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International Relations and Human Rights Observatory


Legislative elections mark a new disappointment for democracy in Kazakhstan

The constitutional referendum, the presidential and legislative elections, three votes in just 9 months, show that the trend is not towards renewal but rather towards consolidating a new variant of all-powerful leader.
By Ignacio E. Hutin
Foto: Twitter @TokayevKZ

It seemed like something was about to change in Kazakhstan, the largest country and the strongest economy in Central Asia. There was hope that a State with gigantic oil and gas reserves would stop being that fief in which just 162 citizens owned 55% of the national wealth. It was a little over a year ago when, in January 2022, the demonstrations following the rise in the price of liquefied gas turned violent very quickly. Public buildings were seized, there was looting, more than 200 deaths and an international intervention led by Russia and requested by the Kazakh authorities. At least six people died in detention centers and at least 234 cases of torture were recorded.

In the end, the Prime Minister resigned along with his entire government and price increases were suspended. But the most important thing about those chaotic days that now seem so far away was the departure of the once all-powerful Nursultan Nazarbayev, president between 1991 and 2019, and since then, President of the National Security Council of Kazakhstan, a sort of power behind the power, as well as head of the governing party. His historic resignation from the presidency, when he was 78 years old, implied the arrival of a new leader, a delegate, named Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. And it also implied the beginning of a power dispute between the two. January 2022 was the end of that dispute: the delegate won.

Now without the former boss in charge, it seemed that something would change in Kazakhstan, which would cease to be Nazarbayev's fiefdom, where no election even tries to pretend to be democratic and where civil rights, according to the latest Human Rights Watch report, are systematically limited, especially with regard to freedom of expression, association and peaceful demonstration. Tokayev called a referendum in June that allowed him to reform the Constitution: Nazarbayev's privileges were eliminated (among them, being constitutionally recognized as "elbasy", "leader of the nation"), parliamentary power was strengthened and also the human rights commissioner’s, family members of the incumbent president were prohibited from holding top-level state positions, and a constitutional court was established.

In the early presidential elections in November, Tokayev won with over 80%. For OSCE viewers, there was no real competition. Nothing had changed much: one all-powerful leader had been replaced by another all-powerful leader. The only difference was that the new one at least showed himself as a reformer and an opener.

In this context, the legislative elections of March 19th constituted a good test to know how real the reforms were in practice, how different Tokayev actually was. And it is that a presidential election, in which the leader can try to cling to power individually, is not the same as a legislative one, in which broader spaces are covered, more people are involved and the consolidation of a party is sought. Especially when the constitutional reform granted greater power to Parliament.

The Mäjilis (“Assembly”) is the Lower House of Parliament, the only one whose members are directly elected by the voters, while the representatives in the Senate are voted for indirectly, through provincial legislatures. As of the 2022 reforms, of the 98 members of the Mäjilis, 69 would be elected in a single national district by proportional representation and according to the party list; while the other 29, would be elected by a simple majority system among individual candidates. Among the 7 parties, 90 nominations were submitted to cover the 69 seats, but for the remaining 29 there were 359 individual nominations, some of them being part of political parties.

This mixed system opened up the possibility for activists unable to register their parties to apply and prove their popularity. It was an opening to independent candidates and for the Assembly to stop being just a bureaucratic office of the president. But in the end, the long-awaited changes came to nothing. The ruling party Amanat, former Nur Otan, renamed after Nazarbayev's departure, obtained almost 54% and ended up with 62 out of the 98 seats at stake: 40 of the 69 possible for party lists and 22 of the 29 available for individual candidates.

The most optimistic vision indicates that this is a lower percentage for the government than in the previous legislative elections, in 2021, when Nur Otan obtained over 70% of the votes and took 76 of the then 107 Mäjilis seats. But, from a more pessimistic perspective, the government remains very close to the 2/3 necessary to, among other things, make constitutional changes at will and for Parliament to remain in practice as one more arm of the presidency. On the other hand, participation was only 54%, almost 10% less than in the 2021 legislative elections and 15% less than in the 2022 presidential elections. It was as if a large sector of the population disbelieved in the promises of change.

The report presented by the OSCE after the elections highlights that the implemented reforms bring closer the possibility of Kazakhstan holding elections "in accordance with international standards" and that the options for voters have increased. In other words, there is an improvement. But it also points out that the limits to the exercise of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution are maintained and that some political parties continue to be prevented from participating in the elections. Among these is Alga (“Forward”), the successor to the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (KDT), which was dissolved by a court on charges of “political extremism” in 2005 and again in 2018. On this second occasion, the Attorney General's Office argued that KDT "incites social enmity and discord" and that its objective "is to overthrow and seize power."

