PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS IN CENTRAL ASIA
Azhdar Kurtov, President, Center for Public Law Studies (Moscow, Russia)
At the turn of the third millennium the state of democracy in Central Asia attracts a lot of attention and causes heated debates. The world public is divided over the issue and offers varied and even contradicting opinions about it. Those who support the Central Asian leaders and the power structures are inclined toward biased opinions that can be summed up as: “Despite certain minor faults the Central Asian leaders are moving toward democratic and law-governed states, slowly but surely pushing forward the necessary reforms in their rather backward countries they inherited from the communists.”
This suggests, first, that no one should ask for more than what is already done by the heads of the backward and mainly traditional countries. Second, possible criticism at home or abroad expressed by international organizations and experts, the media and academic communities of other countries is neutralized by the thesis of “bad heredity.” I mean to say that the roots of all negative phenomena that spring to life in the course of current political transformations are sought in the past and are resolutely separated from the subjects acting on the political scene today.
Sometimes politicians, diplomats and intellectuals that are serving the powers that be in their protracted deliberations shift the emphasis to the thesis about democracy being a lengthy process that never ends. Approached from the philosophical angle, democracy, as a sociopolitical phenomenon is a lengthy process, yet this should not be taken to mean that everything we say about it should be a paraphrase of what Zeno said about Achilles never catching up with the tortoise. The phenomenon of democracy can be discussed at any given moment from the point of view of political science and law. Any serious attempt at an analysis of democratic developments in Central Asia can clearly indicate the trends of political reforms, a type of the regime in the process of creation and the share of democracy in the political practices of any specific state.
Elections are one of the best instruments of analysis—democracy cannot exist without genuine elections; any election campaign brings to light the key political problems including all those that the political science normally studies. Democracy cannot be reduced to elections—it is much vaster, yet the phenomenon of elections allows us to apply the categories the jurists describe as indispensable and sufficient evidence. Indispensable evidence is a set of facts without which a just sentence is impossible in principle. In our case elections are indispensable evidence of democracy, yet they cannot be recognized as sufficient evidence. There are other facts, institutions, processes, etc. a certain set of which can be described as sufficient evidence of democracy.
It should be added that the phenomenon of elections itself as an institution of democracy should meet certain requirements: the mere fact of elections is not enough to prove the state’s democratic nature. We all know that elections did take place under all sorts of regimes—in ancient despotic states and even earlier, in clan societies. Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes make a formal use of the institution of elections and discard its essence or, at best, replace it will all sorts of demagogic tricks.
In democracies all political actors pledge to abide by election results no matter how unfavorable and to transfer power to the victorious forces and leaders. Elections are a sort of an exam or a competition that can be failed, therefore they should be regular and should include a set of rules without which the competition becomes unfair. Any assessment of political regimes and their politics should be based on a detailed analysis of elections and their conformity with democracy.
When applied to Central Asia this approach provides reliable results that dampen the optimistic statements of local politicians about their devotion to the democratic values and refute their exaggerations of the objective difficulties their countries run against when moving toward democracy. The facts show that in Central Asia the democratic nature of elections is distorted in favor of certain subjects of power.
By necessity I have to limit myself to certain aspects of the nearly unlimited problem of elections. I have selected those of the aspects that can be regarded as fairly representative if we borrow a term from sociologists. I have limited myself to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan for the following reasons.
Turkmenistan is an extremely authoritarian state in which presidential power dominates over all other state and public institutions. In other words, the republic offers no material for comparison where democracy in general and elections in particular are concerned. Unbiased experts agree on the political nature of the ruling regime: the majority never uses the term “democracy” when writing about Turkmenistan.
Tajikistan had to be left out of my analysis because of the protracted civil war there—so far it is hardly correct to compare the democratic reforms there with political changes in other states. The process of national reconciliation, however, is gaining momentum. Very soon nobody would be able to justify certain political measures with the “echo of war.”
