Roza Otunbaeva becomes Central Asia’s first female head of state, although only for an interim period.
The appointment of Roza Otunbaeva as head of state for a transition period of a year and a half is an attempt to ensure Kyrgyzstan has a strong hand on the tiller until the planned political reforms have taken root.
The reasons for elevating Otunbaeva, named as acting prime minister in the administration that came to power in early April, are understandable. There are, however, also a number of problems and potential pitfalls associated with the decision.
The interim government took control following the popular unrest of April 6 and 7, which swept former president Kurmanbek Bakiev from power.
Under a decree issued on May 19, cabinet chief Otunbaeva becomes head of state until December 31 next year. That means the presidential election that had earlier been scheduled to coincide with a parliamentary ballot this October is now postponed by one year.
Otunbaeva will continue performing the functions of prime minister until a new one is appointed after the October election.
As political analyst Elmira Nogoibaeva notes, this new role is intended to be a stabilising factor, given the multiplicity of threats facing the country. She believes it will give Kyrgyzstan’s leaders some breathing-space until October, when a new parliament will be elected and a government formed.
Otunbaeva’s appointment still needs to be approved in a nationwide referendum on June 27, in which the electorate will also be asked to back an all-new constitution that shifts the balance of power away from the presidency to parliament. To be confirmed, she will need the support of at least 50 per cent of people who vote.
At a May 11 press conference, deputy prime minister Omurbek Tekebaev, who has been put in charge of the constitutional reform process, announced that the turnout required to make the referendum valid was being cut from 50 to 30 per cent of the electoral roll. He said there were parts of the country such as Batken in the far southwest where turnout was generally low, and there was also a whole chunk of the electorate unlikely to vote – about a quarter were working abroad, and another 25 per cent within Kyrgyzstan were living somewhere other than their registered domicile.
Asked what the plan was if voters turned the appointment down, government spokesman Farid Niazov said the interim administration was confident this would not happen, as both official and independent opinion polls showed that people felt positively about Otunbaeva.
If successful, Otunbaeva will become the first female president in Central Asia.
The rationale for appointing a transitional president is clear. It will open the way to addressing many of the issues the government is now struggling with. In the present constitution, the post of president carries more weight than that of prime minister, especially an acting one. For instance, the president has powers to direct and deploy the military and police.
Decisions emanating from the head of state will thus have greater legitimacy.
The interim government is still struggling to restore law and order in the face of a series of challenges since it came to power.
On May 19, there was an outbreak of violence in the southern city of Jalalabad, as crowds of Kyrgyz youths tried unsuccessfully to storm a university associated with the ethnic Uzbek community. The confrontation left two people dead and dozens injured. This incident came less than a week after supporters of Bakiev temporarily seized control of provincial government offices in three southern regions, Jalalabad among them.
On April 19, five people died and 40 were injured as police battled several hundred people who had seized and laid claim to land around the village of Mayevka, on the northern outskirts of Bishkek.
The appointment also avoids potential problems arising from running presidential and parliamentary election campaigns simultaneously, as only the latter will now take place. Finally, foreign relations will become easier to manage as the Kyrgyz state will have a head with a clear mandate.
All these considerations seem to have been taken into account when Otunbaeva was appointed. But that is not to say the road ahead will be free of trouble.
Once concern has to be that the decision was made with a narrow circle of interim leaders, without other political forces being involved.
Then there is the matter of Otunbaeva’s name appearing alone on the referendum ballot paper. The lack of an alternative choice must inevitably cast a shadow over the administration’s legitimacy.
Technically, however, the appointment does not break any law, even there is no precedent for this interim government and therefore no legal arrangements governing the way it should operate.
Another big question is whether the plan will actually work – whether Otunbaeva will be able to provide the kind of strong, cohesive leadership the interim authorities are clearly hoping for.
It remains to be seen whether Otunbaeva will be able to gather support from political groupings outside her current allies. Kyrgyz politics is based around strong personalities who command authority from a substantial power-base. Formal political institutions are weak; they exist nominally but do not wield real power. Thus, it is not enough merely to be a well-known government official. Politicians have to be influential and respected as individuals if they want to secure backing for their policies across the political spectrum.
Otunbaeva is certainly an experienced politician and enjoys a reputation as a good negotiator. She comes originally from the south of Kyrgyzstan, but is not associated with any particular tribal group.
Although she was formerly an ambassador and foreign minister, she does not have a lot of practical experience of administration. Much of her time was spent abroad, so her connections within Kyrgyzstan were weakened. The question is whether she has managed to revive these over the past three years, when she was a member of parliament with the opposition Social Democratic Party.
She will faces challenges even within the interim administration of which she is part. As the parliamentary race draws closer, the unity displayed by leaders from the different political parties represented there may begin to crumble, and rivalries will emerge.
Finally, Otunbaeva will be judged by her government’s success in turning the economy around.
Following the April unrest, neighbouring Kazakstan and Uzbekistan closed their borders with Kyrgyzstan, cutting its foreign trade by more than 50 per cent and hammering the domestic economy. Kazakstan reopened its frontier on May 20 , but the Uzbek one is still shut.
Unless significant economic progress is made, Otunbaeva’s legitimacy as a president could be rapidly eroded, and Kyrgyzstan’s impoverished people might consider yet another change of leadership.
For Otunbaeva herself, the new post seems to have far more drawbacks than pluses. By taking on the interim role, she automatically excludes herself from running for a full five-year presidential when the election comes round next year. She has also had to leave the Social Democratics in order to demonstrate her political neutrality.
The interim presidency places an enormous burden of responsibility on her shoulders. It also carries with it the real risk that she will be held personally responsible if things go wrong.
Given current levels of political instability, Otunbaeva has virtually no room to make mistakes. Any outbreak of violence would risk plunging the country into civil war, leading to the collapse of the state and the loss of its sovereignty.