By RFE RL
By Chris Rickleton
(RFE/RL) — Nobody can accuse Lukpan Akhmedyarov of being a system candidate.
His campaign video ahead of March 19 parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan details his journey through Kazakhstan’s independence — uncovering graft in media investigations, participating in anti-government rallies and, most famously, surviving an assassination attempt that saw him stabbed eight times and shot twice with an air gun.
A recent Facebook broadside against a candidate for Kazakhstan’s ruling party, Amanat, offers a flavor of the career journalist’s rhetoric.
“Previously, this party was a collection of corrupt officials. Now this party is promoting a man who hid his son from law enforcement agencies for more than a month after he accidentally killed a woman while driving a boat. And this person and party member assures us he will guarantee THE RULE OF LAW!” Akhmedyarov wrote.
The former editor of a legendary newspaper in the northwestern city of Oral, Akhmedyarov is one of more than 700 people competing for a place in the 98-seat lower house known as the Mazhlis.
More than 400 people are competing in single-member district races that are returning to parliament for the first time since 2004 but which account for just 29 of the seats.
These changes to the electoral law are part of a broader constitutional overhaul initiated by President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev on the back of a political crisis of unprecedented scale that left at least 238 people dead in January 2022.
Toqaev, who said he ordered government troops to shoot to kill during the unrest, has emerged from the crisis as Kazakhstan’s ultimate decider, eclipsing his aging and once-meddling predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev.
The head of state hailed “new, fairer, and more competitive rules for forming the representative branch of government” in a speech in January that claimed Kazakhstan was “undergoing a dynamic and comprehensive process of renewal.”
But while these elections look to be rather different from recent votes monopolized by pro-government parties and their candidates, Akhmedyarov said the playing field feels far from even.
“We nonestablishment candidates are constantly looking at each other and asking each other when will we be ejected from the race and on what basis,” Akhmedyarov said of his battle for the only one of three seats in the West Kazakhstan region that is reserved for single-district members.
Already, checks on the financial declarations of independents have resulted in the exclusion of several of these candidates aiming for parliament and city councils, which are also holding elections.
Candidates better connected to the political mainstream, however, got off to a flying start, observed Akhmedyarov of the first day of campaigning (February 18) in his native city, Oral.
“Within hours of the start of the campaign they already had expensive banners all over the city, expensive advertisements on TV,” Akhmedyarov said.
“That is, they seem to be benefiting from administrative resources.”
In, Out, And In Again
One element that the Kazakh election campaign team has had so far in spades is drama.
Zhibek Amenova, a candidate for Almaty’s city council, was one of several eyewitnesses who saw parliamentary candidate Aigerim Tleuzhanova detained by police on February 28 at a branch of the Central Election Commission, where Tleuzhanova had just collected her candidacy documents.
Tleuzhanova, under investigation for what prosecutors say was her role in the brief seizure of Almaty airport during the unrest last year, was last month removed from the race after electoral authorities suggested one of her bank statements was fake.
“This was a completely illegal detention. By law, nothing can interfere with her status as a candidate, which was reinstated by the Supreme Court the day before,” said Amenova who, like Tleuzhanova, is part of an informal support network of independents called Derbes Deputat.
Tleuzhanova was released hours after her arrest.
For Akhmedyarov, the first hurdle to becoming a candidate was the payment of more than 1 million tenges (around $2,300) to the state to participate in the elections, a figure he says is “inflated” in a country where average monthly incomes are just over $700 and even lower outside Almaty and the capital, Astana.
“I wanted to crowdfund this money. But I found you have to set up a special fund and you can only do that in one bank — Halyk. But Halyk tells you that supporters can’t simply transfer money to you using mobile apps or Internet banking. No — they have to come into a branch of the bank on their feet. Then, in order to make the contribution, they need a notarized power of attorney from me, their candidate. So crowdfunding is not really an option.”
Despite limited campaign finances, the journalist has been getting around, but he complained that government officials have tried to derail his audiences with villagers in the West Kazakhstan region.
“There would always be someone in the audience that would ask me what foreign grants I accepted, or how I can consider myself a patriot if I plan to send my daughter to study at a university abroad,” he said.
Akhmedyarov characterized the questions about his 17-year-old daughter, who is currently at school in Kazakhstan but has applied to a foreign university, as a form of top-down pressure likely leaked to provincial officials by security services.
“The people asking these questions were employees of the village administrations — they admitted it. I told them that I hoped that they asked the same questions about Toqaev and Nazarbaev’s children, and their families’ properties abroad. The voters laughed. Then, when the question about my daughter was raised at a third meeting, voters started shouting the official down and she had to leave before she could finish the question.”
New Parties But Not A New Path?
Whatever happens in the single-member districts, the Mazhlis will be dominated by parties and likely by one in particular — the ruling Amanat party.
Formerly called Nur Otan in a nod to its founder, Nazarbaev, the party has seen a lot of turnover since the crisis, with Toqaev’s constitutional changes prohibiting presidents from being party members and top officials from following his lead in leaving Amanat.
Yet the Amanat machine remains gargantuan and many observers believe that the six other parties competing — two registered in recent months — are essentially making up the numbers.
The pro-government English-language newspaper The Astana Times argued to the contrary, describing the registration in November of a party called Baitak “a positive signal of the country’s expanding political plurality.”
Baitak was the first new party to be registered in Kazakhstan in two decades and “heads to the elections with a robust environmental agenda in tow,” the newspaper said.
One very well-known voice on environmental issues has been blocked from standing for a seat on Almaty’s city council for a second time, meanwhile, after her bid to win a seat in 2016 was foiled by electoral authorities’ claims of an infringement on her financial declaration.
Seven years ago, authorities said that clean air campaigner Asya Tulesova had detailed funds in her bank account amounting to 78 tiyin, or about one-fifth of a cent, more than was actually the case.
This time she was informed of her exclusion from the race last month after a check of her declaration found that a patent that was registered in her name by a company that she once worked for was missing — a registration she said she knew nothing about.
For the moment, Tulesova is unsure whether she will appeal the decision and told RFE/RL that authorities are trying “to create an appearance that reforms are going full steam ahead,” while “minimizing risks to the existing system.”
“They know that, if even a few truly independent candidates like [Akhmedyarov] were allowed to get into parliament or other independents onto councils, then it could really change the situation, because behind those few candidates would be massive support,” Tulesova said.
Shavkhat Temisov, a member of the Central Election Commission, maintained at a press event this week that there was “no connection” between the de-registration of candidates and their public activities and said de-registered candidates could challenge the decisions in court or reapply.
- Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.