Fresh legislation on elections in Kazakhstan could consolidate the ruling party in the regions and, according to experts, shut out independent politicians and activists in the process.
Changes to the electoral law were put forward by the Justice Ministry and is now being considered by legislators. Tucked away among the provisions on the introduction of digital technology into the voting process, there is a new rule requiring all aspiring candidates to regional and district representative bodies — the maslikhats — to be members of a legally registered political party.
“Maslikhat deputies will be elected by party lists presented by political parties at the territorial electoral district level,” the draft legislation states.
As of now, people can put themselves up for local elections regardless of party affiliation. Candidates can either run as complete independents or as representatives of a public organization. This arrangement represents a narrow window of democratic opportunity for Kazakhstan. Deputies to the lower house of the national parliament have been required to run on party lists since 2007.
Maslikhats, in truth, wield little actual power although they are nominally responsible for approving mayors, district heads and regional governors. In effect, however, their role is typically to apply the rubber stamp to government appointees.
The Justice Ministry’s case for this law is that it will “permit the full representation of all political parties, enable the development of the party system and increase the role of parties in the country’s political life.”
But experts believe that the modifications to the law will simply hand more power to the government to control all levers of power in the country.
Mereke Gabdualiyev, a legal expert, argued in an article on Zakon.kz that after the law is adopted, the Senate, the upper house of parliament, whose members are selected in turn by the nation’s maslikhats, will “turn into yet another party-political institution dependent on the party leadership.” The party in question being the ruling party of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The field of available political parties with which to run is narrow.
Six political parties ran for seats in the lower house of parliament in March 2016. Most of them ran on slightly varying agendas, although without ever seriously criticizing the government, and certainly never the president. Harsh critics of the authorities are as a rule not granted legal registration.
Ualikhan Kaisarov, who was one of a few opposition legislators present in the Senate in the early 2000s, told RFE/RL’s Kazakh service, Radio Azattyq, that the maslikhats are already jammed with Nur Otan deputies, but that now regular citizens will be denied the privilege to enter that privileged circle.
There was more democracy in the 1990s, when a regional maslikhat voted him into the Senate against the wishes of the local authorities, Kaisarov said.
“Could you imagine that now?” he asked.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.