Finally, the vastness of the subject has forced me to concentrate on presidential elections because neither local legislatures nor parliaments play any prominent political role in Central Asia. The key political question, the question of power, is formally resolved during the presidential elections. The Central Asian presidents wield enormous power, and the course of events in their countries depends on them rather than on the parliaments.
Time has come to discuss the legal regulation and the election practices in three out of five Central Asian republics.
Democracy as Time-Limited Political Power
In Kazakhstan presidential elections are regulated by certain normative acts: the Constitution, the constitutional Law on Elections in the Republic of Kazakhstan of 28 September, 1995 and later amendments, the constitutional Law on President of the Republic of Kazakhstan of 26 December, 1995 with later amendments, and the presidential decree that has the force of a constitutional law, On the Constitutional Council of the Republic of Kazakhstan, of 29 December, 1995. It should be noted that they rely on the legal norms to which people’s representatives had no chance to contribute. The documents were adopted in spring-winter 1995 when the president disbanded the parliament and assumed its legislative powers. He continued this practice even when a new parliament had been elected: the decree on the Constitutional Council was adopted on the eve of a session of the newly elected legislative body. Obviously, President Nazarbaev wanted to plant the norms—the task that could not be entrusted to deputies.
In 1998, Nazarbaev insisted on extending the term of presidency to seven years. Later, this also happened in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It is interesting to note that in all three republics authorities spared no effort to convince the people that this was done in their interests and fitted the world practice. The latter is not quite true: In 2000, the French voted for cutting down the presidential term from seven to five years (something that had been suggested long before). Presidents serve seven years only in two genuinely democratic European states—Ireland and Italy. It should be noted, however, that Ireland is a parliamentary republic with limited presidential powers. In Italy the president elected by the parliament works under its strict control, though recently there appeared projects of turning the country into a semi-presidential republic. In addition, the Italian president is elected through indirect election.
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, to a lesser degree, are presidential republics: the power of the president there is actually unlimited. This dismisses any comparisons with Europe as incorrect. Any attempts to justify the longer presidential term with references to Turkey, Madagascar, and Syria can be hardly accepted—they are not democratic countries at all. This shows that in respect to presidential elections the Central Asian countries are moving away from genuine democracy. Turkmenistan has advanced further than the others along this road: the Great Turkmenbashi became a life-long president “at an insistent request of his people.” This was registered as a constitutional law.
I started this analysis with the presidential term, yet the problem is not exhausted with its length (seven or five years). What is important is how the laws treat repeated presidentship.
Current legislation of Kazakhstan registers that no more than two successive presidential terms are allowed for one person (Art 42:5 of the Constitution and Art 53:3 of the constitutional Law on Elections in the Republic of Kazakhstan). Significantly, this norm was first registered in December 1993 in the Code on Elections in the Republic of Kazakhstan (Part 2, Art 73) adopted in abnormal conditions: there was much haste and strong pressure from President Nazarbaev. The process took one day—no discussions and no alternatives were possible. The parliament was doomed and knew that. The president was resolved to disband it, and the deputies, devoid of willpower and any desire to look into details, apathetically voted for the document that the head of state had actually imposed on them. A statutory wording that contradicted the then effective Constitution slipped into the Code in haste or, more likely, was introduced there intentionally. Part 4, Art 76 of the Constitution adopted on 28 January, 1993 said: “Any person can serve as President for not more than two successive terms,” while Part 2, Art 73 of the Code on Elections in the Republic of Kazakhstan was worded differently: “Any person cannot be elected President of the Republic of Kazakhstan more than two successive times.” This was sleight of hand of the authorities, which explains why the public prosecutor’s office and the Constitutional Court let it pass in disregard of their duty to remedy violations of the republic’s main law.
No wonder that in December 1993 and in 1995 the Kazakh legislators used the formula “not more than two successive times” rather than “for not more than two successive terms” usually used in other countries. Despite their outward similarity these are two fundamentally different formulas. The wording “for not more than two successive terms” means the society and state’s intention to prevent supreme power from degenerating into an authoritarian regime. There are several other differences between the two formulas. Legally the “term” means a period of time between two events while the formula “elected two successive times” speaks in each case about an event or a fact of electing a certain person. Graphically the “term of presidentship” can be represented with a segment (a straight line limited to its beginning and end) while “a time of election” with a dot. The difference is profound: “not more than two successive times” means that it is the number of times the person was elected president which counts (he may leave his office for several reasons such as resignation or impeachment before the term expires). This formula regulates not the number of terms (which is important from the point of view of democracy and for stemming possible authoritarian intentions) but the number of election victories, which is a different thing.