Nor was the Democratic Party allowed to participate, once again. Its founder and leader, the journalist and political activist Zhanbolat Mamay, was arrested in 2012 accused of "inciting social discord", once again in 2017, for alleged embezzlement, and three times in 2022: for participating in the protests in January, for “organizing an unauthorized demonstration” in February in memory of the victims of the previous month, and in March, for “insulting a representative of the authorities” and for “knowingly disseminating false information”. Since last November, he has been under house arrest awaiting trial for "organizing mass riots", a charge that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

On the other hand, the OSCE report notes that "various administrative obstacles negatively affected equal campaign opportunities for some self-proclaimed candidates." It also mentions the lack of critical information affecting the government, the "generalized self-censorship" and that there were "important procedural irregularities" that undermined the transparency of the electoral process.

Yevgeniy Zhovtis, director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law (KIBHR), thinks that “there were no significant changes in the competitiveness and fairness of the elections.” He further points out that no opposition party has been officially registered in the last 15 years despite the fact that at least three of them (Alga, the Democratic Party and El Tiregi, founded in 2019) “tried hard in the last year”.

But what about the 37 seats that Amanat did not win? Eight were taken by Auyl, a self-proclaimed social democrat party and officially the main parliamentary opposition even though it backs President Tokayev. The Aq Jol Democratic Party, 6, and the Kazakhstan People's Party, 5, a split from the extinct local Communist Party, also won seats. In 2022, these two spaces were part of the officially called "Popular Coalition of Political Parties and Public Associations for the Tokayev Reforms", which supported the president in the November elections.

Respublica, which came third and won 6 seats, is a new party, legally registered last January, the same day Tokayev announced that a legislative election would be held two months later. It is likely that it will go along with the government at least when it comes to economic issues. Finally, the Nationwide Social Democratic Party, which had boycotted the 2021 elections, the only legally registered true opposition party and which had never exceeded the minimum threshold to enter Parliament, this time won 4 seats, in one of the few positive developments.

However, Zhovtis points out that the latter party was "allowed" to pass the 5% threshold. “It has practically not been visible on the political scene for the last 5, 7 years and I do not consider it opposition at least at this moment,” says the Kazakh activist.

Among the independent candidates, it was very difficult for the lesser known or those with no connection to the government to get their proposals out there. As the electoral campaign lasted only a month, there was not enough time to do it in such a large country. This means that, in practice, the 7 independent seat takers have little to none independence.

Finally, Zhovtis says that “Nazarbayev's era is over as last year he was excluded from the Constitution and early this year the Law on Fist President, which provided him with additional guarantees, was repealed. I don't think that he or his close circle will come back to power. His nephew was sentenced to imprisonment last year and some close to him businessmen are now facing criminal charges. Tokayev became much stronger but I don't think that he will try to build the same type of ruling. He will keep an authoritarian regime but will try to make the system more effective and will undertake some modernizing efforts but very carefully and keeping full control of it.”

From now on, there is the possibility that Kazakhstan will implement some of the reforms that, perhaps too optimistically, the OSCE suggests ahead of the next legislative and presidential elections. They are planned for 2028 and 2029 respectively and that means that there is time to direct the process of change. But, on the other hand, the constitutional referendum, the presidential and legislative elections, three votes in just 9 months, show that the trend is not towards renewal but rather towards consolidating a new variant of all-powerful leader. And that possible changes that were glimpsed just over a year ago, at least until now, lead to a new disappointment.

Ignacio E. Hutin
Ignacio E. Hutin
Advisory Councelor
Master in International Relations (University of Salvador, 2021), Graduate in Journalism (University of Salvador, 2014), specialized in Leadership in Humanitarian Emergencies (National Defense University, 2019) and studied photography (ARGRA, 2009). He is a focused in Eastern Europe, post-Soviet Eurasia and the Balkans. He received a scholarship from the Finnish State to carry out studies related to the Arctic at the University of Lapland (2012). He is the author of the books Saturn (2009), Deconstruction: Chronicles and Reflections from Post-Communist Eastern Europe (2018), Ukraine/Donbass: A Renewed Cold War (2021), and Ukraine: Chronicle from the Frontlines (2021).

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