by Maira Zeinilova, PhD researcher in Dublin City University
When the CNN moderator Fareed Zakaria during the International Economic Forum held in June 2016 in St Petersburg, Russia, asked president Nazarbayev whether Kazakhstan was ready for a female president, Nazarbayev responded saying: “why not?” His answer sounded almost like the personification of Lenin’s historical statement alluding to ‘giving even a milkmaid’ the opportunity to run the country. The question was asked in light of the US presidential elections and Hilary Clinton’s candidacy, which, even if just for the duration of the campaign, made the question of women’s political participation almost trendy again.
In Kazakhstan, the increase in women’s representation in parliament began in 2007, coinciding with the final stage of the constitutional reforms that led to a concentration of power in the institution of the presidency. Those reforms were introduced between 1998 and 2007. They included the following: 1) a shift towards the proportional representation electoral system to select parliamentarians; 2) an introduction of the 7% threshold for political parties to be represented in Majilis (the lower house of the Parliament of Kazakhstan) 3); no term and age limits for the first president 4); an exclusive right to appoint 15 representatives to the Senate (the upper house of the Parliament of Kazakhstan) 5); and the inclusion of the representatives of the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan chaired by the president.
The rising number of women in the Majilis is therefore recognized as the the regime’s achievement and the president’s will, in particular. The latest two Majilis boasted 27% of women MPs, which is higher than the 23% average worldwide according to the IPU . The presidential party “Nurotan” brought the major bulk of female MPs: 20 out of 29. However, the increase of women’s political representation resembled that witnessed during the soviet period when female delegates “quota” applied, appearing therefore as “forced” rather than a natural result of increased women’s activism. Comparing the present day’s level of women’s political activism with the first decade of the early independence period (1991-2001) the difference becomes quiet apparent. In the late 1990s, inspired by the global gender mainstreaming movement launched at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, women began attempting to enter the political arena as independent political actors. The Women’s Electoral Block, the Political Alliance of Women’s Organizations of Kazakhstan, the Democratic Women’s Party of Kazakhstan, and the Revival of Kazakhstan were the most visible of these attempts. Some of the movements were far removed from the ideas of feminism, focusing mainly on the social aspects of women’s role in society. This however, did not diminish the importance of their activism and assertion as a women’s movement. Creating a non-competitive political ground, the regime also succeeded in removing an entry point for women’s meaningful political empowerment that led to passiveness and political apathy among the women activists.
The figures on women’s political involvement reported by the state serve the purpose of portraying Kazakhstan as women-friendly state supporting of women’s political participation. Yet, they suggest a different picture. The 2002 Law on Political Parties, contributed to the reduction of political pluralism. The number of women in the Senate amounts to three, two of which are appointed by the president. The increase in women’s participation in the civil service (56%) is referred to the “B” corps. This include the public officers at the level of specialists and assistants. When compared, ”A” corps, which include decision-making level officials in the central and regional institutions, this has only 15% of women, and only 9% have high ranking “political positions” in the state.This situation clearly demonstrates the existence of an unequal distribution of power between men and women, and the absence of women from decision-making positions within the political system of Kazakhstan.
So, is Kazakhstan ready for a female president? The most likely answer is: “Not yet”. At least, not in the current political climate and within the restrictions of the current political system, which has a negative impact on the level of women’s political participation.
IPU, 2016. Women in National Parliaments: Situation as per 1st of December – 23%, available at http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/world.htm
OSCE/ODIHR Review, 2002. The Law on Political Parties, Rep. of Kazakhstan, adopted on July 15, 2002.
Tengrinews.kz, 2017. “The number of women in civil service has increased”, 24 February 2017, available at https://tengrinews.kz/kazakhstan_news/jenschin-gosslujaschih-v-kazahstane-stalo-bolshe-312973/
Government of Kazakhstan, 2016. Official speech of the vice minister on civil service, International conference on preliminary findings of the 2006-2016 Gender Equality Strategy implementation, 22 April 2016. Available at http://government.kz/ru/gosupravlenie/1000726-na-gossluzhbe-kazakhstana-bolshe-zhenshchin-chem-muzhchin-vitse-ministr.html
The views and opinions expressed by the author(s) on this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of CASPIAN or the universities affiliated to the project.