Today democracy means that the separation of powers is not the only instrument of control over state power: the limited number of terms at the highest posts for the same person is another of such instruments. In Kazakhstan the principle of the separation of powers was nearly never consistently applied. The formula “two successive terms” meant that in normal political conditions Nazarbaev would not be able to run for president in 2000 because the referendum of 1995 actually gave him another presidential term. The formula “two successive times” removed the obstacle: legally the referendum was not presidential elections.
There is another argument much used by those who want to see Nazarbaev re-elected president once more (or several times) in future: the fact of adopting a new Constitution in 1995 could be interpreted as a fresh start for counting the times the head of state was re-elected while all previous facts of election could be conveniently ignored. The Constitution supplied no clear answer to this question. Art 94:1 of Section IX “Concluding and Transition Provisions” said: “The President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, elected in conformity with the law of the Republic of Kazakhstan operating at the time when the Constitution is enacted, acquires the powers of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan envisaged by the Constitution and exercises these powers within the period established by the decision passed by the republican referendum of 29 April, 1995.” The above does not supply a straightforward and legally valid conclusion that the previous elections of the president had to be counted under Art 42:5 of the Constitution.
We should not forget that Nursultan Nazarbaev was first elected president when even the 1993 Constitution did not exist. Significantly enough, Art 10 of Sub-section III “On the State, Its Bodies and Institutions” of the “Transition Provisions” section of the Constitution adopted on 28 January, 1993 clearly indicated: “The President and Vice-President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, elected according to the law of the Kazakh S.S.R. operating at the time the present Constitution is enacted, retain their powers until the next presidential elections. The President of the Republic of Kazakhstan is subject to the provision of the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan that any person cannot serve as President for more than two successive terms.” From this it follows that the legal norms of the Decree on Elections in the Republic of Kazakhstan, which was later called a constitutional law, were designed to fix the authoritarian practice of extending the presidentship of one person, namely Nursultan Nazarbaev. This sheds light on the disbandment of two parliaments done outside laws.
Similar practices can be seen in Tashkent and Bishkek. Kyrgyzstan is the smallest among the Central Asian states, which probably explains why it was the last to address the issue of vital importance for any head of an Asian country: how to perpetuate the power of one particular person on the political Olympus. The neighbors had already successfully coped with it while Kyrgyzstan remained outside the process.
In fact, those close to President Akaev were watching how the anti-democratic moves of the neighbors invited no hostile reaction. Indeed, the Western establishment while being dedicated to its principles not always adequately responded to the violations observed during presidential elections in Central Asia. In any case, criticism did not develop into severed contacts or any sanctions.
Kyrgyzstan was in a much worse position than the neighbors: devoid of oil or gas reserves, the republic had to stake on its only rich gold mine that was not enough to fill in the state coffers. For many years the republican leaders had to exploit their progress in democratic reforms: the republic was positioned as an island of democracy. However, the events of 2000-2002 have destroyed this image.
Early in 2000 during the parliamentary elections the republican leaders amply demonstrated their readiness to sacrifice the democratic values and laws to the cause of preserving power of one particular person. The world learned that under pressure of his superiors the chairman of one of the election committees committed suicide to avoid disgracing himself. President Akaev made several statements to the effect that during the presidential elections of 29 October freedom and justice would reign supreme and unhindered.
Yet nobody was prepared to part with power. Formally the Constitution of 5 May, 1993 (Art 43:2) says: “Nobody can be elected President of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan more than two successive times.” This is a usual formula that protects democracies against totalitarianism. By that date Askar Akaev had been serving as President for many years: it was on 27 October, 1990 that the Supreme Soviet of the Kirghiz S.S.R. elected him president. After the failed putsch of August 1991, on 12 October, 1991 he initiated general elections and was elected president in an absence of other candidates. He confirmed his presidential powers at the referendum of 30 January, 1994.
