.7 percent of the votes announced a new reform. The Council of Elders, which is not mentioned in the Constitution and consists of 600 people who are not elected but selected, is planned to be granted a status above that of parliament.[6] It shall be entitled to approve the decisions of the assembly and the cabinet before they enter into force.[7] This idea revokes the “People’s Assembly” in the 1992 Constitution. Its realization would deprive the Mejlis of their rubber stamp and further downsize the position of the assembly’s speaker.

Notes

The full text of the 2016 revision of the Constitution of Turkmenistan can be found here: http://www.legislationline.org/documents/section/constitutions/country/51

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renaming_of_Turkmen_months_and_days_of_week,_2002

[2] https://www.rferl.org/a/turkmenistan-council-elders-berdymukhammedov-parliament/28322910.html

[3] http://presidential-power.com/?page_id=2151

[4] http://www.turkmenistan.ru/en/articles/18145.html

[5] OSCE/ODIHR (2016):  Comments on the Draft Constitution of Turkmenistan, Comments-Nr.: CONST-TKM/288/2016, 21.7.2016

[6] https://www.rferl.org/a/turkmenistan-council-elders-berdymukhammedov-parliament/28322910.html

[7] https://rus.azathabar.com/a/28320695.html

Dmitriy Nurumov – Super-Presidentialism, Revised Edition: Kazakhstan’s Constitutional Amendments

This is a guest post by Dmitriy Nurumov

On 20 March 2016, the day of parliamentary elections, President Nazarbayev, answering a question from a journalist regarding possible changes to the Constitution, stated: “Changes should be made. The Presidential system of governance exists in Kazakhstan. We can only talk about re-distribution of power between the branches – President, Parliament and the Government. We are thinking in this direction.”  Signals that changes were being mooted had also come earlier, in 2015, both before and after the early presidential election. At that time the potential of the Constitution to absorb some changes was hinted at by high-ranking officials, in order to move to “the next stage of development of the political system”. These hints suggested the Parliament and the Government shouldering more responsibility along with the dominant figure of the President, who continues to retain an unqualified right to dissolve the Parliament, decide the fate of the Government or relieve any member of the Government of his/her duties.

The detailed analysis of why these changes were needed now lies beyond the scope of this post, but it is commonplace to link them one way or another with the looming transition dilemma, which may lead to political upheavals that are not in the interest of the ruling elite. Therefore, what emerged after a speedy process of amendments in early 2017 is that the President retains or even increases his control over the political system in hypothetical situations when his political dominance and, more importantly, the political system he created comes under threat. At the same time, the President relieved himself of the responsibilities or relinquished rights that are no longer used or deemed unimportant, as control is exerted in the uncontested political space by other means, often more effective or less straightforward.  In some cases, this responsibility for preserving the current system became “shared” with the Parliament or Prime Minister through introducing the requirement of consultations (e.g. if the President would like to dissolve a regional representative body) or assigning a more active role in legislating certain public domains (e.g. in the justice sector or the status and competencies of regional governors).

The President had an option to put the changes to a national referendum, but opted for the adoption of amendments through parliamentary procedure, which is more predictable as the Parliament is essentially composed of the President’s loyalists whose political future is fully in his hands.

After the constitutional reform, the President will not have powers to establish executive bodies that are not part of the Government. The Prime Minister will, after consultations with the Majilis of the Parliament, appoint members of the Government. The President will continue to directly appoint the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Defence and will lose the right to appoint the Minister of Justice, whose appointment will go through a regular procedure, the same as for other members of the Government. The President will not have the responsibility to preside over the most important meetings of the Government, but this right will be at his discretion, depending on necessity. The President will also no longer have the right to suspend fully or partially the legal acts of the Government and Prime Minister.  However, the President will retain the right to do so in the case of legal acts of Regional Governors who are appointed by him upon approval from regional representative bodies (although as previously the option for their election will be retained in the Constitution). As mentioned above, the President will also have to consult with the Prime Minister or Speakers of the Parliament if he decides to dissolve a regional representative body.

The President will not be responsible any more for approval of state programmes or have the authority to approve the funding allocation and salary scales for the state servants of all state bodies that are funded by the state budget.  However, some consultations are possible between the President and Prime Minister on this matter.

At the same time the President will have a new right  “in the interest of protection of human rights and citizen’s rights, provision of national security, sovereignty, and unity of the state to request the Constitutional Council to consider a law that has entered into legal force or any other act in compliance with the Constitution of the Republic, as well as requesting a ruling in cases of amendment of the Constitution.” In theory, the President may also ask the Constitutional Council to review legal acts of the Government and the Prime Minister, which he could previously suspend. The President continues to play a crucial role in the formation of the Constitutional Council.

Some changes are purely symbolic. The amendment was also made that the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan is the supreme representative body that exercises the legislative power. Previously, the Parliament exercised “legislative functions”. The President under certain conditions could also “legislate”. These powers have not been used recently and it seems that they became obsolete in the current system, where any parliamentary elections consistently produce a pliant Parliament. As the President’s party fully controls the Parliament it is not deemed to be as important as in 1995, when the President had to confront a recalcitrant Parliament and legislate by decree to enact some unpopular economic reforms that benefited mostly the ruling elite.

The role of the Government was also slightly recast by introduction of the requirement of consultations between the Prime Minister and the Majilis of the Parliament, before the Prime Minister submits candidates for posts in the Government for approval to the President. Therefore, the Government is defined as the collegial body which is accountable not only to the President, but also to the Parliament.  In this way, the requirement of consultations is a symbolic competence, rather than an increase of Parliament’s competences.

The Senate is now given the right to appoint or relieve the Ombudsman of his/her duties, the authority previously exercised by the President. The President proposes the candidate for this position.  This scheme allows the President to effectively control the appointment of the Ombudsman.

One-third of each Chamber of the Parliament may ask a member of the Government to report to the Chamber about his/her performance.  Two-thirds of the total number of members of the Chamber, after the report has been made, may ask the President to relieve this member of the Government of his/her position in case of non-compliance with the laws of Kazakhstan.  The President should then dismiss such a member of the Government.  The previous wording of this provision allowed a simple majority to make such a request to the Parliament. If rejected, this request can be made by the simple majority within six months. In this case, the President should dismiss this member of the Government.  Such a situation is highly unlikely in the current political system, but if a more diverse parliament body were to be elected at some distant point in the future, it would be very difficult to get two-thirds of the total number of MPs to vote to ask the President to dismiss a minister.  This is a typical new provision that gives some power to the Parliament to control the Government, but at the same time makes it difficult to exercise it in practice.

The Parliament is also becoming more flexible as to how it organises its legislative process. The President retains the power to assign certain draft laws a priority status.  However, these priority draft laws should be considered during the current session, not within one calendar month, as was the case previously, when non-compliance of the Parliament gave the right to the President to adopt the law by his decree.

A revised provision also requires that the report of the Government is made not only to the President as before, but also to the Majilis (lower chamber) of the Parliament.

According to another amendment, the Government will have to be dissolved when a newly elected Majilis of the Parliament is convened. Previously, the Government had to be automatically dissolved when the new President is elected.

The Parliament now has more power to legislate over the criteria regarding judicial posts and the scope of the prosecutorial powers. All requirements will be decided at the level of Constitutional Laws. In fact, this is where the Parliament gains more real powers, in contrast to symbolic adjustments on control over the Government.

The 2017 constitutional reform also introduces amendments limiting the scope of immediate application of international treaties, requiring in all cases adoption of respective enabling national legislation.  There are also changes that would lead to deprivation of Kazakhstani citizenship where a citizen commits a terrorism-related crime or threatens important interests of the state, which were only introduced in the very last draft of amendments. The application of these new changes may have a chilling impact on the exercise of human rights in Kazakhstan, but the scope of such impact depends on how far the authorities are willing to operationalise the new provisions.  For example, calls to change the presidential system may also be considered as a threat to the interests of the state.  In this sense, read together the 2017 amendments are aimed both at preserving the current political system, while at the same time making it more stable by re-distributing some powers that may lead to better capacity of the system to absorb potential shocks of the future transition of power in Kazakhstan.

Of interest is also the amendment introducing a special legal status for the Astana Financial Centre, which should lead to the creation of a parallel legal system dealing with foreign investments based on a common-law system for commercial matters. This amendment, which is viewed with mistrust by Kazakhstan’s civil society, is proposed by the Kazakhstan authorities as a measure to boost the investment climate in Kazakhstan. It is also seen in the context of another amendment that did not make it to the final draft, giving foreigners full protection of their property in Kazakhstan. It was dropped due to fierce opposition from Kazakhstani civil society, which saw it as a way to sell the most sacred thing – the land – to foreigners by the corrupted ruling elite. Actually, this draft amendment was the only one that led to an overwhelming negative reaction from the civil society, which a few years ago had witnessed a failed attempt to introduce amendments to the land code with the effect to allow foreigners to rent agricultural land for extended periods.

