Category Archives: Central Asia

Tajikistan – Preparing a Succession in Power or Coping with a Severe Regime Crisis?

Tajikistan, the poorest Eurasian country besides Kyrgyzstan, is also one of the least free countries in a region where democracy generally faces a bleak prospect. Over the course of the last two years, President Emomali Rahmon, who has led the country since 1992, has taken a couple of measures that have been widely interpreted as preparation for an orderly, albeit undemocratic, transition of power to a handpicked successor, in all likelihood, his son Rustam.

In Tajikistan, like everywhere in the post-Soviet space, politics is based on the interaction of broad informal networks that pervade the state, economy and society. These networks consist of individuals and groups, such as extended families or business firms that strive for access to wealth and power. Whereas Eurasia’s more competitive regimes are vulnerable, displaying frequent reshufflings of network alliances and transfers of presidential power that are not always peaceful, the politically more closed regimes, such as Tajikistan’s, appear to be much more consolidated. Here, elite networks are integrated into comprehensive, nationwide “power pyramids,” which are led by presidents who enjoy the privilege of an often constitutionally granted status of the “Leader of the Nation.” They rely on a carefully calibrated mix of patronage and oppression vis-à-vis the elite and are eager to maintain a high level of popularity among their citizens.

In Tajikistan, the President’s home base is his extended family and the Kulob District, the region of the winning faction of Tajikistan’s civil war (1992–1997). This war was brought to an end by a power-sharing agreement, guaranteeing the opposition, led by the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), thirty percent of government positions. However, since the beginning of the new millennium, Rahmon has steadily reneged on this deal, clearing the government and the country of political opponents and getting a firm grip on the regime as its uncontested ultimate patron. As the opposition was being crowded out of legal politics, loyal networks were coopted into the regime. As a result, observers perceived the country to be increasingly stable, even though domestic security incidents continued to flare up from time to time on the country’s periphery. In September 2015, the IRPT was banned as an “extremist and terrorist organization,” and a May 2016 constitutional amendment prohibited political parties based on religion. Since then, Human Rights Watch reports an ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression and the political opposition; between mid-2015 and the end of 2016, more than 150 activists have been imprisoned on politically motivated charges. Thus, one of the few international success stories of peace and reconciliation after a civil war has finally failed.

The Achilles heel of consolidated patronage-based regimes is succession in power. While monarchies are based on the principle of hereditary succession and democracies elect their leaders, Eurasia’s regimes face a double challenge. First, elections are crucial for legitimation, but the smooth operation of the power pyramid requires that the successor be a regime insider who enjoys the loyalty of the most powerful networks. Thus, replacing the leadership is precarious, and leaving it to the voter is not a viable option. Instead, presidents work to stay in office for life, which is why they tinker with the constitutionally mandated restrictions of their tenure. In Tajikistan, the original limitation of two five-year terms was turned into a single seven-year term by a 1999 referendum. A subsequent referendum in 2003 provided for two seven-year periods, simultaneously starting a new countdown for the sitting president. Most recently, the 2016 referendum on constitutional reform granted Rahmon the right to run for an unlimited number of terms.

Second, since even the most authoritarian president is not immortal, succession issues are inevitable at some point. When this moment approaches, the regime comes under stress. The elite may be fragmented into rival groups that are waiting for their chance to seize power as the incumbent weakens or dies. Thus, succession must be settled within the elite, the decision being submitted for confirmation to popular elections after the fact. Clever presidents groom handpicked successors to whom they can transfer power when the time comes. However, such plans are not without risk for the incumbent. If the wait becomes too long, the designated inheritor may get impatient and try to remove the patriarch. Moreover, after ascending to power, he or she may give in to the temptation to eliminate the predecessor in order to forcefully lend credibility to the claim of being the new chief patron.

From this it follows that the least dangerous strategy for an incumbent president is to prudently pave the way for a son or a daughter. The father’s popularity may rub off on his heir, who hopefully cherishes him so much that he or she will never be disloyal, and the elites get a strong signal of regime continuity that may deter quarrels over power. So far, this strategy has worked successfully in Azerbaijan but failed in Uzbekistan. At present, it is not sure or even likely that Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev (77), the oldest incumbent in the region, will designate a successor. By contrast, the presidents of Belarus and Turkmenistan, 63-year-old Alexander Lukashenko and 60-year-old Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, respectively, are quite openly grooming their young sons.

