Kazakhstan’s snap Parliamentary elections were held on March 20, 2016. The snap elections were called amids economic turmoil and fears that the Kazakhstan government would lose voter and public confidence because of the economic situation in Kazakhstan. The elections will solidify autocratic President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s rule over the country and make it appear that he has the unwavering support of the people of Kazakhstan. Reports of crackdown of dissent suggest otherwise. The crackdowns, aimed at political dissidents and non-conformists to President Nazarbayev’s policies, is a way to control civil unrest and silence critics which is a longstanding criticism of the Nazarbayev Administration.
The elections did not generate significant differences in the country’s political landscape which has remained relatively unchanged since Nazarbayev gained power in 1989. Arguably, the elections are part of Nazarbayev’s attempts to make Kazakhstan appear as a democratic country and are part of “managed democracy.” The elections are being held against the backdrop of a failing economy, fluctuating tenge, low oil revenue prices and the oil market crash, political dissent, and Nazarbayev’s need to be reaffirmed by the people of Kazakhstan. The election will also show regional countries that Kazakhstan handle economic problems and is a reliable partner. Nazarbayev’s victory was predictable and negative implications stemming from a minor Parliamentary mix-up are non-existent.
A Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) mission monitored the elections. Kazakhstan’s past elections have fallen short of international standards citing lack of competitive candidates and corruption. As many as 234 candidates from the following six parties vied for 98 available parliament seats: the ruling Nur Otan party and the Party of President Nursultan Nazarbayev (127 candidates), Ak Zhol (35 candidates), Auyl (19 candidates), the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan (22 candidates), the Nationwide Social Democratic Party (23 candidates) and the Birlik party (eight candidates). Over 1,000 candidates are running for seats in the lower Parliament. Not much has changed as the other parties platforms do not vary that greatly. Political parties are prohibited from forming blocks.
According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the results of the March 20, 2016, parliamentary elections show, “that three parties will have seats in the Majlis[:]Nur-Otan got 82.15 percent of the vote; Ak Zhol, 7.18 percent; and the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan took 7.14 percent.” These results are similar to the 2012 Parliamentary elections which highlights the lack of political variety and true democracy in the country. The elections were hailed a success by regional organizations, the SCO and the CIS. The ODIHR did not agree as Kazakhstan has a long way to go to fulfill its democratic agreement.
International observers were not surprised at the results. As early voting commenced on Sunday, the Kazakh Central Election Committee, stated that the elections were transparent. The OSCE have been heavily involved as “the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission opened in Astana on17 February, with an11 member core team and 28 long-term-observers deployed throughout the country.”
Whether or not the elections will expedite the reforms or guarantee implementation, the economy continues to slow. If Nur Otan retains its majority in Kazakhstan’s Parliament, the speed of implementation would not be effected. The snap elections directly are not being held to give the government a mandate on “100 steps.” The legitimacy of “100 steps” is derived from the President and support from Parliament and the overall willingness to reform Kazakhstan. Fifty-nine laws have already entered into force citing information from the Astana Times.
The snap elections center on economic recovery and political change. The snap elections are supported by the Majlis, and the miners and metallurgists to allow for “further implementation of reforms,” under Plan of the Nation (or “100 Steps”) and to “understand how we work in a new way, what laws should be adopted to meet the requirements of a market economy,” according to the Kazakh BNews news portal. The Head of the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan (APK) stated elections will benefit the country politically and economically. Kazakhstan’s People’s Democratic Patriotic Party, known as “Aul” Party, also supports the snap elections. Support from Aul makes the elections and the decision not so one-sided appear pluralistic. The Astana Times, published astonishing, but not surprising, poll results about voting in a new Majlis and reforms: “92 percent of citizens believe the early elections make the public more confident the new reforms will be implemented.” Other poll results are similar.
Recently, on 12 January 2016, protests were held in Astana against the Kazakh Bank and the falling tenge. In response, the Kazakh government offered powdered mare’s milk on the global market which “can generate product worth $1 billion (a year)” to mitigate declining global oil prices. Another recent incident was the firing of the Sovereign Wealth Fund manager, Berik Otemurat, stated Kazakhstan’s National Oil Fund would run out in the next six or seven years. The National Oil Fund, often used as an emergency fund, has fallen 17% from $77 billion since August 2014 and the government is withdrawing about according to the Wall Street Journal. The tenge strengthened slightly in February after the currency declined after the government began to float the currency and the country is still experiencing weakened GDP growth. By mid-March the tenge has recovered by 10%.
