Kyrgyzstan’s self-named Interim Government of People’s Trust set the dates for the Constitutional Referendum and the Election only 2 weeks after taking power. The Interim Government’s Chairman Omurbek Tekebaev, who is also Chairman of the political party “Atameken,” and a likely presidential contender, scheduled the referendum on the new Constitution for June 27, 2010 and parliamentary elections for October 10, 2010. This gives the Interim Government six months to do a lot of important work to lay the groundwork for a democratic government. Few countries get their second chance to try again so soon after failing the previous time. Kyrgyzstan has this window of opportunity.
The Interim Government has committed to undertaking substantial constitutional reforms and economic policy changes to institute a market-based democratic government. The newly established Constitutional Council will work hard to institute a parliamentary government system in time for the elections and the newly established Coordination Council for Collaboration between Business and Government will undertake key economic policy changes, ensuring that they get adopted prior to the elections. This quick take to action illustrates that at least one lesson was learned in Kyrgyzstan since the previous revolution almost exactly five years ago. Sowing the seeds for crucial reforms during a short window of opportunity will help ensure that regardless of the outcome of the political elections, the Constitution will provide for a parliamentary system that decentralizes political power and a market-based legal and regulatory framework will provide the foundation for decentralized economic power.
Lessons learned from the failed constitutional reform efforts that followed the so-called “Tulip Revolution” of March 2005 clearly taught the pro-democracy forces in Kyrgyzstan not to leave anything to chance. This is why the relatively sizeable gap between the dates of the Public Referendum and the Elections is so important, as it provides ample time to for extensive debate by stakeholders, and, should any issues arise following the Referendum, there will be sufficient time to resolve them prior to the October elections. Those who recall the efforts to institute a parliamentary government in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 will remember that the Constitutional Council was promptly taken over by President Bakiev, who proceeded to hijack the constitutional revision process by forcing elections to be held prior to the constitutional revisions being finalized, thereby consolidating power and preventing a parliamentary system from taking root.
This time, the Interim Government has sought to provide ample time for extensive discussions within the Constitutional Council as well as far-reaching nationwide debates and consultations between the Interim Government, political parties, NGOs, and general civil society as part of the constitutional reform process and well in advance of the elections. International experience has underscored that this sort of an engagement process in decision-making, if implemented transparently and soundly, is likely to instill high public trust in the outcome.
The process of engaging stakeholders in the planning and implementation of governance is an important one to ensuring legitimacy in government. It was the lack of legitimate, open, transparent and accountable processes that contributed to the violent protests on April 6-7, 2010 and the ultimate downfall of the Bakiev regime. Public’s anger at corruption and rising prices, particularly as a result of an opaque privatization process, led to violent protests demanding President Bakiev’s resignation. Only in February, Ms. Roza Otunbaeva, then opposition leader and today head of the Interim Government, called on the Prime Minister of the Bakiev government to resign as a result of a corrupt, nepotistic and unconstitutional privatization of two utility companies to the economic detriment of the nation and with unjustified price hikes. Ironically, Bakiev faced the very same charges that he pledged to eradicate only five years ago when he came to power following the ousting of President Akaev over alleged improprieties in parliamentary elections coupled with corruption and cronyism.
The Interim Government’s efforts to institute constitutional changes to ensure democratic governance must have public support in order to gain long-term legitimacy in Kyrgyzstan. An open, transparent process of engaging stakeholders – private sector, court system, political parties and movements, NGOs, mass media, diplomatic corps, international organizations, independent experts and think tanks – is a good start. Incorporating their feedback into the reforms will underscore the legality of the changes, fostering true reform. This is a window of opportunity for Kyrgyzstan that, if used wisely, can turn a poor Central Asian nation into a model of democratic reform for its neighbors – near and far. Kyrgyzstan is lucky to have this rare chance.