Hopes for democracy in Kazakhstan fade further as numerous violations mar parliamentary elections

The newly elected members of parliament listening to Kazakhstan's president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Screenshot from Akipress news YouTube channel.

On March 19, Kazakhstan held parliamentary and local council elections. They were the last in the electoral cycle that included a constitutional referendum and presidential elections — all three held within a nine-month period. According to the country’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, they were necessary to reload political institutions to build a “New Kazakhstan,” a vague political concept promoted by the government.

The elections were framed as democratic based on the fact that multiple parties were registered and, for the first time, self-nominated candidates from single-mandate districts could run in them. On March 27, the Central Election Commission of Kazakhstan published the official results and announced that the ruling party Amanat received 53.90 percent of the votes. Five more parties, four pro-government and one opposition, passed the 5 percent threshold and got into the parliament. Twenty-three out of 29 new deputies from single-mandate districts are members of the Amanat party.

Portrait of Bakhytzhan Kurmanov. Photo used with permission.

The voter turnout was 54.21 percent, the lowest in Kazakhstan’s history. This is saddening given the hope and push for political and social change in recent years. Kazakhstan witnessed country-wide violent protests in January 2022, which left at least 238 people dead. The protesters demanded social justice and political change as they tore down a statue of the previous president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in the city of Taldykorgan.

Global Voices spoke to Bakhytzhan Kurmanov and Zhar Zardykhan from Kazakhstan to find out why so many people decided not to vote and what the implications of these elections are for the country’s future. Bakhytzhan Kurmanov is Assistant Professor at the International School of Economics of the M. Narikbayev KAZGUU University. Zhar Zardykan is a political scientist based in Almaty. The interviews have been edited for clarity.

Nurbek Bekmurzaev (NB): These elections recorded the lowest voter turnout in Kazakhstan's history. Why did so many voters choose not to vote? What does such political behavior indicate?

Bakhytzhan Kurmanov (BK): The low turnout indicates a certain level of disillusionment, especially among young people in Kazakhstan. The political parties failed to explain their main messages to the population. Regarding single-mandate districts, there were a lot of independent candidates who, again, did not resonate with the broader population. This disinterest in the elections was especially prominent in Almaty, where voter turnout was extremely low.

Zhar Zardykhan (ZZ): The population lost faith in the process and outcomes of the elections despite the introduction of election alternatives and visible diversity. This could be due to the sense of disappointment and hopelessness regarding political reforms and the transformation of the political system that had been promised for over a year. The apathy may have been induced by the systematic impediments to the registration of alternative political figures and activists. Also, the government hastily carried out three elections in the course of a few months.

NB: Independent observers recorded multiple violations on election day, including ballot stuffing and carousel voting. Given how much control the authorities have over the elections, why do you think they still revert to these practices?

BK: The “New Kazakhstan” vision that aspires to bring fair and competitive elections is yet to be implemented. Hence, numerous violations persist in the elections. The central authorities have probably not endorsed such behavior, but local authorities used their own discretion. Ultimately, akimats [regional bodies of the executive branch] at the oblast [province] level still feel responsible for producing good numbers in the elections and may engage in such activities.

ZZ: Public institutions, including regional and municipal administrations, play a vital role in promoting the ruling party candidates. The higher the turnout, the more effective their endeavors seem to the central authorities. Thus, there is usually a competition among cities and provinces to impress the center with the highest number of votes. The 2019 presidential elections served as a good reminder for the authorities that the outcome of the votes can be totally unpredictable. The authorities must have tried to insert more control over the outcome. We should also keep in mind that these practices increase the turnout, which should be even lower than declared.

NB: The results show that the ruling Amanat party will retain control of the parliament and local councils. What does this mean for the implementation of promised reforms and building “New Kazakhstan?”

BK: Amanat party won most of the seats in single-mandate districts and more than half places in the party list. Hence, it became the biggest party in the parliament. That places considerable responsibility on the party for economic and political decisions. If the economic situation worsens, Amanat could be easily blamed for the wrong policies. Ultimately, Amanat could serve as an essential placeholder for criticism in the near future.

ZZ: As I mentioned earlier, so far there has been no tangible effort to implement political reforms, although they were announced and promised long ago. To a great extent, the modifications of the elections system or the rebranding of the ruling party from Nur-Otan to Amanat did not lead to any sensible transformation of the political system. The elections did not change the ideology or even the composition of the parliament by far.

NB: Some say that the practice of self-nominated candidates and new parties entering the parliament is a step towards democracy. Others are confident that these changes are just an illusion of democracy. What are the implications of these elections for the country's future?

BK: The input of self-nominated candidates has borne new possibilities for active citizens to participate in political processes. It may signal a slow resurgence of public interest in parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan. Now six parties are represented in the parliament, with one nominally opposition party present who has recently voted against the reappointment of the prime minister. However, this careful process of opening up political life in the country also suggests more opportunities for the state to co-opt and control citizens’ activism. As I demonstrate in my article, “Open Government and Citizen Empowerment in Authoritarian States,” non-democratic regimes seek to shape and channel citizen participation in a way that enforces regime legitimacy.

ZZ: As an outcome, they did not have much of an effect, since the formalities of self-nomination and registration of new political parties were closely monitored. Therefore, many activists or opposition political figures were simply rejected or dismissed. This could serve as a good illustration whether these elections were truly a step towards parliamentary diversity or not.

NB: To what have extent the war in Ukraine, and Russia and China’s influence, shaped the election process?

BK: Hardly any party discussed foreign policy because that is considered a function of the president. Yet geopolitical tensions increased the legitimacy of Tokayev during the most recent presidential elections. All in all, the war may have persuaded some people to vote for Amanat, which promised stability in the elections.

ZZ: The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the overall debate around it had and still has a profound effect on the whole society. However, the hasty nature of the elections, the cherry-picking of the candidates, and pressure on the independent media, especially in recent months, prevented these discussions from coming to the foreground.

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