The constitutional amendments also include new language of the current article that stipulates that unitary organisation, territorial integrity and the form of governance cannot be changed. Currently, the revised article reads “Established by the Constitution, independence of the state, unitary organisation and territorial integrity, the form of governance as well as the fundamental principles of activity of the Republic, that were established by the Founder of independent Kazakhstan, the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – Elbasy[1], and his status are permanent.” All proposed changes, according to the new article, should be assessed by the Constitutional Council with regard to whether they comply with the above provision.  This provision is designed to further guarantee the long life of the political system created by the President.

The new revised text of the Constitution was signed by President Nazarbayev on 10 March 2017 and it entered into force on 14 March, the day of official publication.

Notes

[1] “Elbasy” (Kazakh) means “Leader of the Nation”

Kyrgyzstan’s One-Term President Positions Himself for the Transition of Power

Outside of Latin America, where one-term limitations on presidencies are relatively common, only the Philippines, South Korea, Vanuatu, and Kyrgyzstan restrict their presidents to a single term.[i]  Kyrgyzstan introduced this restriction in its 2010 Constitution in order to prevent the repetition of “family rule,” which had characterized Kyrgyzstani politics under Presidents Akaev (1991-2005) and Bakiev (2005-2010). As the example of Vladimir Putin illustrates, however, constitutional restrictions do not prevent term-limited presidents from remaining active in politics.[ii]  Kyrgyzstan’s current President, Almazbek Atambaev, has in recent months signaled his intention to continue on the political stage after the end of his single, six-year term in November of this year.

The opening gambit in his transition strategy came last year, when Atambaev engineered changes to Kyrgyzstan’s constitution designed to shift considerable power from the office of the president to that of the prime minister.[iii]  These changes gave rise to speculation that President Atambaev was planning to assume the role of prime minister after he completes his presidential term. However, he has insisted in recent weeks that he will eschew a government post and concentrate instead on strengthening his political party, the Social Democrats (SDPK), which currently has a plurality of seats in the one-chamber parliament.  Atambaev has recently launched a purge of the SDPK’s parliamentary party in order to remove members whose personal reputation or loyalty is suspect.[iv]

In order to ensure that his successor as president is to his liking, President Atambaev has embraced the idea of an internal party primary within the SDPK to select the party’s nominee for the presidency.  In his public pronouncements, Atambaev has insisted that a primary battle within the part will weed out candidates on whom the opposition has kompromat [compromising materials] that could render them vulnerable in the general election.  However, the more likely reason for the president’s support of the party primary is that it would allow him to serve as the king-maker.  Atambaev’s influence over the mass media and his control of the state’s “administrative resources” should allow him to pick his preferred candidate from the SDPK, who could well emerge as the next president.

Not satisfied with influencing political outcomes through the low-cost and relatively benign strategies outlined above, President Atambaev has pursued in recent weeks a more disruptive and dangerous agenda: the destruction of the political careers of prominent opposition politicians who could pose a challenge to his plans for the political transition.   Among a series of arrests of heavyweights from Kyrgyzstan’s ruling class, the most troubling was that of Omurbek Tekebaev, a parliamentary deputy and perennial presidential candidate who, as a member of the country’s Interim Government in 2010, fathered the current constitution.  Agents from the secret police (GKNB) detained Tekebaev at the Bishkek airport in the early morning of February 26 on his return from a trip to Austria and Cyprus, and several days later a court authorized his detention by the GKNB for an additional two months.  Whatever the validity of the fraud charges being brought against him, the timing was suspect.  The alleged fraud had occurred six years earlier and the Russian businessman who accused Tekebaev of wrongdoing only recently came forward with testimony implicating Tekebaev.

Other opposition politicians caught up in what appear to be politically-motivated prosecutions include parliamentary deputies from Tekebaev’s party, Ata-Meken, among whom were Aida Salianova and Almambek Shykmamatov, both former Justice Ministers.  In addition, on March 25, the authorities arrested a former deputy from the Ata-Jurt Party, Sadyr Japarov, who had just returned to Bishkek after three years of self-imposed exile.  The arrest of Japarov, who had recently announced his intention to run for the presidency, prompted 500 of his supporters to gather at the gates of the GKNB. In clashes with police that followed, 68 demonstrators were arrested.[v]

Although all of the politicians arrested have been critics of President Atambaev, Omurbek Tekebaev appears to pose the greatest threat to the sitting president.  The threat does not lie primarily in Tekebaev’s announced candidacy for the November presidential election–he was hardly a favorite for the post–but in the compromising material he had been collecting on President Atambaev.  Media reports allege that Tekebaev was returning to Kyrgyzstan with evidence linking President Atambaev to inappropriate business activities in Cyprus.  Moreover, as chair of a parliamentary commission investigating the crash of a cargo aircraft near Bishkek airport in January of this year, Tekebaev was pursuing the possibility that President Atambaev or those in his entourage were involved in a smuggling operation exposed by the plane crash.  Although the aircraft, which stopped in Bishkek on its way from Hong Kong to Istanbul, was not licensed to deliver goods to Kyrgyzstan, investigators found in the  wreckage “charred remnants of iPhones, luxury cigarette lighters, and other electronic gadgets…” with Chinese-produced manuals in the Kyrgyz language.[vi]

Besides disqualifying prominent political opponents and bending the institutional rules to their advantage, it has been traditional in the run up to elections for Kyrgyzstani leaders to attempt to stifle media outlets that are critical of the president, and President Atambaev has remained true to form on all counts.   As part of his early preparations for the November presidential elections and his own repositioning in the Kyrgyzstani political system, President Atambaev instructed the Procurator-General earlier this month to launch civil cases against a local news outlet, Zanoza, as well as the Kyrgyz arm of Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, Azattyk, for attacking the “honor and dignity” of the President.  The Procurator-General is seeking damages on the President’s behalf of over $86,000 from Zanoza and almost $3 million from Azattyk.  Even though the case has not yet been tried, a judge has frozen the domestic bank accounts of both news organizations.

As Atambaev’s attacks against opposition-oriented politicians and journalists have escalated in recent months, his conduct has become more unpredictable and his rhetoric has grown increasingly intemperate.  At one point he labeled the Ata-Meken Party “putrid” [voniuchii].  Atambaev no longer hesitates to refer to himself in the third person, and he has at times cast diplomatic niceties aside by issuing pointed comments on domestic politics in the presence of foreign dignitaries.[vii]  On March 15th, he chose a formal ceremony accrediting new ambassadors in Bishkek to criticize the purveyors of slander and “fake news” in the country, including Russian journalists working in the country.[viii]  During the visit of Vladimir Putin a few weeks earlier, President Atambaev had used a joint press conference to play down the likelihood of a third revolution in Kyrgyzstan, reminding the assembled journalists and his Russian guest that he, Atambaev, was the real revolutionary, having been instrumental in toppling Presidents Akaev and Bakiev.[ix]

Kyrgyzstan may not be on the eve of its third revolution in the last twelve years, but it is facing its most serious political crisis since the parliamentary election campaign of 2010.  Atambaev’s control of the formal levers of power, most notably state legal institutions, give him an advantage in this latest standoff between government and opposition.  However, his critics have at their disposal new media as well as significant numbers of supporters in the capital–and in the home districts of repressed politicians–that are willing to take to the streets to defend their patrons.  Moreover, in choosing to engage in select prosecution of his enemies and a frontal assault on the independent media, President Atambaev risks overplaying his hand and undermining his own reputation and that of the party on which he plans to build his political future.   The ultimate winners in this conflict may be non-SDPK presidential candidates, such as former prime ministers Temir Sariev and Omurbek Babanov, who have managed thus far to keep their distance from the warring sides.

Notes

[i] The reference here is to presidents in presidential or semi-presidential systems.

[ii] In 2008, having completed the two four-year terms allowed him under the constitution of that era, Vladimir Putin installed one of his clients, Dmitrii Medvedev, as president.  Medvedev served a single term and then made way for Putin’s return in 2012, this time to assume a presidency whose term had been extended to six years.  In the Kyrgyzstani case, the constitution does not allow a president to return to office.

