Kyrgyzstan Endorses New Constitution

Two-thirds of the electorate go to the polls despite deadly ethnic violence that shook the country two weeks earlier.

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan–Voters in Kyrgyzstan decisively endorsed a new constitution on Sunday, reducing the power of the chief executive but legitimizing the country’s shaky interim leadership after months of political turmoil.

The referendum will usher in a parliamentary system of governance, making Kyrgyzstan the first of Central Asia’s former Soviet republics to shed a tradition of strong presidential rule. The switch was engineered by a group of opposition leaders who took control of the country in April following the second successful popular uprising in five years against an autocratic leader.

“The people have put a full stop to the epoch of authoritarian, nepotistic management,” interim President Roza Otunbayeva said at a news conference. “Today we reached victory on the path to a true government of the people.”

With 96% of the precincts counted, the Central Election Commission said 91% voted for the new constitution.

Election officials said two-thirds of the eligible 2.77 million voters went to the polls despite a spasm of deadly ethnic violence that had shaken the country just two weeks earlier. Calm prevailed in the southern part of the country on Sunday, enabling the Uzbek minority, whose urban neighborhoods there were hit hardest by the violence, to take part in large numbers.

The U.S. and Russia, which have military bases in Kyrgyzstan and a stake in the country’s stability, supported the decision to go ahead with the vote.

But Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, speaking to reporters after a Group of 20 summit in Toronto, voiced concern that a parliamentary system would make Kyrgyzstan vulnerable to extremists. “Will this not lead to a chain of eternal problems–to reshuffles in parliament, to the rise to power of this or that political group, to authority being passed constantly from one hand to another, and, finally will this not help those with extremist views to power?” he said. “This concerns me.”

The new constitution will limit the president to a single six-year term. Presidential power will be balanced by that of a strong prime minister chosen by a parliament elected every five years. Parliament will be expanded to 120 seats from the current 90, and no single party will be allowed to control more than 65.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for October, but officials said they might be held a month earlier to speed the transition. Several of Ms. Otunbayeva’s top aides said Sunday that they would resign from her administration to run for parliament and jockey for the post of prime minister. Ms. Otunbayeva is to remain in her post until the end of next year and won’t be entitled to seek another term.

While the interim leaders are generally well-accepted in most of the country, they have struggled to assert control in the south, the stronghold of recently ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Four days of ethnic clashes this month in the southern cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad left as many as 2,000 people dead, most of them Uzbeks whose neighborhoods were attacked by Kyrgyz gangs that were led in some cases by army vehicles and men in combat uniform.

The interim government has accused the exiled Mr. Bakiyev and his relatives of stirring up the violence in the south, an assertion they have denied. The government is investigating whether military forces took sides. The interim government is dominated by ethnic Kyrgyz, as were the governments of Mr. Bakiyev and his predecessors.

To keep peace during Sunday’s voting, the interim government deployed 8,000 police officers and an equal number of volunteers. Seeking to convey a image of hope, Ms. Otunbayeva traveled from Bishkek, the capital, to cast her ballot in Osh.

Ms. Otunbayeva had pushed ahead with the referendum despite doubts about a fair vote in southern areas abandoned by as many as 400,000 Uzbeks in the recent violence. Election officials accompanied by armed guards carried transparent ballot boxes to Uzbeks who were too afraid to visit the polling stations, and, ticking off names as the boxes filled up.They handed out temporary IDs to Uzbeks who had lost their papers in homes destroyed by arson.

But Izatulla Rakhmatullayev, an Uzbek who monitored the election for an ethnically mixed group of nongovernmental organizations, said the government effort fell short. He said he surveyed about 1,500 voters who were staying in temporary quarters on the outskirts of Osh, far from their damaged neighborhoods, and found that only about 100 had received ballots.

The proposed constitution doesn’t address the nation’s ethnic divide. Uzbeks make up about 15% of the country’s 5.5 million people, and some of their leaders had proposed that Uzbek be made an official language, alongside Kyrgyz and Russian. That proposal wasn’t considered by the 50-member constitutional drafting commission, which is dominated by ethnic Kyrgyz. Nonetheless, many Uzbeks who voted Sunday said they approved of the proposed constitution, in the hope that it would solidify the government’s power to protect them and enhance the voice of their representatives in parliament.

“Making choices for our country should be a collective process,” Naizir Mamataliyev, a 55-year-old Uzbek barber in Osh, told the Associated Press.

Bakyt Makhmutov, a resident of Bishkek, said he voted “yes” to change the country’s direction. “We need to try a parliamentary system because the strong presidency didn’t work for us,” he said.

Valentina Karavayeva, a Russian-language teacher at an Osh high school, didn’t vote. She voiced a widely held concern that the absence of a strong president would only exacerbate friction among clans and ethnic groups. “As for a parliamentary republic, I can’t imagine how it would work in our country,” she said. “Won’t there be more mess?”

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