In 1995, he won general elections, which means that before 2000 he had been twice elected the head of state and could not run again. In the East, more often than not, politics is an exercise in craftiness. Back on 13 July, 1998 the Constitutional Court passed a decision according to which the period from 1990 to 1995 was not counted as Akaev’s presidential term because he had been elected according to the 1978 Constitution. From this it followed that Akaev was and was not the president at one and the same time. This fitted perfectly the Oriental tradition of the judicial powers serving the rulers.
The constitutional judges preferred to ignore the fact that their decision contradicted their earlier verdict of 28 December, 1995 which said: “Askar Akaev was first elected President of the country on 27 October, 1990 and entered into his duties on that day. From this it follows that the term of his presidential powers should be counted from the day of his actual presidentship, that is, from 27 October, 1990.” In Kyrgyzstan, too, all assurances of loyalty to the democratic values proved to be mere words.
Uzbekistan dealt with the problem in a slightly different way. Part 1, Art 90 of the Constitution adopted on 8 December, 1992 contained an outwardly attractive norm: “No one can serve as President of the Republic of Uzbekistan for more than two successive terms.” The real history of Islam Karimov’s presidentship has demonstrated that constitution means nothing in a system that completely depends on the will of one person.
The History of Presidential Elections in Central Asia as an Evidence of the Region’s Moving Away from Democracy
It should be said that Uzbekistan was the first among the Soviet Union republics to establish the post of the president. This happened in March 1990 when the Law on Establishing the Post of the President of the Uzbek S.S.R. was adopted. I think that the fact itself should not be interpreted as Islam Karimov’s desire to create a system of personal power. (At that time, he headed the republic.) We should not forget that Uzbekistan was living through hard times in 1990. The republic needed stability—something that the state structures oriented to the communist party could not produce.
We have, however, to distinguish between two fundamental notions: the institution of presidentship and a person claiming this post. Politicians and friendly experts deliberately lead public to believe that they are one and the same thing. This is what happens in Central Asia: the institution has become obviously personalized, that is the need to have a head of state is artificially associated with a specific person.
This was very clear in Uzbekistan. I should say that democratic elections closely connected, among other things discussed above, with presidential terms have other no less important temporal parameters. Indeed, free and straightforward presidential or parliamentary elections cannot be reduced to the election day. To make a conscious, independent and free choice the voters should be given fullest possible information about all those who run for the office; people should be given time to familiarize themselves with the election programs, to think them over so that to be free in their choice. Life has shown that in Central Asia the authorities consciously shortened election campaigns or even discarded them to ensure election of a certain person. An unbiased analysis of the local press shows that democracy is deliberately distorted. The journalists do their bit by praising the decorous situation at polling stations on the election day as the best evidence of democracy. One should bear this in mind when assessing the situation in Uzbekistan.
At the first session of the Supreme Soviet of the Uzbek S.S.R. of the twelfth convocation on 24 March, 1990 Karimov was elected president without a preliminary election campaign. Moreover, there were no other candidates and the deputies were forced to vote for or against the only candidate. Only eight deputies were bold enough to vote against.
Somewhat later Kazakhstan traveled along the same road. It was in February 1990 that Nazarbaev reached the highest state post in the union republic: he was elected chairman of the Supreme Soviet. On 24 April, 1990 the law establishing the post of the president of the Kazakh S.S.R. was adopted. This legal act and many other documents betrayed the authorities’ craftiness, lack of principles when dealing with democratic institutions, and their desire to play into one person’s hands. The law said that the president should be elected through general and direct vote, yet it made an exception for Nursultan Nazarbaev: for some reason the first president had to be elected by the Supreme Soviet deputies rather than by the entire nation. In an absence of alternative candidates he was elected to this post.