[iii] On the adoption of revisions to the constitution, see Eugene Huskey, Plebiscitarianism and Constitution-Making: The December 11, 2016 Referendum in Kyrgyzstan, Presidential Power blog, December 15, 2016.  http://presidential-power.com/?cat=193

[iv] One source notes that Atambaev intends to replace two-thirds of current SDPK deputies with more loyal members.  Grigorii Mikhailov, “Boeing s gruzom dlia prezidenta ‘vzorval’ parlament Kirgizii,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, March 7, 2017.  At one point Atambaev came out in favor of the early dissolution of parliament, something supported by at least one critic of the president in the assembly, which presumably would simplify efforts to renew the SDPK’s parliamentary party.  Parliamentary elections are not scheduled to be held until 2020.  See “Zamira Sydykova prezidentu Almazbeku Atambaevu: ty luchshe pokaisia!” Zanoza, March 15, 2017.  http://zanoza.kg/doc/354140_zamira_sydykova_prezidenty_almazbeky_atambaevy:_ty_lychshe_pokaysia.html

[v] “Kyrgyz Police Detain 68 at Protests over Jailing of Ex-Law Maker,” RFE/RL, March 25, 2017.  http://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstan-opposition-japarov-supporters-protesters-arrested/28390782.html

[vi] Catherine Putz, “Plane Crash in Kyrgyzstan May Have Uncovered a Smuggling Scheme,” The Diplomat, February 3, 2017.  http://thediplomat.com/2017/02/plane-crash-in-kyrgyzstan-may-have-uncovered-a-smuggling-scheme/

[vii] Atambaev’s behavior has rekindled rumors about his psychological state, and lawyers from the Ata-Meken Party recently filed a motion with the Procurator-General’s office asking for a psychiatric examination of the president. “Zapakh pravdy: arest Tekebaeva vyzval voinu iskov,” Zanoza, March 9, 2017.  http://zanoza.kg/doc/353828_zapah_pravdy:_arest_tekebaeva_vyzval_voyny_iskov.html One Western outlet covering Central Asia observed that Atambaev seemed to be mimicking Donald Trump, and of late had been in “full berserker mode in his comments about the fourth estate.” “Kyrgyzstan: Kremlin-Friendly Reporter Expelled,” Eurasianet.org, March 13, 2017.  http://www.eurasianet.org/node/82801

[viii] A few days earlier the Kyrgyzstani authorities had expelled a Russian journalist, Grigorii Mikhailov, whose articles had often been critical of Atambaev.  “Emu li byt’ v pechati: pochemu prezident Kirgizii tak boitsia kritiki v rossiiskoi presse,” Lenta.ru, March 17, 2017.  At a press conference on March 11, Atambaev attacked “so-called independent journalists, media outlets, and politicians, who de facto demand the right to defame with impunity and spout filth about people they don’t like, in the first rank the popularly-elected president of independent Kyrgyzstan.”  “Zaiavlenie Prezidenta KR A. Atambaeva,” Kabar, March 11, 2017.  For a perceptive account of Atambaev’s assaults on journalists and politicians, see Ulugbek Babakulov, “Vo imia mira i stabil’nosti: Prezident Kyrygzstana initsiiroval raspravu nad SMI i zhurnalistami,” Ferghana, March 13, 2017.  http://www.fergananews.com/articles/9319

[ix] Moscow-based newspapers have speculated that one purpose of Putin’s visit was to look over potential presidential candidates to determine whom the Kremlin should back.  See, for example, Elena Egorova, “Tsentral’naia dlia Rossii Aziia,” Moskovskii komsomolets, February 27, 2017.

Eugene Huskey – Plebiscitarianism and Constitution-Making: The December 11, 2016 Referendum in Kyrgyzstan

In a referendum that generated fierce opposition from critics of Kyrgyzstani President Almazbek Atambaev, voters approved 26 revisions to Kyrgyzstan’s constitution on December 11, 2016.[i]  It was the seventh constitutional plebiscite since the adoption of the country’s original post-communist constitution in May 1993, making Kyrgyzstan the regional leader in employing the referendum to change its basic law.[ii]  Sunday’s constitutional referendum was paired with voting for local assembly elections in Kyrgyzstan’s 21 cities, elections that gave a plurality of seats to candidates from President Atambaev’s party, the Social Democrats.

With only a year remaining in his single, six-year term, President Atambaev had presented the amendments to the nation as a means of “idiot-proofing” the Constitution, that is, introducing further safeguards to ensure that the office of the presidency would not be abused by his successors.[iii]  Many elements in the country’s political class and civil society, however, found his explanations unconvincing.  In an unprecedented move, Atambaev’s former colleagues in the Interim Government of 2010–among them former President Roza Otunbaeva and Omurbek Tekebaev, the de facto father of the 2010 Constitution–signed a collective letter condemning any attempt to revise the constitution before 2020, the date set by the Interim Government for the earliest constitutional revisions. President Atambaev responded almost immediately to the letter with an intemperate speech, the harshest of his presidency, which accused his former colleagues of spreading “malicious lies.” He then reminded them that they could be held to account legally for their misdeeds in office six years earlier.  He concluded by assuring the nation that he had no intention of seeking any formal political post after his departure from the presidency in 2017.[iv]

Besides regarding the plebiscite as premature, many critics of the President objected to specific amendments proposed to the Constitution.  Some revisions strengthen the powers of the prime minister vis-a-vis president and parliament by granting the head of government the sole authority to remove ministers as well as local and regional heads of administration.  The prime minister and his deputy will also be able to retain their seats in parliament.  Previously the prime minister and deputy prime minister had had to relinquish their parliamentary seats on assuming executive office.  The referendum included only one seemingly innocuous revision to the presidency itself—changing the name of the presidential defense council to the security council.  Given the existing authority of Kyrgyzstan’s president, which is based largely on his direct popular mandate and his appointment and oversight of the power ministers, the enhancement of the prime minister’s office should produce more complex challenges of cohabitation than had existed heretofore.

Another basket of constitutional amendments sought to increase the stability of the Government in a country that had seen six prime ministers in the first six years of what had been touted as a “parliamentary republic.”  In order to leave a ruling coalition, the revised constitution will now require two-thirds of a party’s deputies to approve the rupture in a written ballot.  Although this amendment and some others were reasonable responses to the inefficiencies that plagued the current system, many critics viewed the enhancing of the prime minister’s role as a means of preparing a landing place for President Atambaev or a Social Democratic politician who would be under his influence.

In order to win support for the referendum from moral traditionalists and ethnic Kyrgyz nationalists, whose ranks often overlap, President Atambaev and his supporters included several amendments that responded to the rising populist tide in the post-communist world and beyond.  This effort included a reworking of Article 1 of the 2010 Constitution, which contained a simple, one-sentence statement of the country’s basic principles, notably the state’s secular, law-based, and democratic character.  The proposed alternative had nine separate points, several of which echoed nativist and socially conservative trends in Russia.  Among the country’s “highest values” in the newly-revised Constitution are “love of country,” “the development of the national [Kyrgyz] language and culture,” and, perhaps most worrying for the opposition, “a respectful attitude toward the country’s history,” a phrase that the Russian authorities have used to condemn domestic and foreign critics and that the Kyrgyzstani government could potentially employ to silence unpopular interpretations of events such as the inter-ethnic violence in Osh in 2010. The constitutional revisions also included an explicit ban on gay marriage.

As part of an ongoing backlash against international criticism of the Kyrgyzstani government’s handling of the violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh, President Atambaev included among the constitutional amendments a revision to Article 41.  That article had allowed citizens of Kyrgyzstan to appeal to international human rights bodies if they believed their rights had been violated.  If the international tribunal upheld their complaints, the Kyrgyzstani government was obligated to restore their rights or compensate them for damages.  In the runup to the referendum, President Atambaev had been openly critical of the decision of the UN’s Committee on Human Rights, which called on the government of Kyrgyzstan to free an ethnic Uzbek condemned to life imprisonment.[v]

Constitutional Referendums in Kyrgyzstan[vi]

Although the proposed constitutional amendments were approved by an almost 80 percent Yes vote (see table above), this result was a record low for Kyrgyzstan.  Moreover, only 42 percent of the population turned out to the polls on a day when both the referendum and local elections were on the ballot.  Thus, only slightly more than a third of eligible voters in Kyrgyzstan voted for the constitutional revisions.  Turnout was especially low (28%) in the southern city of Osh, where almost half of the population is ethnic Uzbek.  Taken together with the historically low turnout, a tally of invalid ballots that reached five percent suggests a considerable measure of popular discontent with President Atambaev’s decision to revise the 2010 Constitution,[vii] especially given the herculean—and in some cases inappropriate—efforts of the President’s team to get voters to the polls to support the referendum.[viii]  As Omurbek Tekebaev observed, Atambaev’s political protegees had every reason to go to the mat for him in getting out the Yes vote, recognizing that if the referendum failed, he may have followed the example of de Gaulle and resigned from office, in which case their own futures would have been uncertain.[ix]

The passing of the referendum and the results of local elections will be discouraging reminders to opposition-minded forces in Kyrgyzstan that President Atambaev and his Social Democratic Party appear to be consolidating their hold on the government and the state.[x]  In recent years, a frustrated opposition has organized two popular rebellions that unseated presidents—in 2005 and 2010—but in those cases the ruling elite was divided along North-South lines, and so the opposition was able to tap into regional resentment.  No such easily identified source of political support exists today for the political opposition, and therefore taking to the streets for anything more than symbolic protests would not seem to be an option.  Those who stayed home on election day, or spoiled their ballots, are unlikely to form an easily mobilized force to counter the rise of the Social Democrats as the country’s dominant—if not yet hegemonic—party.  The question now is whether the constitutional revisions to governing institutions will provide the promised efficiencies without undermining the political pluralism that has distinguished Kyrgyzstan from its authoritarian neighbors.

Notes

[i] The amendments were presented to voters as a single package, and so only a Yes or No vote on the entire array of proposed revisions was possible.

[ii] For a comparison of constitution-making in post-communist countries, see Anna Fruhstorfer and Michael Hein, Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe: From Post-Socialist Transition to the Reform of Political Systems (Wiesbaden: Springer, 2016).