Even more evident are the efforts of Tajikistan’s Emomali Rahmon, who recently turned 65, to invest in the next generation. In the past two years, four of his nine children have received promotions. While the younger daughters Rukhshona and Zarina, both in their twenties, were appointed Deputy Heads in a department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the country’s largest commercial bank respectively, in January 2016 now 39-year-old Ozoda, the President’s second oldest daughter, was elevated to a critical position in government, becoming Chief of the Presidential Administration. In May 2016, she was also unanimously elected to the Majlisi Milli, the upper chamber of the parliament.

However, the biggest jump up the career ladder has been made by Rahmon’s eldest son, Rustam Emomali. He had been chief of the country’s Customs Service since 2013 and of the State Agency for Financial Control and Measures against Corruption since March 2015. In January 2017 he was appointed mayor of Dushanbe, the country’s capital. Not surprisingly, Rahmon’s move fueled widespread speculation about Rustam being groomed to replace his father in office in the near future. Again, this interpretation is supported by the 2016 constitutional reform, which lowered the minimum eligibility age for presidential candidates from 35 to 30 and also made 30 the new minimum age for being elected to the Majlis Milli. Obviously, this is a tailor-made clause for Rustam, who was born in December 1987. It would enable him to run for the presidency in the next election scheduled for 2020, and as a next step before that happens, it is expected that he will be elected speaker of the Majlis Milli, rising to the second highest post in Tajikistan, a position still held by the former mayor of Dushanbe.

However, as solid as these steps for the “completion of the transition to a consolidated monarchy-styled regime” may seem, managing the succession problem might be less than half of the story. What looks like Tajikistan’s definitive transformation into a family-run business may also signal a desperate effort to address serious cracks within the regime itself. Thus, analysts and independent media speculate about feuds within the extended family and regionally based political networks over political influence and resources.

Signs of clashes within the power apparatus, or “clan infighting,” as observers have labeled it, are indeed evident. Rustam Emomali’s appointment as the capital’s mayor ended the political career of Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev, the second most influential person in Tajikistan, who has been both a powerful ally of Rahmon and his main rival since the early 1990s. He held this position for twenty years, but was released, together with all his deputies and the chiefs of Dushanbe’s city districts, in January 2017. Only weeks after his dismissal, the Anticorruption Agency launched a corruption investigation against the former mayor, initiated by the President’s son. Probably as a response to this move, the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) began an anti-corruption sweep against the Anticorruption Agency itself as well as against the Customs Service, that is, against the two bodies that were formerly led by Rustam Emomali. As a result, fourteen leading officials of these agencies were recently convicted of fraud and bribery and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

The brittleness of the cohesion within the elite may be also illustrated by the defection of Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, a long-term close associate of Rustam Emomali. In 2015, the US-trained commander of the special forces of the Ministry of the Interior to combat criminals and terrorists joined the Islamic State, where he received a promotion to the position of the Minister of War.  This calls into question the capacity of the regime to retain the loyalty of even high-ranking members of the elite.

To sum up, Tajikistan’s recent political evolution raises some doubts about whether President Rahmon has a firm grip on power, meaning that he is about to elevate the succession problem as the most pressing issue of the day. His strategy of promoting close family members can also be understood as an attempt to place the most loyal core of his power network in the regime’s key positions in the face of the ongoing disintegration of Tajikistan’s power pyramid and to prevent the collapse of his rule.

Kyrgyzstan – A Setback for Democracy: The 2017 Presidential Election

Sunday’s presidential election in Kyrgyzstan serves as a reminder that constitutional engineering can only go so far in furthering democracy. To inoculate Kyrgyzstan against the kinds of hyper-presidential regimes found in neighboring countries in Central Asia—and in Kyrgyzstan itself under President Kurmanbek Bakiev (2005-2010)—the Constitution of 2010 transferred broad powers to the parliament and limited the president to a single six-year term. The first president directly elected under these new arrangements, Almazbek Atambaev, has in recent weeks congratulated himself on adhering to the provisions of the Constitution, boasting that he had the political support to change the rules on term limits if he had wanted. However, the legacy of President Atambaev will be tarnished by his insistence on forcing on the country a successor whose election in the first round could not have occurred without the massive mobilization of the state apparatus and without Atambaev’s own campaign of innuendo and half-truths about the leading candidate of the opposition.