Two activists in Kazakhstan, Serizkhan Mambetalin and Ermek Narymbaev, were convicted and sent to prison for two and three years respectively for Facebook posts “inciting national discord” (Article 174 of the Criminal Code) and the “authorities claimed the clips amounted to a ‘serious crime against peace and security of humankind’ ” according to Human Rights Watch. The two men were arrested in October 2015 and their trial began 9 December 2015. A third activist, Bolatbek Blyalov, has movement restricted for three years and cannot “[change] his place of residence or work, or [spend] time in public areas during his time off.” The punishment for the three activists violates many of Kazakhstan’s international commitments. On 22 February, the head of the Union of Journalists of Kazakhstan National Press Club, Seitkazy Matayev, was arrested on charges of corruption—accused of tax evasion and embezzlement of funds. According to TengrinNews, “the state anti-corruption agency said Matayev was detained along with his son Aset Matayev who heads the private KazTAG news agency.” Seitkazy Matayev was President Nazarbayev’s press secretary from 1991 to 1993. The Committee on Protecting Journalists reported that the Mateyevs sent statements to Adil Soz (a local press group) indicated harassment by city and state authorities began in January 2016.
There was also a recent protest in Almaty on 18 March 2016 about the incarceration of activist Yermek Narymbayev, one of the facebook activists, jailed for incitement ethnic strife (Kazakhstan Criminate Code Article 174).
Kazakhstan repeatedly has fallen short of commitments for democratic reforms (particularly press freedoms) and instead has strengthened Nazarbayev’s soft authoritarianism. Edward Schatz categorizes Kazakhstan as a soft authoritarian regime that engages in managed information and “[discourages] opposition and [encourages] pro-regime authorities.” Information management, according to Schatz, is not only through media, but by staging “many events to convey information dramatically.” Nazarbayev has a history of staging political events. Applying this notion to snap elections, Kazakhstan’s citizens know of the economic troubles. Snap elections are unnecessary to highlight the problem and snap elections give the impression the government is actively handling the problem and that political change is imminent.
Kazakhstan does consider itself a democracy and whether or not Kazakhstan’s democracy meets international standards will be revealed once institutions are strengthened. The Kazakhstan-based Astana Times calls the 20 March elections the first step towards returning “to the levels of growth and prosperity we experienced.” Constitutional reforms may give more power to the lower house, redistributing more power from the strong Presidential system the country now has (in theory).
Poor economic conditions are simple a pretext for squashing dissent and reducing political opposition. The poor economic conditions should be viewed as an opportunity to engage and strengthen civil society, establish dialogue between the government and non-governmental organizations, strengthen financial institutions, and explore alternatives in the energy sector. The crash of the commodities and oil markets presents Kazakhstan a unique opportunity to diversify its economy. The elections also present the opportunity to implement electoral reform as Nazarbayev has not picked a successor which greatly increases political instability and the possible formation of a power vacuum.
Kazakhstan during its time as the Chair for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has failed to live up to its democratic obligations. The early Presidential elections of April 2015 showed that democratic reforms have yet to materialize. However, failure of democratization (all-encompassing to include media and political rights) and constant criticism has not stopped Kazakhstan from taking on the role of an international mediator on many high-profile conflicts—Iran and Syria—and from becoming a reliable and cooperative economic, trade, and security partners to its neighbors. Kazakhstan’s slow rise on the stage fuel autocratic behaviors.
Kazakhstan’s elections, while varied, reflect Kazakhstan’s wavering commitment to democracy and lack of party pluralism. Snap elections and early Presidential elections provide an opportunity for Kazakhstan to slowly implement electoral reforms and most importantly media reforms. Kazakhstan’s Election Law is weak as it does provide for equal party distribution and fails to provide a concrete and non-ambiguous criteria for campaign finance.
About the author:
*Samantha M. Brletich is a researcher and writer specializing in Central Asia and governance, security, terrorism, and development issues. She possesses a Master’s in Peace Operations Policy from George Mason University in Virginia, United States. She works with the virtual think tank Modern Diplomacy specializing in Central Asia and diplomatic trends. Her work has appeared in multiple publications focused on diplomacy and Central Asia respectively. She is currently an employee of the U.S. Federal Government.