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‘Khanstitutions’: In Central Asia, Constitutions Are Not For The Many, But For The Few


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“I think a people cannot be long free, nor ever happy,” wrote John Adams, a founding father and the second president of the United States, “whose government is in one Assembly.”

When he announced the creation of an upper chamber for Turkmenistan’s legislature in 2020, then-President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov name-checked the “happy life” of his citizens, even though that was unlikely to be his top priority.

Rather it was to give himself a new position chairing the new body, called the Halk Maslahaty, or People’s Council, as he prepared to hand over the presidential reins to his son, Serdar Berdymukhammedov.

More than two years later and the bicameral experiment in Turkmenistan, one of the world’s most authoritarian nations, is over: The rubber-stamp parliament will once again be a single-chamber affair, while the People’s Council is set to mutate into the “highest power” in government, according to state media, who quoted the elder Berdymukhammedov’s proposal on the matter on January 15.

Playing fast and loose with national legislatures and constitutions has become the rule, not the exception, in Central Asia, where a new generation of power holders are now seeking ways to hold onto power, sometimes borrowing from their predecessors’ playbook.

Turkmen state media reported that Serdar Berdymukhammedov subsequently signed an order setting a January 21 date for a government session on the restructure that would confusingly make him — and the ministers of his cabinet — members of the People’s Council controlled by his father.

Whether the younger Berdymukhammedov will maintain his increasingly nominal status as the country’s head of state when the overhaul is finished remains to be seen.

Turkmen political observer and analyst Kumush Bairieva told RFE/RL that the proposal reflects “the distorted ego of Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, for whom being the chairman of the parliament’s upper chamber is not enough.”

“Now he wants to turn himself into the leader of the nation who strictly controls all other branches of power, making them report to the People’s Council,” Bairieva said.

The Five- To Seven-Year Shuffle

If Turkmenistan’s neighbor Uzbekistan passes constitutional changes as expected this spring, then four of the region’s five countries — Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan — will boast seven-year presidential term limits.

Tashkent and Astana have throughout independence oscillated between terms of five and seven years, seemingly reflecting the wishes of founding presidents Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan and Nursultan Nazarbaev in Kazakhstan, who never faced being voted out of power.

When Uzbekistan decided to revert back to five-year terms in 2011, the country’s senate said the change reflected hard-liner Karimov’s vision for “the deepening of democratic reforms and the formation of civil society, as well as the practice that has developed in the vast majority of the democratic states of the world.”

So, how are officials surrounding Karimov’s successor, Shavkat Mirziyoev, justifying the new draft constitution’s return to the seven-year term preferred by nondemocratic states?

By pinning it on the people, of course

In his end-of-year address, Mirziyoev said that “all proposals and wishes expressed by our citizens will be taken into account” in the new draft constitution put to a referendum next year.

But earlier this summer, correspondents for RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service spoke to workers at a factory in a provincial town close to Tashkent who said their management had forced them to sign a letter addressed to lawmakers who were working on the constitutional draft.

The letter, seen by RFE/RL, stated that the undersigned workers were “very happy with reforms being conducted” in Uzbekistan and asked for presidential terms to be extended from five to seven years “or let the head of state remain for life.”

Uzbekistan’s constitutional commission said that it received 117,357 proposals for changes to the basic law before the deadline for submissions passed on August 1, 2022.

A senior lawmaker has already said that overhauling the constitution will allow Mirziyoev to reset his term count and run for a third consecutive term — a trick favored by the late Karimov.

Kyrgyzstan’s 2010 constitutional reform was unique for Central Asia for the sole reason that it was passed at a time when the country did not have a permanent president.

As a result, and because the previous two heads of state were viewed as having abused the office while enriching their families, the presidency saw its mandate weakened as parliament and the prime minister gained new powers.

The new legislature disappointed a lot of people, however.

Packed with businessmen with the money to fund electoral campaigns and thus buy their seat at the table, critics argued that it mostly protected elite interests.

Gradually, new Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev found ways to bend the parliament to his will, notably owing to his control over the feared security services.

Nevertheless, Atambaev still faced some constraints, including a ban on reelection that he observed, leaving office when his term finished in 2017.

The mixed system would not survive the arrival in power of Sadyr Japarov, a member of the government ousted in 2010, who was serving jail time on kidnapping charges in 2020 when a fresh bout of political unrest broke out.

Source : Radio Free Europe


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