Kazakhstan’s political reforms strain political infighting

26.01.2021

Elections to the Kazakh Lower House of Parliament) as well as the local government bodies were held on January 10, 2021. These were the first elections held after the implementation of a package of political reforms, announced by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in December 2019, designed to further enhance the ‘’openness, fairness, and transparency’’ of Kazakhstan’s electoral system.

The reforms included the establishment of an Institute of Parliamentary Opposition to provide additional guarantees for representation of minority parties in the governing structures of the legislative body.

In addition, the number of signatures needed to create a political party with the ability to contest elections was halved, from 40,000 to 20,000. Furthermore, procedures for political activism, including holding national assemblies and rallies, were simplified. In an attempt to modernise the system and make politics attractive to women and youth under 29 years of age, the government stipulated a quota of 30 per cent for this segment in the candidate lists of political parties.

Kazakhstan’s bicameral parliament consists of the (mostly) elected Lower Chamber and the Senate (Upper House). Of the 107 seats in Parliament, 98 are elected via party lists to five-year terms. The remaining nine seats are filled by the Assembly of the People, a body with delegates from regional assemblies of the people intended to represent the many ethnic groups within Kazakhstan; its members are appointed by the president.

The Senate is also mostly elected, with 34 of 49 members being indirectly elected by regional parliaments (two for each of the 14 regions and two each from the cities of Almaty, Nur-Sultan, and Shymkent). The remaining 15 Senate seats are decided by the President.

For the January 10 elections, 10,061 polling stations were made available for an electorate of 11 million voters, including 66 polling stations in Kazakhstan’s overseas missions in 53 countries. While a turnout of 63.3 per cent was announced, some commentators noted that it appeared to be on the high side on account of the COVID pandemic and temperatures of minus 10 degrees celsius in the capital, Nur-Sultan and several regions of the country.

As per results announced by the Central Election Commission, three parties garnered enough votes to pass the required 7 per cent threshold: The Nur Otan (Radiant Fatherland) Party 71.97 per cent; the Ak Zhol (White Path) Democratic Party 10.18 per cent; and the People’s Party (formerly the Communist People’s Party) 9.03 per cent. The Auyl (Village) People’s Democratic Patriotic Party obtained 5.75 per cent and the Adal (Justice) Party secured 3.07 per cent. These two parties, therefore, will not find a place in the new parliament.

These percentages translate into 76, 12, and 10 seats respectively for the three parties in the 107-member lower chamber. In 2016, the number of seats for Nur Otan, Ak Zhol and People’s Party were 80, and nine each respectively. This indicates a loss of four seats by Nur Otan as compared to its performance in the 2016 elections, three of them going to Ak Zhol and one to the People’s Party. Nur Otan though continues to have a pre-dominant majority in the Majilis.

The decisive victory of the Nur Otan party does not come as a surprise as it has occupied a commanding position in the country’s political life since it was established by the first president of the country, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in 1999. Nur Otan has the most organised and cohesive infrastructure in the country, with various internal committees, a youth wing, its own media resources, etc. Till date, Nur Otan has enjoyed a complete and unquestioned supremacy in the domestic polity, society, business and media.

The Ak Zhol party calls itself “the” parliamentary opposition. It has identified bureaucracy and corruption, social injustice and the growing gap between the rich and the poor, and monopolisation of the economy and power by a select few, as the main threats to Kazakhstan. Azat Perushaev, the party’s president, has warned that further intensification of reforms could lead to a crisis of statehood, as happened in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, and earlier in Ukraine.

The elections were monitored by 398 accredited foreign observers, including from 10 international organisations and 31 foreign states, as well as numerous domestic observers. Some international election monitors criticised the elections for absence of real competition and raised concerns over freedom of assembly. The main charge was that since all political parties contesting the elections were supportive of the policies of the ruling party, the campaign was not competitive, and voters had no genuine political alternatives to choose from.

Some candidates from the Nur Otan Party who will be entering the Majilis in the aftermath of the January 10 elections include First Deputy Chairman of the party, Bauyrzhan Baibek; Prime Minister Askar Mamin; former speaker of the Senate and daughter of first President Nazarbayev, Dariga Nazarbayeva; Chief of Staff of President of Kazakhstan, Yerlan Koshanov; Chairman of the Board of the Sovereign Wealth Fund, Samruk-Kazyna Akhmetzhan Yesimov; and Majilis Chairman Nurlan Nigmatulin — all heavy weights of the ruling party.

What is interesting and noteworthy is that Dariga Nazarbayeva has also been included in the list at a prominent position. This will provide her an opportunity to rehabilitate herself in the political landscape of Kazakhstan. It would be recalled that Nazarbayeva had replaced Tokayev as President of the Senate when he took over as the interim President of the country after Nazarbayev suddenly tendered his resignation on March 20, 2019.

She was then seen to have been positioned by Nazarbayev, her father, to be next in succession to Tokayev when he would relinquish the office of the President in the coming years. This assessment however received a rude shock when she was removed, without a comment or explanation, from the position of President of the Senate by Tokayev in May 2020 and also lost her parliament seat.

This development led to several speculations by analysts and observers. Some opined that it was done by Tokayev to exercise his full control and authority during the time of the pandemic and curb Nazarbayeva’s political ambitions. It was also suggested that she might have considered it prudent to be at least officially one step removed from power as Kazakhstan faced down the coronavirus pandemic. There were also a few scandals linked to Nazarbayeva reported in the press at that time, which could also have contributed to this outcome.

Nazarbayeva’s induction into the new Majilis will provide her with the possibility to establish and enhance her authority and influence in the evolving political matrix of the country.

Recent events in the political spectrum in the country would appear to suggest that rivalries among the elites of Kazakhstan have got sharper after Nazarbayev demitted office in March 2019. While not as dramatic as the events in Kyrgyzstan or Belarus, these rivalries have intensified dramatically over the last 22 months since the transition of power from Nazarbayev to Tokayev.

In a new development, elite groups started using international journalists and publications to pass compromising material, kompromat, on one another. In the past few months, there have been major exposes in the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and London Times on Dariga Nazarbayeva; Taimur Kulibayev, Nazarbayev’s son-in-law; and Bulat Utemuratov, a major Nazarbayev confidant, financier and mining magnate. Both parliament’s chambers whose powers were significantly enhanced at the expense of the presidency by Nazarbayev before demitting office in March 2019, could hence play a much more significant role in determining the evolving balance of power and influence between the different political elites of the country.

Since its independence in 1991, political stability, security, and economic growth have been of paramount importance to the Kazakh leadership. The country’s leadership has paid lip-service to the goal of promoting democracy in the country.

It has been insisting that free and transparent elections, freedom of media and expression, freedom to organise political protests and demonstrations will be made available only in due course after stability and development are assured.

As Nazarbayev has often said, ‘’Democracy is a long-term goal but stability could be at risk if change is too swift.’’ So although Tokayev has promised that he will introduce a government that listens to the people, he is moving on the path laid down by Nazarbayev.

The January 10 elections were the eighth parliamentary election in Kazakhstan’s history since its independence in 1991, and the first under Tokayev’s presidency. In remarks delivered after election results became clear, first President Nursultan Nazarbayev highlighted unity and continuity and stated that “Kazakhstanis associate the further development of the country with our party.” He concluded that “Unity is our strength.”

Kazakhstan is making slow but steady progress towards further democratisation and openness of its political system, even as jostling by elites to secure their positions ahead of the ultimate exit of Nazarbayev from the political scene is set to grow.

By Ashok Sajjanhar for the Eurasia Review.