By Dmitry Nurumov and Vasil Vashchanka
The 20 March 2015 parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan did not surprise seasoned observers. Yet again, elections attested to the President’s Nazarbayev’s firm grip on the political life of the country and the absence of real political opposition. Like many previous parliamentary elections, these were also called early after the parliament’s unanimous vote to dissolve itself. The decision to hold elections followed a recent pattern when (early) presidential elections precede (early) parliamentary elections. This cycle serves to ensure the President’s full control of the political process. The “unexpected predictability” allows taking by surprise any potential opposition and the voters, leaving little time to contemplate these decisions or organize and run an effective campaign.
Six of the seven political parties registered in Kazakhstan contested 98 seats in the lower chamber of parliament, elected from party lists. The opposition Azat party, which remains formally registered, decided not to participate in these elections. Following the announcement by Azat leader, Bulat Abilov, his withdrawal from politics in 2013, the party has not been visible. The remaining nine seats in the lower chamber of parliament are elected by the unelected Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan, whose members are nominated by President Nazarbayev.
The six parties, as in the previous elections, displayed choreographed labels ranging from the communists to social democrats, aimed to demonstrate diversity and dynamism of the political life in Kazakhstan. But this show yet again exposed the well-honed and practiced art of controlled political environment, where only players loyal to President Nazarbayev are admitted on the political stage. Kazakhstan’s political parties largely exist on paper and command little support among the population, with the exception of the ruling Nur Otan party. Nur Otan is led by the President and is inseparable from his vertical power structure. Its dominance reinforces the message that stability of the country is dependable on the incumbent’s continuing rule. President Nazarbayev did not miss opportunities to publically endorse Nur Otan and call for voters’ support.
Muted criticism of the ruling party came only from the Nationwide Social-Democratic Party (NSDP), which positioned itself as “opposition” and was for several years in merger talks with the Azat party. Thus, the number of registered election contestants did little to inject pluralism in the election campaign. International observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE/ODIHR) and Council of Europe found that “the parties’ campaign platforms and rhetoric were complementary to and aligned with the president’s long-term strategies and refrained from proposing political alternatives”.
Shortly before elections, on 22 February, a well-known journalist and influential media personality, chair of the Union of Journalists, Seitkazy Mataev was arrested and criminal proceedings were launched against him on charges related to his business. The case stunned many in Kazakhstan, as Seitkazy Mataev was not known as a prominent opponent of the regime. At the same time, the criminal case against a well-known figure sent shock waves among the ranks of public activists. Earlier, several criminal cases against political bloggers were opened in the second half of 2015. These moves sent a clear message that any political activism diverging from the official position will not be tolerated.
However, even if dissenting voices were allowed to contest elections, getting their message to the voters would be difficult. Years of suppression left Kazakhstan’s media landscape devoid of critical views to the president’s policies. Major media outlets are either in loyal hands or exercise self-censorship to avoid the fate of their critical predecessors that were forced to change ownership or close down. In the words of international observers, “the lack of independent sources and a restrictive legislative framework […] have profoundly challenged freedom of expression.” Compliant media paved the way for smooth and unchallenged campaigning by Nur Otan and its satellite parties.
With all conditions in place for a safe electoral victory of the ruling party, it might seem that there would be no special need to resort to mischief at the ballot box. But in the stage-managed process nothing is left to chance and election machinery is programmed to deliver the expected result. The core of election administration is formed from reliable ruling party supporters and public sector employees who have much to lose from an insufficiently convincing victory of Nur Otan. It is hardly surprising then, that international observers found that voting proceeded “with significant violations in the process”, while counting and tabulation of votes were marred by serious irregularities and “an honest count […] was not safeguarded”.
Official results announced by the Central Election Commission on 22 March gave Nur Otan 82.20% of votes, resulting in 84 seats; while the Communist People’s Party and Democratic Party “Ak Zhol” received 7.14% and 7.18% respectively, giving them 7 seats each. Other parties reportedly failed to cross the high 7% threshold. These results were not very different from the previous elections in 2012, when Nur Otan received 83 seats, Ak Zhol 8 seats and the Communist People’s Party 7 seats. The nearly identical results in 2012 and 2015 show that holding early elections became a part of “political ritual” that successfully secures reproduction of the ruling elite and serves to demonstrate President Nazarbayev’s uncontested and unyielding dominance on the political landscape of Kazakhstan.
Some commentators linked the timing of these elections with the deteriorating economic situation, which may worsen later this year and negatively affect electoral moods. This may be true insofar as orchestrating a smooth electoral process goes. Given the parliament’s largely decorative functions, it is hard to see how it could seriously contribute to solving the country’s economic woes.
After casting his vote, President Nazarbayev hinted at possible changes in the distribution of power between the president, the parliament and the government. Such changes, if and when they are introduced, are likely to offer little more than “recalibrating” the existing system that leaves the 75-year-old President Nazarbayev with all leverages to remain in control and have the necessary time and flexibility to decide on his succession.
In this context, the trajectory of President’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, is important to follow. After 2012, Dariga Nazarbayeva became an MP and led the work of the Committee on social and cultural development. In April 2014, she was unanimously voted Deputy Chair of the lower chamber of parliament and leader of Nur Otan faction in the parliament. In September 2015, she was appointed Deputy Prime Minister of Kazakhstan. She was on the list of Nur Otanfor these elections and some expected her to become speaker of the lower chamber. However, she remained in her post in the government. Dariga Nazarbayeva is seen as a likely, but not the only prospective successor to her father. A pliant parliament would play an important role in a succession plan that would approve her as Prime Minister or support her as a presidential candidate. No risks are therefore taken with parliamentary elections, which serve to remind the President’s circle that their political survival is in the President’s hands and depends on their continuing loyalty. In other words, these elections were held within the existing model of “superpresidential republic” and they were not intended to send signals of democratic transition.
Dmitry Nurumov served as Legal Adviser and then as Senior Adviser to the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities (OSCE/HCNM) from 2011 to 2015. Prior to that, he worked at the ODIHR Rule of Law Unit as OSCE/ODIHR Rule of Law Coordinator in Central Asia. Before joining the OSCE/ODIHR he was a Legal Expert for the OSCE Centre in Almaty from 2001 to 2003. In the past, he also worked for a number of other international organisations. He holds a PhD degree in International Public Law from Moscow State Institute (University) of International Relations (MGIMO).
Vasil Vashchanka (LL.M.) was a Rule of Law Officer (2002-2009) and Deputy Chief of the Rule of Law Unit (2010-2012) at the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (Poland) before joining the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (Sweden) as a Programme Officer (2012-2014). Currently, he consults international organizations on rule of law and democracy-related issues.