By Joanna Lillis
On the heels of unrest in Kazakhstan’s oil-rich Zhanaozen region, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has promised free and fair parliamentary elections. Nazarbayev, pictured above, has made the promise before but independent observers maintain he, and the electoral process, have fallen short in the past. (Photo: Kazakh Presidential Press Service)
Voters in Kazakhstan will head to the polls on January 15 in a parliamentary election that is sure to be the tensest in the country’s two decades of independence.
The governing Nur Otan party, headed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, is currently the only party represented in parliament, and seems certain to win an overwhelming majority of seats in the coming election. However, this vote follows a troubled 2011, when Kazakhstan suffered a spate of terrorist attacks and saw the year culminate with the bloody clash in the western oil town of Zhanaozen.
Residents of Zhanaozen will go to polling stations amid a state of emergency after Nazarbayev overruled a Central Electoral Commission (CEC) decision to postpone voting there, citing the need to protect residents’ constitutional rights.
The move is potentially risky for Astana, Alice Mummery, an expert on Kazakhstani affairs at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, told EurasiaNet.org: “It will improve Nazarbayev’s image, but I think they are taking a big risk. The risk of protests in the region is elevated and a manipulation of the results could certainly act as the spark, although whether people will be prepared to come out after the events in mid-December is another matter.”
International observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will be scrutinizing the vote in Zhanaozen. “We remain concerned about the situation in Zhanaozen, and are watching what happens there closely,” Neil Simon, OSCE short-term observer mission spokesman, said in a statement. The official death toll in Zhanaozen-related violence in mid-December stands at 17. Unconfirmed reports suggest the number of dead may be higher.
“Each and every election provides a country the chance to showcase how it is living up to its commitments to hold democratic elections,” Simon’s OSCE statement added. “We will observe this week’s vote in Kazakhstan with an eye on those same commitments, which cover issues ranging from political party organization to universal suffrage.”
Kazakhstan has never held an election deemed free and fair by international observers. Nazarbayev has pledged to do so this time, saying on January 11 that “all conditions for holding honest, open, transparent elections” are in place. “The country’s stability and peace depend on which parliament we elect this time,” he added.
Analysts remain skeptical about the prospects for a free-and-fair election. “The elections will not be fully fair and transparent and we will never be sure of the genuine distribution of votes,” Rico Isaacs of the UK’s Oxford Brookes University, an expert on Kazakh politics, told EurasiaNet.org.
Isaacs says the Zhanaozen violence has undermined the standing of Nazarbayev and his party: “This was a president who has built his whole reputation on providing stability and prosperity to Kazakhstan and recent events have undermined the narrative Akorda [the presidential administration] and Nur Otan have propagated for so long,” he said.
However, Isaacs emphasized that “on the whole Nazarbayev still enjoys wide popularity, and, broadly speaking, people will not want to rock the boat.”
In December, Nazarbayev dissolved parliament’s lower house (the Mazhilis), where all elected seats were held by Nur Otan. He explained his action by citing a need for a multi-party parliament. Nur Otan was left as the only party represented in the legislature when, in the 2007 elections, other parties failed to clear the 7-percent electoral threshold. Due to constitutional amendments enacted since, the second-place party is now exempt from that threshold, ensuring that at least two parties hold seats in any future parliament.
In Kazakhstan’s micromanaged political system, observers doubt that a genuine opposition force will be able to find its way into parliament. Tipped to come second on January 15 is the pro-business Ak Zhol party, a political force widely perceived as being close to the administration. Last summer, Azat Peruashev assumed the party leadership just one day after leaving the ranks of Nur Otan. Peruashev’s move indicated, according to Isaacs, “that Akorda were pinning their colors to Ak Zhol as the second party in parliament and ‘friendly’ critic and opposition to Nur Otan.”
Opinion polling in Kazakhstan is unreliable, but data compiled by the Institute of Democracy think-tank and reported by state TV on January 9 showed Nur Otan enjoying the support of 80.1 percent of respondents. (Among the candidates on the Nur Otan party list is the president’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva). Ak Zhol had 7.3 percent popular support, and the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan, which is also loyal to the administration, garnered 7.1 percent. The other parties in the running – OSDP, Adilet, the Party of Patriots and Auyl – polled under 2 percent.
The OSDP, the only genuine opposition force competing in the January 15 election, suffered a major blow when two of its best-known faces – Bolat Abilov, party co-leader with Zharmakhan Tuyakbay, and Guljan Yergaliyeva – were disqualified as candidates on January 10 after the CEC alleged irregularities in their financial declarations.
Candidates from other parties, including Nur Otan, have been barred on similar grounds, but the OSDP contends that the removal of two of its leading lights reflects “bias and a political undercurrent.” In an open letter dated January 12, Yergalieva called on Nazarbayev to intervene in order “to stop this disgrace.” The OSDP linked the candidates’ removal to their attempts to probe the Zhanaozen violence.
Another opposition politician, Serikzhan Mambetalin, has attributed his recent political woes to his efforts to establish the facts surrounding the Zhanaozen tragedy. Mambetalin was the head of the Rukhaniyat Party when it was barred last month from participating in the election, due to alleged irregularities in its party list. The OSCE said the manner of the party’s disqualification “raises concerns about whether due process has been fully observed.” Mambetalin was subsequently expelled from his own party.
Other opposition forces have already been ruled out of the election: The Communist Party of Kazakhstan is suspended; the Alga! party is unregistered.
Amid the tense atmosphere analysts believe post-election demonstrations are possible, but doubt they will be large-scale. “The violent clampdown after the protests in Zhanaozen will have made people afraid of openly criticizing the government,” Mummery said.
Members of Nazarbayev’s administration are nevertheless likely to be apprehensive, especially given the recent example of Russia’s post-election protests, Isaacs suggested. “The reaction to United Russia’s victory and the alleged electoral fraud in Russia is an omen for what could occur in Kazakhstan after the election,” he said.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.