[iii] Eugene Huskey, Kyrgyzstan – President Atambaev Seeks to “Idiot-Proof” the Constitution by Reducing the Power of the Presidency, Presidential Power Blog, 21 January 2016. http://presidential-power.com/?p=4352  This post discusses some of the changes to the legal system included in the constitutional revisions, which are allegedly designed to root out corruption in the judiciary but will certainly lead to greater executive control of the courts.  For other changes see Bruce Pannier, “What’s in Kyrgyzstan’s Constitutional Referendum?” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 8 December 2016.  http://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstan-constitutional-referendum-whats-at-stake/28164053.html

[iv] Anna Kapushchenko, “Atambaev raskritikoval Otunbaevu i eks-ministrov za nedovol’stvo popravkami k Konstitutsiiu,” Kloop Media, August 31, 2016. http://kloop.kg/blog/2016/08/31/atambaev-raskritikoval-otunbaevu-i-eks-ministrov-iz-za-popravok-v-konstitutsiyu-glavnoe/  In the middle of President Atambaev’s speech, which was given on Independence Day on Bishkek’s main square, former President Otunbaeva demonstratively walked off the stage to protest Atambaev’s attacks on her and other members of the Interim Government.

[v] See United Nations Human Rights Committee, Views Adopted by the Committee under Article 5 (4) of the Optional Protocol concerning communication No. 2231/2012,  CCPR/C/116/D/2231/2012, 11 May 2016.

[vi] Tat’iana Kudriavtseva, “Kak v Kyrgyzstane khodili na referendumy po konstitutsii,” 24.kg, 12 December 2016.  http://24kg.org/obschestvo/41447_kak_v_kyirgyizstane_hodili_na_referendumyi_po_konstitutsii/  The table of referendum results provided in this article, based on information from the Central Election Commission, mistakenly includes a 75 percent Yes vote for the 2007 referendum, but that is the percentage of eligible voters, not those actually voting, which is the method used for other years in the table.

[vii] The head of the Central Election Commission admitted to being surprised by the high percentage of invalid ballots and suggested that the sensitivity of the new electronic counting machines could have been at fault.  “Glava Tsentral’noi izbiratel’noi komissii rasskazala, chto ee udivilo na referendume,” Sputnik Kyrgyzstana, 12 December 2016.  http://ru.sputnik.kg/politics/20161212/1030753631/mnogo-nedejstvitelnyh-byulletenej-dlya-nas-neozhidannost.html The recent introduction of biometric identification for voters, which required citizens to get finger-printed, was one reason for the lower turnout rate.  A significant share of Kyrgyzstani voters had not gone in for biometric registration before the referendum, and even some who did register did not find their biometric registration on record at the voting precinct.  “Institut ombudsmena vyiavil nekotorye narusheniia izbiratel’nogo prava na vyborakh nakanune,” Akipress.org, 12 December 2016.  http://kg.akipress.org/news:1350601?from=kgnews&place=newstopic

[viii] There were reports, for example, of teachers employed by the state serving as “get out the vote” teams for the Yes camp.

[ix] “Omurbek Tekebaev: ‘Atambaev sposoben na postupki.  Esli referendum ne proidet, on uidet, kak de Goll’’,” Novye litsa, 29 October 2016.  http://www.nlkg.kg/ru/interview/omurbek-tekebaev-atambaev-sposoben-na-postupki-esli-referendum-ne-projdet_-on-ujdet_-kak-de-goll-

[x] In the weeks before the referendum,the Ata Meken Party’s criticism of the proposed constitutional changes led to the collapse of the ruling coalition and the effective expulsion of Ata-Meken from its ranks.  “Koalitsiia: Ushli, chtoby vernut’sia…no bez ‘Ata Mekena’,” KirTag, 25 October 2016.  http://kyrtag.kg/standpoint/koalitsiya-ushli-chtoby-vernutsya-no-bez-atamekena-/

Weaker Presidents, Better Semi-presidentialism?

9781137387806

Sophia Moestrup and I have just published another edited volume on semi-presidentialism. This time the focus is on Semi-presidentialism in the Caucasus and Central Asia. There are contributions from Alex Baturo on vertical power in the post-Soviet space, Alexander Markarov on Armenia, Jody LaPorte on Azerbaijan, Malkhaz Nakashidze on Georgia, Dmitry Nurumov and Vasil Vashchanka on Kazakhstan, and Matto Fumagalli on Kyrgyzstan. Sophia and I contribute two chapters. The first addresses some misconceptions about the notion of semi-presidentlaism, such as the idea that semi-presidential regimes must have quite powerful presidents but never very powerful or very weak presidents, and also that autocracies cannot be semi-presidential – they can, not least because semi-presidential regimes do not have to comprise only countries with quite powerful presidents. Our second chapter sums up the contributions to to the volume and argues that weaker presidents make for better semi-presidentialism. This is a brief summary of this second chapter.

The main attraction of institutional analysis is that it has the potential to generate better political outcomes. Given the assumption that institutions matter, we may be able to craft them so as to mitigate or even eradicate some of the negative outcomes that would otherwise be caused by the behaviour of political actors. We wish to draw one institutional policy recommendation from this book. All else equal, countries with weaker presidents are likely to experience better outcomes than countries with stronger presidents.

There is evidence from Armenia, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan that weaker presidents have been associated with better outcomes. In Kyrgyzstan the decline in the president’s constitutional powers has been dramatic. That said, the shift to a weak president is relatively new, dating back to 2010. Kyrgyzstan also has a history of democratic reversals. So, we should avoid any definitive judgement at this early stage. More than that, the shift occurred in the context of the collapse of the previous regime and the desire on the part of the constitution builders to trammel the power of the presidency, which was seen as one of the main obstacles to democratic consolidation under the previous regime. This suggests that any positive effects of the weak presidency may be endogenous to the choice of the new institutional framework. All the same, we note that the early period of the new constitutional framework has been marked by less presidential posturing, less executive/legislative conflict, and, for now at least, less democratic backsliding. These are positive signs.

In Armenia, the decline in presidential power has been less dramatic. The president’s constitutional powers were never as great as the other countries in the region. Moreover, even after the passage of the 2005 reforms, the president still enjoyed some not inconsiderable constitutional powers. What is more, as in Kyrgyzstan, the context in which the president’s powers were reduced in 2005 means that we have to take account of the problem of endogenous institutional choice. Further still, Armenia remains a hybrid democratic regime in which there is plenty of political competition, but where democratic procedures have been manipulated to the advantage of incumbent power holders, although perhaps less so in the most recent elections than previously. In this context, we have to be careful about any lessons that we might we wish to draw from the Armenian case. Even so, we might benefit from thinking counterfactually. What would be the situation if there were now a super-president in Armenia? Would the situation be worse? We cannot know. Yet, we do know that in practice there was a form of super-presidentialism after the passage of the 1995 constitution. We can also confidently claim that this period marked the low point of democratic performance in Armenia to date. Armenia has not experienced a weak presidency, but it has experienced very strong presidents. It is not unreasonable to conclude by comparing the experience of the 1995-2005 super-presidency and the post-2005 period that the latter was less problematic.

By far the strongest evidence, though, comes from Georgia. Here, there were two periods when the problem of endogenous institutional choice was at least partly offset because of a dramatic change in the political context. In the first period there was a very strong president. In the second period, there was a very weak president. In this latter case, it is tempting to think in terms of quasi-experimental conditions. In the same historical, cultural, economic, and social context, there was an institutional treatment, namely the move to a weak presidency. The result has been much better political performance. The period of cohabitation under the previous president-parliamentary form of semi-presidentialism was marked by intense president/prime ministerial conflict as well as conflict between the president and the government and legislature generally. By contrast, the recent period under the weak presidency and a premier-presidential form of government has, to date, been characterized by much calmer relations. Indeed, this latter period is doubly interesting because the president distanced himself from his former political allies immediately after his election. The resulting situation should not be classed as a period of cohabitation, but it is certainly not a period where the president’s loyalty to the ruling party has quashed, perhaps artificially, any political competition within the executive branch. While there have been major disagreements between the president and the government, they have not become regime threatening. Indeed, arguably, post-2013 president/government relations in Georgia resemble those in countries like the Czech Republic or Slovakia where weak but directly elected presidents act as a counterweight to the government, but where there are no serious attempts to assume real presidential power.

If we are right to conclude that weaker presidents are better presidents, then we also wish to assert that the party system is an important intervening variable, as indicated above. It is perhaps no coincidence that in Georgia there has been a solid parliamentary majority since 2013. In other words, the president has not had the opportunity to try to offset his weak constitutional powers by building an alternative and potentially destabilizing pro-presidential coalition within the legislature. We might add that there has also been a relatively stable legislative majority in Kyrgyzstan since the 2010 reforms. Again, the president has not had the incentive to craft a majority that is personally loyal to him and that often requires the distribution of state resources in a geographically skewed and perhaps even corrupt way. In Armenia, by contrast, presidents have not always enjoyed a parliamentary majority and have been forced to forge coalitions in the legislature. This perhaps helps to account for the continued presence of a patronage president in a way that harms the rational functioning of the regime and democratic performance. Indeed, the recent constitutional reform that will introduce a parliamentary system after the next electoral contests might confirm this suspicion. The introduction of a parliamentary system and a weak president should be a positive development on the basis of our logic, but it may merely be a way of maintaining patronage politics in the context of an uninstitutionalized party system.

