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Kyrgyzstan Holds Referendum On Constitutional Changes

People take part in a constitutional referendum in Bishkek on December 11.
People take part in a constitutional referendum in Bishkek on December 11.

Polls have opened in Kyrgyzstan for a constitutional referendum that could shift key powers from the president to the prime minister and effectively outlaw same-sex marriage.

Voters in the mostly Muslim former Soviet republic will approve or reject the entire package of 26 proposed amendments with a single "yes" or "no" vote.

Among other things, passage of the government-backed referendum would remove the statute of limitations on some criminal offenses and hand the authorities power to revoke citizenship in some cases.

There have been few opinion polls, but the Kyrgyz authorities have reported high turnout and overwhelming approval in the six other plebiscites held since the 1991 Soviet collapse.

The most controversial changes this time around would strengthen the Central Asian country's prime minister while weakening the president.

One proposed amendment would allow the prime minister, with parliament's approval, to appoint and dismiss cabinet ministers -- a power that now rests with the president.

The wording of another indicates that it would also enable the prime minister to appoint and dismiss local administration chiefs without waiting for a proposal from the local council, which is currently required.

And under an amendment to Article 64 of the constitution, the president would no longer chair the Defense Council -- essentially the head of the military and law enforcement agencies in the country.

Those proposed changes have fueled long-standing suspicion among some in Kyrgyzstan that the referendum is designed to give President Almazbek Atambaev a way to stay in power -- or at least maintain influence -- after his seven-year term ends following an election next fall.

Kyrgyzstan is the only country in Central Asia with a single-term presidency.

Atambaev, 60, has said publicly that he will not seek political office, including the post of the prime minister, after his presidential term ends. But some Kyrgyz political analysts believe that he may intend to continue playing a powerful role behind the scenes.

Atambaev might wish to "install a puppet prime minister" in order to "extend his own political life," Bishkek-based analyst Edil Baisalov says.

Former lawmaker Bakyt Beshimov says that it would be "suicidal" for a "a president whose term is ending not to think about the future of his political legacy."

Atambaev's Social Democratic Party leads the ruling coalition in parliament, the 120-seat Jogorku Kenesh.

No Same-Sex Unions

Another proposed amendment that has attracted attention in Kyrgyzstan and abroad would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, a change that would effectively ban gay marriages.

The referendum comes with the fate of controversial legislation that envisages tough punishments for promoting "a homosexual way of life" and "nontraditional sexual relations" uncertain. The bill passed a first reading in parliament in 2014, but has not been given final approval.

Another proposed amendment stipulates that there is no statute of limitations for the "crimes of genocide and ecocide" in the nation of 6 million.

Kyrgyzstan has adopted a new constitution three times since it gained independence in the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

The first post-Soviet constitution was introduced in 1993 and the second was passed by referendum in 2007.

The current constitution, approved by referendum in June 2010, formally changed the country’s political system, giving more authority to parliament and limiting the power of the president.

Written by Farangis Najibullah