Ever since Kazakhstan was rocked by deadly unrest in January, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has been promising a reset of the political system and the birthing of what he has dubbed a “New Kazakhstan.”
The snap presidential election to take place on November 20 is intended to demonstrate his commitment to reforms and political diversity.
What the country is poised for, however, is politics as usual, with a powerful incumbent swatting aside a few nondescript also-rans in a one-horse race.
This week’s sight of political parties and public associations falling over themselves to nominate Tokayev as their candidate only reinforced the impression that he is first among equals.
He is not even a member anymore, since reforms passed by referendum in June prohibit the president from being inside any party. The point of the tinkering was ostensibly to lift him above the political fray and foster competition.
It was more unexpected that Amanat’s ostensible chief rival would also beg to nominate Tokayev.
The Ak Zhol party may officially be a part of the parliamentary opposition, a role it occupies de jure, albeit not de facto, but members still fingered Tokayev as their nominee above three other candidates.
Leader Azat Peruashev, a one-time ruling party grandee until he jumped ship to head Ak Zhol, offered a convoluted explanation of why he would sit out the election.
“There are matters when you must restrain your ambitions and work out what is more important to you in the hierarchy of values and priorities,” he opined cryptically.
Also rushing to nominate Tokayev were the little-known National Volunteer Network and the Association of Local Council Deputies of Kazakhstan.
To settle the argument about who would win the honor of nominating the incumbent, Amanat on October 6 announced the creation of a people’s coalition to support Tokayev’s candidacy.
This coalition convened, with astonishing speed, within the same day, leaving the impression that what is being cast an organic initiative is merely an astroturf effort designed to lend a sheen of popular legitimacy to Tokayev’s bid.
Tokayev duly accepted the “great honor and responsibility” of standing as a “common candidate put forward by you all.”
The whole spectacle had echoes of the way politics was done under Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former president who routinely stormed to victory in choreographed elections lacking opposition candidates. The last time Nazarbayev ran for re-election was in 2015, when he got 97.8 percent of ballots cast, a figure that speaks volumes about the competitiveness of the vote.
There is no sign that any even vaguely viable rivals will challenge Tokayev. With just five days left until nominations close, there is little time for any to emerge.
So far, three no-names have registered bids.
One is Zhiguli Dayrabayev, a little-known member of the slightly better-known Auyl (Village) party who also chairs the National Association of Farmers.
Another is Nurlan Auyesbayev of the National Social Democratic Party, or OSDP, which positions itself as a genuine opposition party, although most credible political commentators say it lost any claim to that status many years ago. The closest the former communist-turned-social democrat has got to gaining any public profile was the time he fruitlessly lobbied for a statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin to be erected in the capital, Astana.
The third candidate is Meyram Kazhyken, an obscure academic.
Tokayev is promising new-style politics, but his New Kazakhstan is about to have what looks very like an old-style election.