With his reelection out of the way, Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is now focusing on carrying out a limited reshaping of the Central Asian country’s political landscape. The changes being contemplated seem aimed at managing the transition to the post-Nazarbayev era.
Nazarbayev secured another presidential term in early April, garnering 95.6 percent of the vote. OSCE monitors found that both the conduct of the campaign and the election did not meet international democratic standards. Since then, Astana has come under pressure to address shortcomings. For example, in an April 30 telephone conversation US President Barack Obama raised democratization issues with Nazarbayev, reportedly emphasizing that Kazakhstan’s 2012 parliamentary elections “offer an important opportunity” for promoting political pluralism.
In Kazakhstan’s previous parliamentary vote, in 2007, the pro-Nazarbayev Nur Otan captured all the seats up for grabs, as no other party cleared the seven-percent electoral threshold needed to gain representation. Subsequently, the government engineered changes to election rules mandating that the political party which gains the second-most votes in an election is guaranteed representation, even if it doesn’t meet the seven-percent requirement.
Opposition political leaders say the “second-place” amendment is insufficient and are pushing for the government to do more to level the playing field for the 2012 parliamentary balloting. Specifically, the OSDP Azat and Alga! parties want to see the liberalization of laws governing the media, elections, political parties and freedom of assembly.
Some of the more outspoken government critics are even advocating a complete overhaul of Kazakhstan’s political system. “There’s practically nothing to modernize because the system that's been constructed today needs not modernization but replacement,” Alga! leader Vladimir Kozlov said during an April 28 round-table discussion sponsored by the Institute of Political Solutions, an Almaty think tank. Kozlov’s party has long been fighting unsuccessfully for official registration, without which it is ineligible to stand in parliamentary elections. OSDP Azat also operates in a legal gray area, unable to obtain registration since it was created it in a 2009 party merger.
Kozlov and other opposition leaders are not optimistic their present efforts will bear fruit. Kazakhstani leaders, they point out, made liberalization promises in order to obtain the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in 2010. Those pledges were not kept, they add. Officials, meanwhile, insist they fulfilled their reform commitments.
The 2012 election results “will be artificially decided by the authorities, not the voters,” OSDP Azat deputy leader Amirzhan Kosanov said during the late-April round-table. “Parliament is not a nightclub, to have [a bouncer] at the entrance carrying out parliamentary face control. It’s for the voters to decide who should be in parliament.”
Rico Isaacs, a lecturer at Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom, predicted that the second party to enter parliament in 2012 would be pro-presidential in its orientation, whether already existing or newly created.
Recent remarks by presidential aide Yermukhamet Yertysbayev fuelled suspicions that Astana intends to stage-manage the parliamentary vote. Opposition politicians would be able to offer “nothing constructive” as MPs, Yertysbayev was quoted as saying in the Liter newspaper on May 4. If OSDP Azat – which came second in the last parliamentary election (as two separate parties running as an electoral bloc) – entered parliament, members “would use the country's political tribune for confrontational aims,” he claimed.
Yertysbayev infuriated the opposition by repeating a proposal to transform the Atameken Union, an entrepreneurs' association headed by Nazarbayev’s son-in-law Timur Kulibayev, into a political party. The clear hint was that Atameken would become the second party to be represented in parliament. “I think the future two-party system will look like this: Nur Otan as the centrist party, conservative in the good sense ... Atameken will sooner or later become the party of small and medium-sized business,” he told Liter.
Yertysbayev also mooted a shakeup of the Nur Otan leadership, proposing that Nazarbayev hand it over to Prime Minister Karim Masimov before the parliamentary vote. This raises the intriguing possibility that Astana may be mulling the idea of Masimov and Kulibayev forming a political tandem to lead the transition to the post-Nazarbayev era.
Political experts doubt Yertysbayev would have made such candid remarks unless they had the tacit approval of Nazarbayev. That assumption is leading some to believe that the Kazakhstani government isn’t really interested in promoting substantive political change.
“I just get this impression that they need to have this constant dialogue of political reform to appease the West, or at least to give the impression that they are reforming,” Isaacs told EurasiaNet.org. “The most likely scenario is just again this very minor [legal] tinkering, and doing the least possible for maximum gain.”
Rather than opening up the political field, Nazarbayev and his coterie seem more intent on ensuring a closed and smooth political transition at some undetermined point in the future. Enhancing the role of the parliament could be part of the administration’s succession strategy, Kosanov, the opposition leader, suggested. He added that authorities were already holding internal discussions on the post-Nazarbayev era, wresting with the question: “who, or what, will be the [better] guarantor of society’s stability after Nazarbayev’s departure – a specific person whom the president will designate, or a multiparty parliament?”
Yertysbayev hinted that this dilemma is uppermost in the administration’s mind: “It is clear that there will be no second Nazarbayev, so in the next five to 10 years we have to build a new state and political construction, a new political culture, a new system of interaction between parliament and the government – build a system that does not depend on the personality of the first leader.”
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.