Preliminary results from 99 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s precincts show that Atambaev’s hand-picked successor, Sooronbai Zheenbekov, received almost 55 percent of the vote, while the main opposition candidate, Omurbek Babanov, captured just under 34 percent of the vote. Of the remaining 9 contenders in the race, some of whom were heavyweights in Kyrgyzstani politics, no one received over 6.5 percent of the vote. Almost three-quarters of one percent of the electorate chose the “vote against all” option on the ballot.

When Sooronbai Zheenbekov emerged in the late spring as Atambaev’s pick to represent the President’s party—the Social Democrats—in the presidential election in October, he seemed in many respects an unlikely figure to contest the presidency. Although he served as Kyrgyzstan’s prime minister from the spring of 2016 to the summer of 2017, he had not previously been in the leading rank of Kyrgyzstani politicians. A 58-year old official from the southern city of Osh whose wooden manner betrayed an early stint in the Communist Party apparatus, Zheenbekov’s energy level and demeanor contrasted sharply with the higher-octane favorite in the field, Omurbek Babanov, the charismatic 47-year old former prime minister and leader of the Republican Party. Where Zheenbekov had the support of the President and the machinery of state, Babanov was able to tap into his vast personal wealth to run an efficient, modern campaign that smothered the country’s physical and virtual space with the candidate’s image and, in the final days before balloting, sent individually addressed letters to voters.

In a country where regional and kinship ties can turn elections, Zheenbekov enjoyed a structural advantage over Babanov. He hailed from the largest region in the country, the southern province of Osh, whereas Babanov’s home was in the northern territory of Talas, Kyrgyzstan’s smallest region, one-fifth the size of Osh. Not surprisingly, it was in these two regions where voter turnout was highest. Whereas the national turnout approached 56 percent—the lowest on record for a presidential election, and well below the 61 percent participation rate in the previous presidential contest—over 68 and 61 percent of the voters turned out in the Osh and Talas regions, respectively. In a development that will surely raise doubts in the Babanov camp about the fairness of the count, the turnout rate in Talas declined by more than 20 percent compared to the 2011 presidential contest, while the participation rate in the Osh region increased by more than 15 percent. Given the very large numbers of migrant workers from the traditionally poorer southern regions who work in Russia and neighboring Kazakhstan, a turnout rate approaching 70 percent in the Osh region is unusually high.

Whatever the role of regionalism in voter behavior, that factor alone is unable to explain the success of Zheenbekov in Sunday’s election. For one, although individuals may come from a particular district or region, they surround themselves with political allies who are broadly dispersed across the country. In the case of Babanov, not only has his party traditionally enjoyed deep support in both the North and the South, but he concluded a pact less than three weeks before the election with a prominent candidate from the Jalal-Abad region in the South, Bakyt Torobaev, the leader of a parliamentary faction. The two men entered into a “tandem” that called for Babanov to appoint Torobaev prime minister if he won the presidency.
The Babanov-Torobaev “tandem” was but one of a number of pacts concluded in recent months that led to the withdrawal from the presidential race of prominent contenders for the presidency. This winnowing of the field through behind-the-scenes deal-making has become a standard feature of presidential races in Kyrgyzstan, and in this case it may well have helped Zheenbekov to win the contest in the first round. A larger field of veteran politicians, each with his or her own geographic and kinship networks, would have made it far more difficult for President Atambaev’s hand-picked successor to have achieved a first-round majority. As in previous contests, disqualifications based on the selective prosecution of prospective candidates and alleged violations of registration technicalities also narrowed the field of candidates considerably.

Assuming that the vote totals are accurate—and one official protocol from a southern precinct showing all 1369 votes for Zheenbekov raises serious doubts about that premise—the most compelling explanations for Zheenbekov’s first-round victory appear to lie in the campaign itself. State officials sympathetic to President Atambaev pursued a range of initiatives designed to tilt the scales in favor of Zheenbekov, from threats against government workers if they didn’t vote for Zheenbekov to en masse voting by teachers and university students, organized by the heads of state-related schools and higher education institutions. In a trip to the Batken region in the country’s South, a deputy prime minister in charge of overseeing the election was caught on tape telling local government personnel to vote for Zheenbekov or else. You mustn’t spit in the well you drink from, he warned them. For their part, leaders of the police and security services sought to convince the public that Babanov or those in his entourage were plotting to engage in violence to steal the election, accusations contained in leaked information from what should have been confidential interrogations. On election eve and election day, in several locations around the country the police brought in for questioning members of Babanov’s campaign team, which in some cases kept them from their duties as precinct observers.

