Asia

Kyrgyzstan referendum: What do the reforms mean?

People vote at a polling station during the referendum on constitution change in the village of Baytik some 20 km from Bishkek on December 11, 2016. Image copyright AFP
Image caption Voters overwhelmingly backed the reforms, according to the Election Committee

Kyrgyzstan voted in a referendum on Sunday for changes to the constitution that give more power to the government and especially to the prime minister.

The Central Election Commission said 80% of voters backed the reforms, from a turnout of 42%.

Backers say the reforms make government more efficient, but critics say they were designed to prolong President Almazbek Atambayev's grip on power.

Here's what you need to know.

What are the key changes?

Aside from measures to strengthen the prime minister, there are a raft of other changes.

Under the old constitution, Kyrgyz citizens could turn to international organisations such as the UN's Human Rights Committee if they felt that their rights had been infringed.

If the organisation agreed, the Kyrgyz constitution said the government had to take measures to reinstate their rights or compensate the damage. This clause has now been removed and decisions by international organisations may no longer be recognised.

The new constitution will also allow the government to revoke a person's citizenship, and says that the country's judges are bound by "certain restrictions" which are not defined.

And it changes the definition of marriage to "a union between a man and a woman", which many have viewed as a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

New powers to the PM

The new constitution significantly increases the power of the prime minister. He and his deputies can now be members of parliament and keep their executive offices at the same time - barred under the previous constitution.

Critics of the changes say that this creates a clash of interests, since the head of the cabinet will be responsible for implementing laws he voted on in parliament. But the government points to Western democracies in which this is standard, including the UK.

The prime minister will also be able to appoint heads of local administration without the recommendation of the local judiciary body, and he will be able to dismiss members of the cabinet himself without the president's approval, except the ministers for defence and security.

Were the changes necessary?

Government legislators say that the new constitution will address "problems" with the previous document, passed in 2010, and strengthen the country's independence. They argue that the changes will clarify the process of collaboration between executive and legislative branches.

Opposition members say that the changes were made to help President Atambayev cling on to power. His current term will finish next year and he will not be able to run for the presidency again, but critics have pointed out that he will be eligible to become prime minister - the very office which has had its powers increased - and de facto continue running the country.

Will it dilute democracy?

Kyrgyzstan is the only state in Central Asia to have a parliamentary system of government and it has been referred to as "an island of democracy" in a region prone to authoritarian regimes.

Critics of the changes say they fear that the new constitution will dilute Kyrgyzstan's democracy, reducing checks and balances and making it harder to protect human rights. Activists have voiced concerns that the power to revoke citizenship could be used to threaten dissidents.

But the government argues that the changes will improve the work of different branches and prevent clashes between the parliament and the cabinet, which can bog down legislation.

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