So, we acknowledge that many economic, social, and political factors affect political performance. We also believe that the party system is a particularly important variable for determining the practice of presidential politics. Even so, we claim that political performance is likely to be better when presidents have fewer powers. This suggests that constitution makers should consider the benefits of reforms that reduce the power of their presidency. We are aware that our conclusion assumes that institutions matter and, therefore, is susceptible to the problem of endogenous institutional choice, but we would like to address the endogeneity problem by arguing that even endogenously chosen weak presidents are better than endogenously chosen strong presidents. In other words, we believe that there are benefits to be gained from the endogenous selection of weak presidents. We should endeavour to create the conditions for decision makers to calculate that their system would benefit from a weak presidency. Fundamentally, if we are right that weak presidents bring benefits, we are unconcerned whether this outcome comes about endogenously or exogenously. That said, even if institutions are chosen endogenously, political actors still have to interpret the institutions with which they are faced. At some point, the economic, social, or political context is likely to change. At that point, if not before, institutions may have at least a partly exogenous impact. In those circumstances, it is better to have a weak presidency in place than a strong one. In other words, we would encourage upstream efforts to create the conditions for a constitutionally weak president. We believe that there are benefits to be gained from a system in which actors are willing to work without the presence of a super-president and that these benefits are likely to be both endogenous to institutional choice and at some point exogenous too.

We wish to make one final point. We promote the idea of a weak presidency, but we also wish to promote a weak presidency in the context of a wider constitutional and political system in which there is a genuine separation of powers and checks and balances. For example, we are not convinced that there are benefits to be gained from replacing a system in which there is a super-president and a weak prime minister by one where there is a weak president and a super-prime minister. This merely shifts the problem. It does not replace it. And it may characterise what is about to happen in Armenia. Let us express this point differently. We are not opposed to weak but directly elected presidents. As we argue in our introduction to the volume, semi-presidential constitutions are consistent with both very strong and very weak presidents. We prefer the latter. Let us make the same point in another way. We do not believe that parliamentarism with a weak but indirectly elected president is necessarily a guarantee of better political performance if there are no checks on the prime minister in the parliamentary system.

To sum up, we are happy to recommend a directly elected president as long as the president’s powers are weak and are exercised in the context of a system in which power is not concentrated in any political actor.

Kazakhstan – March 2015 early parliamentary elections: unexpected predictability

This is a guest post by Dmitry Nurumov and Vasil Vashchanka

The 20 March 2015 parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan did not surprise seasoned observers. Yet again, elections attested to the President’s Nazarbayev’s firm grip on the political life of the country and the absence of real political opposition. Like many previous parliamentary elections, these were also called early after the parliament’s unanimous vote to dissolve itself. The decision to hold elections followed a recent pattern when (early) presidential elections precede (early) parliamentary elections. This cycle serves to ensure the President’s full control of the political process. The “unexpected predictability” allows taking by surprise any potential opposition and the voters, leaving little time to contemplate these decisions or organize and run an effective campaign.

Six of the seven political parties registered in Kazakhstan contested 98 seats in the lower chamber of parliament, elected from party lists. The opposition Azat party, which remains formally registered, decided not to participate in these elections. Following the announcement by Azat leader, Bulat Abilov, his withdrawal from politics in 2013, the party has not been visible. The remaining nine seats in the lower chamber of parliament are elected by the unelected Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan, whose members are nominated by President Nazarbayev.

The six parties, as in the previous elections, displayed choreographed labels ranging from the communists to social democrats, aimed to demonstrate diversity and dynamism of the political life in Kazakhstan.  But this show yet again exposed the well-honed and practiced art of controlled political environment, where only players loyal to President Nazarbayev are admitted on the political stage. Kazakhstan’s political parties largely exist on paper and command little support among the population, with the exception of the ruling Nur Otan party. Nur Otan is led by the President and is inseparable from his vertical power structure. Its dominance reinforces the message that stability of the country is dependable on the incumbent’s continuing rule. President Nazarbayev did not miss opportunities to publically endorse Nur Otan and call for voters’ support.

Muted criticism of the ruling party came only from the Nationwide Social-Democratic Party (NSDP), which positioned itself as “opposition” and was for several years in merger talks with the Azat party. Thus, the number of registered election contestants did little to inject pluralism in the election campaign.  International observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE/ODIHR) and Council of Europe found that “the parties’ campaign platforms and rhetoric were complementary to and aligned with the president’s long-term strategies and refrained from proposing political alternatives”.

Shortly before elections, on 22 February, a well-known journalist and influential media personality, chair of the Union of Journalists, Seitkazy Mataev was arrested and criminal proceedings were launched against him on charges related to his business. The case stunned many in Kazakhstan, as Seitkazy Mataev was not known as a prominent opponent of the regime.  At the same time, the criminal case against a well-known figure sent shock waves among the ranks of public activists. Earlier, several criminal cases against political bloggers were opened in the second half of 2015. These moves sent a clear message that any political activism diverging from the official position will not be tolerated.

However, even if dissenting voices were allowed to contest elections, getting their message to the voters would be difficult. Years of suppression left Kazakhstan’s media landscape devoid of critical views to the president’s policies. Major media outlets are either in loyal hands or exercise self-censorship to avoid the fate of their critical predecessors that were forced to change ownership or close down. In the words of international observers, “the lack of independent sources and a restrictive legislative framework […] have profoundly challenged freedom of expression.” Compliant media paved the way for smooth and unchallenged campaigning by Nur Otan and its satellite parties.

With all conditions in place for a safe electoral victory of the ruling party, it might seem that there would be no special need to resort to mischief at the ballot box. But in the stage-managed process nothing is left to chance and election machinery is programmed to deliver the expected result. The core of election administration is formed from reliable ruling party supporters and public sector employees who have much to lose from an insufficiently convincing victory of Nur Otan. It is hardly surprising then, that international observers found that voting proceeded “with significant violations in the process”, while counting and tabulation of votes were marred by serious irregularities and “an honest count […] was not safeguarded”.

Official results announced by the Central Election Commission on 22 March gave Nur Otan 82.20% of votes, resulting in 84 seats; while the Communist People’s Party and Democratic Party “Ak Zhol” received 7.14% and 7.18% respectively, giving them 7 seats each. Other parties reportedly failed to cross the high 7% threshold.  These results were not very different from the previous elections in 2012, when Nur Otan received 83 seats, Ak Zhol 8 seats and the Communist People’s Party 7 seats. The nearly identical results in 2012 and 2015 show that holding early elections became a part of “political ritual” that successfully secures reproduction of the ruling elite and serves to demonstrate President  Nazarbayev’s uncontested and unyielding dominance on the political landscape of Kazakhstan.    

Some commentators linked the timing of these elections with the deteriorating economic situation, which may worsen later this year and negatively affect electoral moods. This may be true insofar as orchestrating a smooth electoral process goes. Given the parliament’s largely decorative functions, it is hard to see how it could seriously contribute to solving the country’s economic woes.

After casting his vote, President Nazarbayev hinted at possible changes in the distribution of power between the president, the parliament and the government. Such changes, if and when they are introduced, are likely to offer little more than “recalibrating” the existing system that leaves the 75-year-old President Nazarbayev with all leverages to remain in control and have the necessary time and flexibility to decide on his succession.

In this context, the trajectory of President’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, is  important to follow. After 2012, Dariga Nazarbayeva became an MP and led the work of the Committee on social and cultural development. In April 2014, she was unanimously voted Deputy Chair of the lower chamber of parliament and leader of Nur Otan faction in the parliament. In September 2015, she was appointed Deputy Prime Minister of Kazakhstan. She was on the list of Nur Otan for these elections and some expected her to become speaker of the lower chamber. However, she remained in her post in the government. Dariga Nazarbayeva is seen as a likely, but not the only prospective successor to her father. A pliant parliament would play an important role in a succession plan that would approve her as Prime Minister or support her as a presidential candidate. No risks are therefore taken with parliamentary elections, which serve to remind the President’s circle that their political survival is in the President’s hands and depends on their continuing loyalty. In other words, these elections were held within the existing model of “superpresidential republic” and they were not intended to send signals of democratic transition.

Dmitry Nurumov served as Legal Adviser and then as Senior Adviser to the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities (OSCE/HCNM) from 2011 to 2015. Prior to that, he worked at the ODIHR Rule of Law Unit as OSCE/ODIHR Rule of Law Coordinator in Central Asia. Before joining the OSCE/ODIHR he was a Legal Expert for the OSCE Centre in Almaty from 2001 to 2003. In the past, he also worked for a number of other international organisations. He holds a PhD degree in International Public Law from Moscow State Institute (University) of International Relations (MGIMO).

Vasil Vashchanka (LL.M.) was a Rule of Law Officer (2002-2009) and Deputy Chief of the Rule of Law Unit (2010-2012) at the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (Poland) before joining the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (Sweden) as a Programme Officer (2012-2014). Currently, he consults international organizations on rule of law and democracy-related issues.