In what may have been the most damaging blow to Babanov’s prospects, the Central Election Commission (CEC) heard a complaint in the final days of the campaign about a speech Babanov had given in the South to a group of Kyrgyzstani citizens of Uzbek ethnicity. The CEC concluded that Babanov’s comments violated campaign rules by “stirring up inter-ethnic enmity.” His offense: he told the ethnic Uzbeks that under his presidency, “if a policeman messes with (tronet) Uzbeks, he will be fired.” Although this complaint resulted in CEC’s third warning to Babanov, which could have disqualified him, it was the broad dissemination of portions of the speech, not just by the CEC but the Procuracy, which may well have undermined Babanov’s electoral prospects. In this case, President Atambaev’s team was engaging in what are called “dog whistles” in the United States, that is coded messages directed at nationalist voters among the ethnic Kyrgyz who have no interest in the state assuring equal treatment for ethnic Uzbeks.

President Atambaev and his political allies also exploited a meeting of Babanov with President Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan to raise further questions about the candidate’s loyalty to the Kyrgyz nation. In a stunning reaction to the unexpected meeting of Nazarbaev and Babanov in Kazakhstan, Atambaev launched the harshest attack ever directed against a neighboring president by a Kyrgyzstani leader. The tirade enjoyed considerable popularity on social media in Kazakhstan, a country that is not used to seeing its long-serving leader subjected to criticism.

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We started this post by observing that a country’s institutional design is not a sufficient condition for democracy. Without leaders who are willing to lose and state officials who are willing to apply the laws dispassionately, elections will not ensure the accountability of a government to its people. But if there is a modicum of hope to be taken from Sunday’s presidential election in Kyrgyzstan, it is that the stakes of this election for the nation were not as high as in some earlier contests. The paring of the powers of the presidency—accomplished through the 2010 Constitution and amendments pushed through by Atambaev last year—mean that the prime minister’s office may at last emerge as the core executive institution in Kyrgyzstan’s peculiar and ever-changing form of semi-presidentialism. Other elements of the country’s institutional design encourage a multi-party system and coalition governments, which tend to create the kind of messy and inefficient governance that works against the consolidation of power in the hands of a single individual.

To what extent the departing president will remain in the political game as a force behind Zheenbekov and the prime minister will become clear when Atambaev leaves the presidency in December. When Zheenbekov resigned the post of premier to run for the presidency two months ago, Atambaev installed his 40-year old former chief-of-staff, Sapar Isakov, as the new prime minister, and Isakov then surrounded himself with youthful technocrats rather than politicians. This combination of a less than forceful President-Elect and an inexperienced prime minister would seem to prepare the ground for the continued involvement of ex-President Almazbek Atambaev at the apex of Kyrgyzstani politics.

Uzbekistan – Mirziyoyev’s First Year as President: Reforms without Regime Change

On 2 September 2016, 78-year-old President Islam Karimov was officially announced dead. Having ruled Uzbekistan since 1989, Karimov orchestrated the smooth passage of Central Asia’s most populous nation of 31m from a Soviet republic to a highly personalist regime that was consistently ranked among Freedom House’s “worst of the worst” regimes worldwide. His power did not rest on an ideology-driven party apparatus, but on a comprehensive patronage system involving the major, regionally based political-economic networks of the country. Succession in power is the Achilles heel of such regimes, and behind-the-scenes competition between rivalling factions had been ongoing for several years as Karimov was ailing. His death, therefore, caused fears of instability and “clan wars” as well as frail hopes for political and economic reforms.

Six days after his death, the parliament appointed 59-year-old Shavkat Mirziyoyev as the interim president. Mirziyoyev, who had served Karimov as a loyal Prime Minister for thirteen years, presented himself as the candidate of continuity. On 4 December 2016, he handily won a presidential election, receiving 88.6 percent of the vote. The “Economist” concluded that just another “sham election” had replaced “one strongman with another,” thus “cloning Karimov.”