In Kirghizia the pattern was somewhat different: for the first time Akaev was elected president by the Supreme Soviet that was offered several candidates. This happened because in 1990 the majority of the Supreme Soviet deputies sided with the communists. Their leader Absamat Masaliev, First Secretary of the CC of the Communist Party of Kirghizia, was also Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Kirghiz S.S.R. In summer 1990 there were bloody clashes between Kirghizes and Uzbeks in the Osh Region caused by what many thought the unfair distribution of water and land and also by certain unhappy appointments. The communist nomenklatura was rapidly losing its authority. It seems that the idea of presidentship was prompted by this and certain other circumstances. It was A. Masaliev who made the idea public possibly in a hope that the parliament would vote for him. The events in Osh that cost over a hundred lives caused a shock. This explains why on 29 October, 1990, after several rounds of voting, the extraordinary session of the Supreme Soviet of the Kirghiz S.S.R. preferred Akaev, the then president of the republican Academy of Sciences.
The events connected with the putsch of August 19911 and disintegration of the Soviet Union created a need to elect new heads of state in Central Asia. Formally, the terms of the already elected presidents had not expired, yet they all did their best to demonstrate to the world and to each other through general elections that their power was based on new principles and had nothing in common with the communist past.
In Uzbekistan general elections took place on 29 December, 1991. People had to choose between Islam Karimov, the president, and Muhammad Solikh, leader of the Democratic Party Erk (Freedom). Karimov won with 86 percent, Solikh lost with 12.6 percent. Many years later, in 1999 he was accused of being involved in an aborted coup and received a harsh sentence in absentia.
In Kazakhstan the nation voted for the president on 1 December, 1991. There was no choice: two days before the election day the only rival running from the political opposition was removed by administrative methods. In an absence of other rivals Nazarbaev, who was the president, got 98.78 percent of votes.
In Kyrgyzstan general presidential elections took place on 12 October, 1991. Akaev did his best to present his republic as the most democratic among the Central Asian states. The election campaign was not quite democratic because the president ran alone. He got 95,39 percent of votes. It is interesting to note that as soon as he was elected Akaev got himself more powers through several decrees and neutralized the parliament and the political parties. In other words, the modified institution of general elections was used in all three countries to deliberately undermine other, no less important, democratic components.
This allowed Akaev to survive the scandal connected with the Siabeco company that maintained close business contacts with the president. Information about corruption in the company and its heads’ unseemly machinations with the gold mined in the republic caused a political storm and a cabinet crisis. This happened late in 1993. To restore his authority the president organized a referendum on 30 January, 1994—97.03 percent of those who took part in the referendum supported Akaev.
The pattern was borrowed by the presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Islam Karimov exploited the fact that the parliament (Olii Majlis) elected in December 1994 was under his total control to insist on a referendum. It took place in 1995 and extended his presidential powers for five more years, till 2000. It was 99.6 percent of obedient citizens who supported this obviously undemocratic decision.
The president of Kazakhstan moved further away from democracy. In March 1995, he issued a decree that obviously contradicted the Constitution. He disbanded the parliament and used an old Soviet ploy: he passed the surrogate bodies that were allegedly “speaking for the toiling people” for a democratic institution. The Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan was such surrogate organization in the name of which, and in an absence of a legitimately elected parliament, the president pushed through a decision on a referendum designed to extend his term till 2000. It took place on 29 April, 1995: having no choice, 95.46 percent had to support the idea.
Kyrgyzstan chose a different road: Akaev ran for presidency and got 72.45 percent of votes against A. Masaliev with 24.71 percent and M. Sherimkulov with 1.74 percent. The general elections took place on 24 December, 1995.
I have already written that none of the presidents wanted to quit the post when their terms expired. The president of Kazakhstan was the first to stumble across a gimmick: in the fall of 1998 he initiated amendments to the Constitution and staged off-year presidential elections for the term of seven years. Having removed his potential rivals by methods that could not be called strictly legal and having turned a blind eye on numerous violations on the polling day, he won on 10 January, 1999. According to official information, he got 79.78 percent of the votes, Serikbolsyn Abdildin, 11.70 percent, Gani Kasymov, 4.61 percent and Engels Gabbasov, 0.76 percent.