Kyrgyzstan – President Atambaev Seeks to “Idiot-Proof” the Constitution by Reducing the Power of the Presidency

Constitutional reform has been a national pastime during Kyrgyzstan’s first quarter-century as an independent state.  Since the adoption of the first post-communist constitution in 1993, Kyrgyzstan has introduced new constitutions–or significant constitutional changes–six times.  From 1993 to 2007, under Presidents Akaev and Bakiev, these institutional reforms were designed to concentrate greater power in the presidency and to keep the political opposition off balance.[i]  However, in the wake of the ouster of President Bakiev during a popular revolt in April 2010, former opposition politicians succeeded in pushing through, by referendum, a new constitution that promised to introduce a parliamentary republic in Kyrgyzstan.  The 2010 Constitution contained numerous provisions that reduced the power of the presidency, strengthened the role of the parliament and the prime minister, and protected the opposition.  However, as we noted in an earlier entry on this blog,[ii] the new constitutional order in Kyrgyzstan retained many features that are associated with semi-presidential rather than parliamentary models of government, including direct presidential elections and the subordination of the security services to the office of the president.

Relegated to a single six-year term by the current constitution, President Almazbek Atambaev is now leading an effort to reduce the powers of the presidency and align the country’s institutions with those of classic parliamentarism, following the script of President Sarkisian of Armenia, who recently engineered a transition from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system.[iii]  The initiative in Kyrgyzstan appears to have the support of the leaders of the country’s five parliamentary parties, which is an unexpected development given that some of these parties had previously favored the return to a stronger presidency.[iv]  Not surprisingly in a country with a vibrant civil society, the consensus of the governing establishment around constitutional reform has generated vigorous opposition from non-governmental organizations, which suspect Atambaev of maneuvering to maintain his political power after he steps down from the presidency.[v]  In the view of some, Atambaev lacks confidence in his ability to ensure that a sympathetic successor will win the next presidential election, and therefore he prefers to take his chances with a parliamentary system, in which his party, the Social Democrats, would play a prominent role.[vi]  For his part, Atambaev has insisted that he is looking forward to a quiet retirement when his term ends in late 2017.  “I am not planning to remain President for a second term or to become prime minister or speaker…..In less than two years, I’ll be going into retirement.  Of course, I’ll sleep and read books, and I haven’t given up my dream of playing the piano.”[vii]

As to why constitutional reform is needed at this juncture, Atambaev points to two dangers for the country under the existing institutional arrangements.  The first is the possibility of “cohabitation,” where two “young hotheads” who are politically and personally at odds occupy the posts of president and prime minister, “with one [the President] controlling the army and the secret police while the other [the Prime Minister] is in charge of the Minister of the Interior, whose forces outnumber those of the army.”[viii] Kyrgyzstan has thus far avoided the perils of cohabitation because Atambaev’s Social Democratic Party has always been in the ruling coalition, usually as the leading party.

The second fear advanced by Atambaev is that the presidential election, always a high-stakes, winner-take-all contest, will be closely contested in 2017. Unlike in his own election in 2011, where he captured 60 percent of the votes and the second-place finisher garnered only 14 percent, Atambaev notes that the next election could be much closer, and “someone could storm the gates [of the White House] if they lost by only .5 percent.”[ix] Atambaev claims that he knows “such dinosaurs,” who are willing to spill the blood of young supporters in this kind of effort.[x]  Therefore, in his view, the country must adopt a constitution that can serve as “defense against a fool” [idiot-proofing].[xi]

However, the proposed constitutional reforms do not merely envisage a reduction in presidential power and a transition from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary model of government.  They also promise to undermine judicial independence, local self-governance, and the freedom of maneuver for individual members of parliament.  In the name of judicial accountability, the reforms would allow the President and Prime Minister, rather than the members of the court, to select the chair and deputy chair of the Supreme Court, who have responsibilities for the allocation of cases and the assessment of judicial performance.  In Russia and some other post-communist countries, this ability to appoint the court’s leadership has seriously eroded judicial independence. [xii]  Furthermore, the constitutional reform would reduce the ability of the judicial branch to restrain executive power by removing the Constitutional Chamber from the judicial system and potentially transforming it into a body issuing merely advisory opinions.[xiii]

The proposed constitutional changes would also strengthen considerably the authority of the leaders of Government and parliament, from the Prime Minister to the heads of parties.  Besides exercising some existing powers now carried out by the President, the Prime Minister would assume several new powers, among them the right to dismiss ministers unilaterally and to appoint the heads of local governments, who are currently selected by local councils.  For their part, party leaders would be empowered to remove from parliament individual rank-and-file members of their fractions who vote against the party line.  Thus, while touted as a corrective to certain perils of the existing constitution, the proposed changes would also weaken the independence of the judiciary and local government and the accountability of the parliamentary leadership.

Standing in the way of the introduction of the new institutional arrangements is Article 4 of the Law on the Enactment of the 2010 Constitution, which states that no changes may be made to the constitution for ten years–that is before 2020–unless they are made by a popular referendum.  Although there is some discussion of trying to circumvent this rule by introducing the reforms through so-called “constitutional laws,” which require a supermajority vote of parliamentary deputies, President Atambaev has stated that he is willing to call a referendum if necessary to revise the constitution.  That Kyrgyzstan has gone almost six years without  a constitutional overhaul is unprecedented, and efforts to block the proposed changes may yet prolong the country’s streak of constitutional stability.

Notes

[i] Eugene Huskey and Gulnara Iskakova, “Narrowing the Sites and Moving the Targets: Institutional Instability and the Development of a Political Opposition in Kyrgyzstan,” Problems of Post-Communism, vol. 58, no. 3 (2011), pp. 3-10.

[ii] Eugene Huskey, “Another Year, Another Prime Minister,” Presidential Power blog, 18 May 2015 http://presidential-power.com/?p=3321.

[iii] On the Armenian reforms, see the entries on this blog by Chiara Lodi, “Armenia–From Semi-presidentialism to parliamentarism,” 16 September 2015, http://presidential-power.com/?p=3805, and “Armenia–The Constitutional Referendum and the Role of the President during the Campaign,” 9 December 2015.  http://presidential-power.com/?p=4231

[iv] Daniiar Karimov, “Atambaev ubedil,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, 2 July 2015. http://www.rg.ru/2015/07/02/konst.html

[v] Aidanbek Akmat uulu, “Konstitutsionnaia reforma: usloviia i sroki,” Radio Azattyk, 13 November 2015. http://rus.azattyk.org/content/article/27362706.html  Some politicians, like Kubatbek Baibolov, former presidential candidate and Minister of Interior, believe that “whatever the real motivations [podopleka] behind the initiative, a transition to a purely parliamentary form of government should be supported.” Ibid.

[vi] Some observers claim that Atambaev favors the indirect election of the president by parliament, but Atambaev has stated that he has no such intent.  As Emil’ Juraev notes, Atambaev’s concerns about his successor relate in part to how he would be treated once he left office.  Without a sympathetic successor, a departing president could be the subject of litigation endangering his property and person.   IWPR Central Asia, “V Kyrgyzstane vnov’ govoriat o politicheskoi reforme,” Global  Voices, 11 December 2015.  https://iwpr.net/ru/global-voices/в-кыргызстане-вновь-говорят-о-политической-реформе

[vii] Leila Saralaeva, “Spasibo nashim liudiam za ikh vyderzhku i spravedlivost’,” Novye litsa, 24 December 2015.  http://www.nlkg.kg/ru/politics/prezident-kyrgyzstana-almazbek-atambaev-spasibo-nashim-lyudyam-za-ix-vyderzhku-i-spravedlivost

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.  The reference is to the ousters of former presidents by crowds that climbed over the White House fence in 2005 and 2010, and the unsuccessful attempt by opposition figure Kamchibek Tashiev to do that with a group of supporters in 2013.

[x] Ibid.  Left unsaid by Atambaev is the possibility that candidates from the North and South of the country could be in a close contest, which could endanger the country’s stability and even its integrity.

[xi] This concept was first advanced by an industrial engineer from Toyota, Shigeo Shingo.

[xii] Peter H. Solomon, Jr., “Informal Practices in Russian Justice: Probing the Limits of Post-Soviet Reform,” in Ferdinand Feldbrugge (ed.), Russia, Europe, and the Rule of Law (Leiden: Nijhoff, 2007), pp. 79-92.  According to some of President Atambaev’s critics, the presidency already dictates many judicial decisions, especially in cases of political corruption.  See Makhimur Niiazova, “Femida–chto dyshlo,” Respublika [Bishkek], no. 24, 19 November 2015.  http://www.respub.kg/2015/11/20/%D1%84%D0%B5%D0%BC%D0%B8%D0%B4%D0%B0-%D1%87%D1%82%D0%BE-%D0%B4%D1%8B%D1%88%D0%BB%D0%BE/

[xiii] The Venice Commission and other international organizations have expressed their concerns about the proposed reforms.  Anna Ialovkina, “Kyrgyzstan: popravki v Konstitutsiiu ‘neizbezhny’,” Institute po osveshcheniiu voiny i mira [Institute for War and Peace Reporting], 3 July 2015. RCA Issue 764.  http://www.refworld.org.ru/docid/559fc6344.html

Kyrgyzstan – Central Asia’s Lone Democracy Elects a New Parliament

Citizens in Kyrgyzstan went to the polls on Sunday, October 4, to elect 120 deputies to the country’s unicameral legislature, the Zhogorku Kenesh [Supreme Council]. It was the second parliamentary election under a new constitution that was introduced in the wake of the April 2010 revolution and the interethnic violence of June of that year. Although observers in Kyrgyzstan label the country a “parliamentary republic,” the constitution in fact created a semi-presidential system in which the directly-elected president, currently Almazbek Atambaev, enjoys considerable powers, including the ability to appoint and supervise the “power ministries,” such as defense, interior, and secret police. President Atambaev also serves as the de facto leader of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, which received the largest share of the vote (27.41%) in Sunday’s election. As President, he has the right to select the formateur of the new coalition government, which will clearly be the Social Democrats, who finished seven points ahead of their nearest rival, the Respublica–Ata Jurt Party.