However, twelve months after Karimov’s death, even sceptics agree that Uzbekistan is changing. In foreign politics, the isolationist and idiosyncratic course of the first president has been replaced by an active and pragmatic policy that is aware of Uzbekistan’s geographical location at the crossroads of Central Asia. A reset of relations with all neighbour states was launched. Bilateral negotiations on the delimitation and demarcation of state borders with Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan—an unresolved issue since Soviet days—have made more progress in twelve months than for the last 15 years; agreements on strategic partnership, economic and military cooperation have been signed. In the wider neighborhood, cooperation with Russia has also become closer, especially on economic and security issues, albeit a formal security alliance with Moscow remains unlikely. Equally important are new trade and investment agreements with Uzbekistan’s largest trade partner China as well as Turkey.

Another domain under reform is the economy. In October 2016, Mirziyoyev started to issue decrees aiming at the improvement of the business climate in Uzbekistan. In November 2016, the creation of four new free economic zones was announced. A tax reform has been brought about, and in August 2017 important steps towards the full convertibility of the national currency followed as well as decisions to invest in a modern IT infrastructure and a national “Silicon Valley.”

The “Strategy for the further development of Uzbekistan in 2017-2021” announced in February 2017 also entails a political dimension. While Karimov during his last decade had been engaged in the creation of controlled party pluralism and parliamentarism as decorative elements of his “Uzbek model of democracy,” Mirziyoyev rather stresses the need to improve the efficiency of the state to enhance people’s trust. Reforms of the law enforcement system—particularly the police—have been set up, and an anti-corruption programme has been launched. Constitutional amendments introduced a Supreme Judicial Council and expanded the powers of the Constitutional Court. The president declared the year 2017 as the “Year of Dialogue with the People and Human Interests,” which is a far more political motto than those of all the years under his predecessor. The newly created “virtual receptions” of the president and other offices became very popular, serving as “public complaint boxes.” According to official sources, within the first ten months of the new president, one million petitions were received.

Not least, the situation of political and human rights seems to have improved. Observers note that the country’s official media begin to enjoy more leeway. Several journalists and political activists have been released from prison; selected dissidents have been invited to return to the country. For the first time, human rights activists who traditionally commemorated the Andijan massacre in 2005 were not detained by police in May 2017. Most recently, more than 4000 people have been removed from blacklists of potential Islamic extremists, which proves a further normalization of the relationship between the state and religious communities. The authorities also decided to ban the mobilisation of minors and employees of the health and education services in the cotton sector, eventually responding to international pressure against the use of forced labor.

These developments nourish the hope of more fundamental regime change. However, when seen realistically, such change is unlikely. On the one hand, recent reforms and policy changes merely reflect the “recalibration” of a typical personalist regime. The new patron at the top of the power pyramid strives for leaving his mark according to his interests, beliefs, and tastes. Obviously, his preferences are quite pragmatic and influenced by the desire to gain popularity at home as well as international acceptance. On the other hand, the results of Mirziyoyev’s first year in office indicate that his position is not (yet) fully consolidated. When ascending to power, he had to rely on an informal power-sharing agreement, with the chief of the National Security Service as his main partner and rival. Thus, it has been said that the postponement of some reforms—such as the full liberalization of the foreign exchange regime and visa-free travel for foreign tourists—was caused by severe conflicts behind the scenes.

In this situation, at least some of Mirziyoyev’s recent measures are intended to merge his constitutionally provided supremacy as the President with that of the sole and undisputed “real” leader. For example, the reorganization of the internal troops and the police aims at shifting the balance away from the security service. In the same vein, the media policy is driven rather by image considerations than by the vision of a free press, causing experiments and inconsistencies. On the one hand, the president encourages journalists to address pressing issues, such as “bureaucracy, indifference, extortion, corruption.” His newly created TV channel “Uzkbekistan-24“ has even been allowed to air the first critical analysis of Karimov’s presidency. On the other hand, live broadcasts of talk shows and panel discussions with officials—probably the most important innovation in state TV—have recently been recalled because of an on-air-confrontation between the prime minister and a journalist. While BBC is on the verge of restarting its operations in Uzbekistan after nearly 12 years, the protection of “national values” and the need to “fight commercialization” serve as justifications for new attempts to bring Uzbekistan’s media and culture, including film and music, under control. This list could be continued.

Perhaps, Uzbekistan is making progress towards a rather “normal” authoritarian regime and a more cooperative neighbor. Yet, under the country’s second president, the power system will not fundamentally change.

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.