Uzbekistan elected its president strictly on time, yet Abdulkhafiz Djalalov, Director of the Institute of Philosophy and Law of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences and formally the leader of the People’s Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, was forced to run for president against Karimov so that to create an illusion of competition. I should add that none of the officially registered parties in Uzbekistan are parties in the true sense of the word—they are merely extras called to the stage to alleviate an impression of the president’s authoritarian rule. This is best illustrated by Djalalov himself who in his innocence told the journalists crowding at the exit of his polling station on the election day, 9 January, 2001, that he had voted for Karimov. This approach to democracy gained Karimov 95.67 percent of votes.
On 29 October, 2000 Kyrgyzstan voted for the president. I have already written that thanks to the Constitutional Court’s skilful maneuvering President Akaev rescued his political career. To retain power he had to remove those who had challenged him. The presidential political technologists did not disgrace themselves. Art 43:3 of the Constitution says that the president should have free command of the state tongue (by which the Kyrghyz language is meant). I should add that earlier the same year Russian had been announced an official language. The media lauded this to the skies, yet in fact nothing changed: this was merely a PR action.
Art 61:2 of the Constitution explains: “To have a free command of the state tongue means to be able to read, write, to explain oneself and speak in public in the state tongue.” An ad hoc commission of seven linguists was probably instructed to reject all aliens: potential candidates, many of whom had spent years in politics, were forced to prove their knowledge (the humiliating exam included a dictation, a composition, and a 20-minute long talk to the commission members).
Nearly all opposition candidates failed and could not be registered as official presidential candidates. All of them were Kyrgyz: Iskhak Masaliev and Anarbek Usupbaev represented the two communist parties; Ishenbai Kydyrbekov and Anvara Artykova were members of parliament, Iurukslan Toychubekov was deputy governor of the recently formed Batken Region; Omurbek Suvanaliev filled a high post in special services. Felix Kulov, the main opposition candidate, refused to sit for the exam.
The rivals removed, the rest proved to be easy: Askar Akaev got 74.47 percent; Omurbek Tekebaev, 13.09 percent; Almaz Atambaev, 6.0 percent; Melis Eshimkanov, 1.8 percent; Tursunbay Bakir uulu, 0.96 percent; Tursunbek Akunov, 0.44 percent.
The OSCE observers commented on the presidential elections in the three republics as neither just, nor straightforward, nor free. The republican leaders remained unperturbed.
On 27 January, 2002 the president of Uzbekistan extended his term in office to seven years through a referendum (91.78 percent). The question that was asked at the referendum was not directly related to Karimov’s term, yet the results allowed the authorities to extend his term in office through changes in legislation.
In Kazakhstan the plans of transfer of power from Nazarbaev to his chosen successor without elections failed in the fall of 2001. This “froze” the situation to a certain extent. To relieve the tension among the top figures certain key figures, the president’s elder son-in-law among them, were demonstratively distanced. This can be hardly interpreted as a U-turn from authoritarianism to democracy. Later, everything will most probably fall back into place.
Following the bloodshed in the Dzhalal-Abad Region in spring 2002, President Akaev announced that he did not plan to run for president in 2005.
Time will show whether politicians can be trusted. So far, political practices in the Central Asian states have convincingly demonstrated that “there were elections without choice.” The monocentric presidential power has deformed the meaning of elections as a democratic institution: they have degenerated into a quasi-democratic formal act that has nothing to do with who will win. This is predetermined by the laws and related practices far removed from genuine democracy. All over the world elections serve the purpose of replacing those who no longer enjoyed popular trust with those who won it. In Central Asia elections are used to demonstrate popular support for the official course. The voters cannot affect state policies. Local journalists speak about elections as “the feast of democracy.” The feast is no work.
1 It is interesting to note that, according to eye-witness accounts, at the beginning Karimov and Nazarbaev actually supported the aims declared by the putschists. Askar Akaev was the only Central Asian leader who condemned them.