Given the violence and chaos that wracked the country only five years ago, the mere holding of a peaceful and highly-competitive election must be considered an accomplishment of the first order.[i] There were certainly irregularities in some polling places, accusations of vote buying, and a suspicious jump in the turnout rate, from almost 46 percent at 6pm to approximately 60 percent by the close of polling at 8pm. However, international observers monitoring the elections assessed them as highly-contested and noteworthy for the use of the latest technologies in electoral administration.[ii] For the first time, the Central Election Commission used biometric data (thumbprints) to identity voters at the polls. It also forbade the use of mobile phones or cameras in the voting booths in order to maintain the sanctity of the secret ballot and discourage vote-buying or intimidation. The biometric data requirement was not without its downside, however. Observers estimate that there were almost one million fewer voters on the rolls because of this registration requirement.[iii]

The high level of competitiveness of the electoral campaign benefitted from a reduction in the use of administrative resources by officials allied to the President as well as the presence of numerous well-funded parties that were able to get out their message to voters across this mountainous country, where a sizable portion of the population lives in remote areas. According to preliminary figures, campaign expenditures of the parties securing seats in the new parliament ranged from less than 3 million soms ($43,500) per seat by the Social Democrats to over 9 million soms ($130,400) per seat by the Ata Meken party.[iv] The 14 parties that contested the election were also able to reach voters through a series of televised debates whose spirited exchanges and high production value rivaled debates in mature democracies. In fact, the television anchors questioning the candidates–using a bilingual format in both Kyrgyz and Russian–were models of professionalism.

Although the recent increase in the national threshold from 5 to 7 percent in Kyrgyzstan’s closed list PR system was designed in part to reduce the number of parties in parliament, the new parliament will have one more party than the old (6 instead of 5).[v] The preliminary seat totals are as follows:

Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan 38
Respublica-Ata Zhurt 28
Kyrgyzstan 18
Onuguu-Progress 13
Bir Bol 12
Ata Meken 11

Falling out of the new parliament is the Ar-Narmys Party, whose leader, Felix Kulov, had been unable to impose discipline on his members in the previous parliament.[vi]  The incoming parliament will have three new parties–Kyrgyzstan, Onuguu-Progress, and Bir Bol–while one bloc, Respublica-Ata Zhurt, represents a fusion of two existing parties.[vii]

In at least two important respects, the results appear to consolidate democracy in Kyrgyzstan. First, although the Social Democrats were able to increase their seat total by almost 50 percent from the last election, from 26 to 38, they will need to share power with at least one other party, and many commentators believe a three-party coalition, with Kyrgyzstan and Onuguu-Progress, is most likely. Thus, the election did not produce a dominant “party of power” whose support for the president could diminish the political accountability of the executive, a common pattern in post-Soviet states. Second, and in many ways more importantly, the deep political divisions between the North and South of the country that were on full display in 2010 and 2011–during the revolution, ethnic violence, and parliamentary and presidential elections–have receded in this electoral cycle.[viii] Instead of parties with dominant bases of support in the North or South, Kyrgyzstan in this election has moved decidedly toward national parties that appeal to significant numbers of voters in all of the country’s seven electoral regions and its two main cities–Bishkek and Osh.[ix] This nationalization of parties will certainly not eliminate regional divisions, but it should allow the main locus of politics on this issue to shift from the public square to party caucuses.[x]

Although the regional divisions may be subsiding, tensions between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the South of the country show few signs of abating. The strong showing of the Social Democrats in Osh city and Osh regions almost certainly reflects the support of the ethnic Uzbek population for the party of the president. It is doubtful, however, given the virulence of ethnic Kyrgyz nationalism in recent years, that this Uzbek support will translate into significant concessions to the Uzbek population on cultural or political issues.

If the last electoral cycle is a guide, it may take some weeks before the Social Democrats can form a ruling coalition. Besides negotiating over the usual claims to ministerial portfolios and the speakership of the Zhogorku Kenesh, parties will be arguing over the division of the spoils for lower-level appointments in Bishkek and the provinces. What is unlikely to delay the negotiations are disagreements about policy. Kyrgyzstan remains a personality and identity-driven political system, and the October 2015 parliamentary election does not appear to have altered that orientation, which the country shares with most of the developing world.[xi]

Notes

[i] For an overview of conditions in the country at the time of the election, see International Crisis Group, “Kyrgyzstan: An Uncertain Trajectory,” Crisis Group Europe and Central Asia Briefing No. 76, 30 September 2015. http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/asia/central-asia/kyrgyzstan/b076-kyrgyzstan-an-uncertain-trajectory.aspx

[ii] See the press conference of the OSCE Monitoring Team at http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/kyrgyzstan/177111, and the assessment of the largest internal election-monitoring NGO (Dinara Oshurakhunova, “Vybory proshli chisto, dlia vsekh partii byli sozdany odinakovye usloviia,” Gezitter.org, 5 October 2015). http://www.gezitter.org/vybory/44059_d_oshurahunova_predsedatel_koalitsii_za_demokratiyu_i_grajdanskoe_obschestvo_vyiboryi_proshli_chisto_dlya_vseh_partiy_byili_sozdanyi_odinakovyie_usloviya/

[iii] Six weeks before the elections, as part of a bureaucratic turf war, the head of the Central Election Commission severely criticized the State Registration for putting together a voters’ list that he described as “the lowest quality in the history of the country.” “Takogo nekachestvennogo spiska izbiratelei v istorii Kyrgyzstan eshche ne bylo–Abdraimiov,” KirTAG, 29 August 2015. http://kyrtag.kg/society/takogo-nekachestvennogo-spiska-izbirateley-v-istorii-kyrgyzstana-eshche-ne-bylo-abdraimov

[iv] “14 partii potratili na vybory v ZhK 778 mln somov,” AkiPress, 5 October 2015. http://kg.akipress.org/news:624801

[v] Because the new threshold is based on the percentage of actual voters, whereas the earlier threshold was based on the percentage of registered voters, the current threshold of 7 percent is in practice less restrictive than the former 5-percent threshold.

[vi] An indication of the instability of parties in Kyrgyzstan is that during the previous parliamentary session, 56 percent of Ar-Namys deputies switched parties, a level that was on par with that for Respublica (60 percent) and Ata Zhurt (53 percent). The most stable parties were the Social Democrats and Ata-Meken, which witnessed 7 and 16 percent defections, respectively, from their ranks.

[vii] On recent party realignments see Arslan Sabyrbekov, “Party Restructuring in Kyrgyzstan Prior to 2015 Elections,” The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 27 May 2015. http://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/field-reports/item/13211-party-restructuring-in-kyrgyzstan-prior-to-2015-elections.html

[viii] Eugene Huskey and David Hill, “Regionalism, Personalism, Ethnicity, and Violence: Parties and Voter Preference in the 2010 Parliamentary Election in Kyrgyzstan,” Post-Soviet Affairs, vol. 29, no. 3 (June 2013), pp. 237-267; David Hill and Eugene Huskey, “Electoral Stakes, Labor Migration, and Voter Turnout: The 2011 Presidential Election in Kyrgyzstan,” Demokratizatsiya, no. 1 (January 2015), pp. 3-30.

[ix] Regional results are available at “Predvaritel’nye rezul’taty golosovaniia na parliamentskikh vyborakh,” Sputnik, 4 October 2015. http://ru.sputnik.kg/infographics/20151004/1018946828.html Despite the adoption of sophisticated new technologies in some areas of electoral administration in Kyrgyzstan, the website of the Central Election Commission, which publishes results at the precinct, district, and national level, has not been accessible since the election. http://www.shailoo.gov.kg/

[x] One potential source of tension surrounds the failure of a party with its primary electoral base in the South, Butun Kyrgyzstan-Emgek, to cross the 7 percent threshold, garnering just over 6 percent of the votes. This party, led by the charismatic and divisive politician, Adakhan Madumarov, also fell just short of securing seats in the parliament in the 2010 parliamentary election.

