By Joanna Lillis
After a quiet campaign, voters in Kazakhstan will cast ballots in a snap presidential election on April 3. The outcome is not in doubt: the incumbent, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is expected to coast to victory. Just about the only elements of uncertainty concern turnout on electionday and Nazarbayev’s margin of victory.
Nazarbayev is running against three also-ran candidates on April 3 with none of the challengers seeming likely to break into the double digits, in terms of the percentage of the presidential vote. Local analysts are now focusing on the final tally, wondering if Nazarbayev will top the 91 percent of the vote that he won in 2005.
Some of the president’s sharpest domestic critics, including a few leaders of prominent opposition movements, are calling for voters to boycott the poll, hoping that a less-than-stellar turnout might deny the 70-year-old Nazarbayev the broad electoral mandate that he desires as he moves into his third decade at the helm of independent Kazakhstan.
“We’re boycotting these elections because we don’t consider them to be elections carried out in line with the formats that should be intrinsic to an institution as important as elections for president of the country,” Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unregistered Alga! DVK party told EurasiaNet.org ahead of the vote. Critics say Nazarbayev’s decision to hold the vote two years ahead of schedule denied opposition parties a fair chance to mount an electoral challenge.
Critics also point out that Nazarbayev – who enjoys the official title of Leader of the Nation in Kazakhstan, with accompanying extra powers and privileges – is only eligible to stand in these elections due to legal changes exempting him personally from the usual two constitutional term limits.
Those behind the boycott campaign are pinning their hopes on frustrations among the electorate over the lack of a genuine choice in the election. Organizers hope that turnout will fall far below 50 percent, but many analysts view such a prospect as unlikely.
“No one doubts that in these conditions Nazarbayev will become the country’s president because all the other candidates are in no way serious,” Kozlov said.
Nazarbayev’s three challengers have not set themselves in opposition to the president and have not used their campaigns to criticize him.
One candidate, Party of Patriots leader Gani Kasymov, is a presidential appointee to the Senate who earlier said he would not stand in the election since his party was backing Nazarbayev. He then abruptly changed his mind to run.
The Party of Patriots had also signed up to the pro-Nazarbayev Kazakhstan-2020 coalition, created in January to lobby to keep the president in power until 2020 without elections, through a referendum. Another political force led by a politician now running for president – Zhambyl Akhmetbekov’s Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan – also joined that pro-presidential referendum coalition.
The third presidential challenger, Mels Yeleusizov, the head of the Tabigat environmental movement, is running to promote green issues.
“The presidential contest unfolds between the incumbent president and three other candidates, who, by their own admission, want the incumbent to win, but, through their own participation, aim to promote specific causes,” the Election Observation Mission of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) said in its interim report published March 25. That report characterized the campaigns of Nazarbayev’s challengers as “barely visible.”
Kazakhstan has never held an election deemed free and fair by credible international observers. Nazarbayev – who is declining to campaign, claiming that voters are familiar with his record, as well as his plans for the future – has pledged to encourage a transparent vote this time. Yet, whatever happens on election day, ODHIR is already pointing to the election’s overall “uncompetitive environment.”
Political commentators say the challengers are too close to the ruling elite for comfort. “They represent movements and parties which are very close to the authorities, and in some ways those candidates are actually managed by the president’s administration or people who are within the ruling elite,” Almaty-based analyst Aitolkyn Kourmanova told EurasiaNet.org.
The most prominent opposition leaders have declined to field candidates for the election. Ak Zhol party leader Alikhan Baymenov, who stood in 2005, said he did not have time to mount a credible bid. The OSDP Azat party refused to stand unless Astana met conditions for holding fair elections, one of which was holding the vote in December 2012.
That was the date originally scheduled before the constitution was hurriedly amended to allow Nazarbayev – who is genuinely popular among a public that credits him with maintaining stability and fostering relative prosperity – to call this snap election. He said the move was a political compromise to cater to the aspirations of those backing the referendum bid to keep him in power to 2020.
Neither Ak Zhol nor OSDP Azat have joined the boycott movement, leaving Nazarbayev’s opponents split between supporters and opponents of the boycott – and potentially confusing protest voters.
Boycott opponents, Kourmanova says, suggest that calls to stay away will make an already apathetic public even more apolitical. “They are saying that we have to be more politically active; we have to participate in the elections; we have to try to change the situation by going to the elections and voting for someone that we really want to vote for,” she said. “But the proponents of the boycott say that if you go to the elections and you actually vote for someone other than Mr Nazarbayev, your vote cannot be counted.”
In the face of the boycott effort, pro-presidential elements have pressed a campaign to get the vote out, particularly targeting young people. Celebrities have endorsed it with a song called Vote for Kazakhstan, posters have been hung up with the slogan “I’m 18 – I’m voting!” and the public is being urged via SMS to vote.
The boycott campaign has harnessed social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to urge people to stay away from polling stations, but on the streets of Almaty some are clearly not getting the message. “I think those people [boycott supporters] aren’t right in the head; they’re not thinking the right way,” retired Almaty resident Vasiliy Gendrikov told EurasiaNet.org ahead of the vote. “Every right-thinking person will always say: ‘Yes, we are for the leader.’”
That is music to the ears of the administration in Astana, where officials are taking a bullish line on the election. Presidential adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbayev says he believes a two thirds turnout will be secured – and that Nazarbayev could easily collect more than 95 percent of the vote.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.