[xi] Despite some suggestions to the contrary in the Russian and Western press, foreign policy did not appear to be a major issue in the election campaign. Almost all major parties accept the basic pro-Russian orientation of Kyrgyzstan, and Russia appears to have made its peace with the more competitive and open environment in Kyrgyzstan. Unlike in 2010, when Russian leaders, including President Medvedev, warned that Kyrgyzstan could not survive the transition to a system with a strong parliament and multiple parties, the official line today from Moscow is more tolerant of Kyrgyzstani exceptionalism. See, for example, Vladislav Vorob’ev and Konstantin Volkov, “Liudi ustali ot revoliutsii,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, 2 October 2015, p. 6. Kyrgyzstan’s recent entry into the Moscow-dominated Eurasian Economic Union further solidified ties between the two countries.

Rico Isaacs – Twilight of the Patriarch: Charismatic Presidentialism and Charismatic Routinisation in Kazakhstan

This is a guest post by Rico Isaacs, Senior Lecturer in International Studies at Oxford Brookes University

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Nursultan Nazarbayev’s enduring presidency in Kazakhstan (25 years and counting) has been defined by what Max Weber would have understood as charismatic authority.[i] The presidency is dominated by his personal authority and the belief in the unique qualities and special attributes of Nazarbayev himself rather than the specific office of president. There is also a religiosity to charismatic presidentialism as the president is often depicted as being the ‘chosen one’. While power in Kazakhstan is conditioned by some elements of legal-rational authority (e.g. elections, separation of powers) and traditional authority (e.g. patronage, clientelist networks), presidentialism remains very much defined by charisma.

Given the centrality of Nazarbayev to the political system in Kazakhstan what are the prospects for a stable transition to a post-charismatic order? While there are a number of mechanisms available to Nazarbayev to transition to a non-charismatic political order, these potential pathways feature considerable risks and problems, especially elite instability and the further personalisation of power. This post, based on a larger article published in the journal Studies in Transition States and Societies, conceptually locates the politics of succession in Kazakhstan within the notion of charismatic routinisation and considers the challenges and pitfalls of charismatic presidential succession in the Kazakh case.

Any student of Max Weber would know that personalised charismatic leadership is ephemeral and lasts only as long as the charismatic leader. The process of transitioning from charismatic authority to one legitimated by legal-rational rules or traditional conventions is conceptually known as ‘charismatic routinisation’.[ii] ‘Designation’ and ‘charisma in office’ are two forms of ‘charismatic routinisation; which could play out in the case of Kazakhstan. Below I will deal with each of these potential processes in turn.

‘Designation’ is when a presidential successor is designated the role of leader, either by the charismatic leader, if still alive, or by administrative staff or elite followers if the leader is dead. In Kazakhstan any ‘designation’ of a successor requires their position as leader to be legitimised through an election. Yet this legal-rational component of the process can lead to a dilemma for charismatic followers as it endows the successor with a legitimacy separate from that given to the leader by the elite who put the successor in power. This additional legitimacy enables the successor the opportunity to reconstitute a form of charismatic presidentialism, as we have seen in the case of Turkmenistan (see below).

‘Designation’ is frequently seen as the most likely scenario for succession in Kazakhstan and many commentators suggest there will be a ‘hand-picked successor’ model to replace Nazarbayev.[iii] Occasions in the former USSR where a successor was designated in advance of the leader dying or stepping down has led to regime instability such as in Georgia, Ukraine and to an extent Kyrgyzstan. With power seen to be drifting away from the leader, elites become disgruntled and uncertain of the extent to which their interests will be met under the new leader. Dissatisfied elites can then draw on popular discontent with the existing leader to mobilise against the regime and take power.[iv]

Despite the persistent speculation over the last decade that Nazarbayev has been planning to hand power over to a designated successor, he has failed to do so. Instead he has concentrated power further into his personality which perhaps suggests concern regarding the consequences for political instability of a ‘chosen successor’ model, as the experience of other former Soviet states has demonstrated. The fact Nazarbayev has not provided, at least publicly, any indication for a preferred successor or a model or mechanism for a transfer of power, has led political analysts to consider the potential scenarios for a post-Nazarbayev order.

The first scenario depicts a model where the vacuum created by Nazarbayev’s exit (either through death, incapacity or voluntary exit without a clear plan of succession) creates a collapse of the system where the elites (or charismatic followers) under Nazarbayev fight amongst themselves, leading to conflict and potential civil war.[v]

The second scenario suggests elite groups under Nazarbayev will coalesce and attempt to rule collectively with a designated successor chosen as the figurehead of some kind of oligarchic power structure. However, the danger of such a ‘puppet’ is demonstrated in the case of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in Turkmenistan. Berdymukhamedov was chosen as successor by powerful Turkmen elites in the aftermath of Saparmurat Niyazov’s death in 2006. Berdymukhamedov ‘designation’ was confirmed by a national election in March 2007. The election, however, endowed Berdymukhamedov with a legitimacy separate from those key elites who placed him in power. After the election those elites were ousted and Berdymukhamedov quickly reconstituted a form of charismatic presidentialism not unlike his predecessor. Naturally, we should not read too much into a comparison between Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Elite groups in Kazakhstan have far greater financial and political autonomy than those in Turkmenistan, and thus stronger foundations for a personal political base, which could serve them well in holding off any attempt by a designated successor to erode their power.

In the aftermath of an election victory this year in which he collected 97.75% of the vote, Nazarbayev spoke of strengthening the powers of the parliament and the government at the expense of presidential power.[vi] Such proclamations, while being made countless times before to little effect, are an example of the second mechanism of charismatic routinisation – ‘charisma in office’. ‘Charisma in office’ can be understood as the transmission or attempted transmission of personal charismatic power into formal legal-rational political institutions. In Kazakhstan we can see this in the divesting of power to the Mazhilis (legislature) (and their constituent political parties) through constitutional reform.

As noted above, there have been previous attempts at divesting power to the government and the legislature, the 2007 constitutional reform being but one major example. The set piece of that reform was that the Prime Minister would be appointed by the president only after consultation with parliamentary factions and with the consent of a majority of deputies. The problem is that the 2007 reform process led to a concentration of, rather than a diluting of, charismatic presidentialism. While Nazarbayev gave away the power to appoint the prime minister to the leader of the largest party faction in parliament, that largest party faction was Nur Otan (Light of Fatherland), his political party, which since its inception has dominated and controlled the legislature.

‘Charisma in office’ in Kazakhstan has also been further problematised by Nazarbayev finding it difficult to lay down the reins of power. Despite attempts to arrange a succession, aware that making plans prior to dying improves the prospects of their legacy remaining intact, charismatic leaders find it difficult to pass on the mantle to a successor. Instead there is a further consolidation of their charismatic leadership. The case of Nazarbayev and Kazakhstan neatly exemplifies this key dilemma. This was perhaps most evident with the introduction of the ‘leader of the nation’ legislation in 2010, in which loyal deputies in the Mazhilis proposed legislation conferring the title ‘Elbasi’ (leader of the Kazakh nation) on Nazarbayev. The legislation ensures that should Nazarbayev transfer power to another leader, or downwards to the parliament, he will still possess personal oversight of the political system. If anything, the leader of the nation legislation only entrenched charismatic presidentialism, embodying Nazarbayev’s unique and special status in the political system.

‘Charisma in office’, therefore, remains challenging as a potential pathway for post-charismatic succession in Kazakhstan. Despite continued proclamations that the process of constitutional and political reform will lead to the divesting of charismatic presidential power to political institutions such as the parliament and political parties, this has not occurred. This is primarily because formal institutions lack autonomy and because of a further personalisation and strengthening of power in Nazarbayev.

This means that it is ‘designation’, underpinned by the legal-rational element of elections, which remains the most likely scenario for presidential succession in Kazakhstan. It is not difficult to imagine that there would be a collective effort by elites to install a figure who could maintain the economic interests of competing elite groups. As the case of Turkmenistan demonstrates, however, there is a danger that the legitimacy engendered by putting a designated candidate through an electoral process could lead to the reconstitution of charismatic presidentialism. Nonetheless, this is somewhat offset by the financial autonomy of powerful elite groups in Kazakhstan who might be better placed to ensure a successor does not emulate the charismatic nature of Nazarbayev’s presidency.

[i] This is a revised version of a larger paper, ‘Charismatic Routinization and Problems of Post-Charisma Succession in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan’ published in Vol 7 (1) of Studies of Transition States and Societies available: http://publications.tlu.ee/index.php/stss/

[ii] Weber, M. (1978). Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Ed. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Trans. Ephraim Fischoff, et al. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[iii]Roberts, S. (2012). Resolving Kazakhstan’s Unlikely Succession Crisis, PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo, 231 (September 2012).

[iv] Hale, H. (2005). Regime Cycles: democracy, autocracy and revolution in post-Soviet Eurasia. World Politics, 58(1) pp. 133-165.

[v] Satpayev, D. et al (2013) Sumerechnaya zona, ili lovushki perekhodnogo perioda. Almaty: Al’yans Analiticheskikh Organizatsii, Gruppa otsenki riskov.

[vi] See Radio Azattyk, Nazarbaev Vyskazalsya za ‘oslablenie’ prezidentskoi vlasti, 29 May 2015, http://rus.azattyq.org/content/news/27042815.html

Rico Isaacs is a Reader in Politics at Oxford Brookes University. His research interests focuses on the comparative political sociology of authoritarianism, regime-building and nation-building in Central Asia.