Kazakhstan's leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, swept to victory in a snap presidential election on April 3, garnering 95.5 percent of the vote. The election, he asserted, showed that Kazakhstan is democratizing, even though international observers found serious flaws in the conduct of the balloting.
After preliminary results were announced on April 4 several thousand Nazarbayev supporters attended a victory celebration in Astana, held in a stadium decked out in the national colors of blue and yellow, the Tengri News website reported. Nazarbayev depicted the election, one in which mainstream opposition candidates declined to run, as a triumph for emerging political pluralism in Kazakhstan. “In the year of our 20th anniversary [of independence], Kazakhstan has again showed that we are a growing, young state, a deservedly respected member of the international community, that we are open to the whole world, that we are building a democratic Kazakhstan,” he told supporters.
In addition to his huge margin of victory, Nazarbayev could also take satisfaction with the reported turnout figure. Despite calls for a boycott by some opposition groups, just under 90 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Nazarbayev, analysts say, is genuinely popular among Kazakhstani citizens, but there was credible evidence to suggest that the election numbers were inflated.
Observers from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) indicated that the accuracy of the numbers is suspect. “Regrettably we have to conclude that this election could and should have been better. It showed the urgency of implementing the long-awaited reforms ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections [scheduled for August 2012],” Daan Everts, head of the ODIHR’s long-term election observation mission, said in remarks quoted by an OSCE press release.
“Despite this election showing a lack of expected progress, we hope the country will use it as a learning experience to improve future elections and ensure genuine competition,” said Tonino Picula, the head of the short-term OSCE observer mission.
The observation mission added that, although voting was calm, this election was marked by “similar shortcomings as those noted in previous elections” in Kazakhstan, which has never held a vote deemed free and fair by credible international observers.
“While the election was technically well administered, the absence of opposition candidates and of a vibrant political discourse resulted in a non-competitive environment,” the OSCE said in a statement. “A limited field of candidates did not seek to challenge the incumbent.”
Underscoring the non-competitiveness of the election, one of the three presidential challengers – green activist Mels Yeleusizov – admitted he had voted for Nazarbayev, sparking a spate of angry comments on his Facebook page. Of the three also-rans, senator and Party of Patriots leader Gani Kasymov collected 1.9 percent of the vote, followed by Zhambyl Akhmetbekov of the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan with 1.4 percent. Yeleusizov finished fourth with 1.2 percent.
Observers registered “serious irregularities, including numerous instances of seemingly identical signatures on voter lists and several cases of ballot box stuffing,” the OSCE said.
Shortly before polls closed a EurasiaNet.org correspondent witnessed a voter at Almaty’s polling station number 48 complaining that his vote had been stolen after he arrived to find that someone had already signed next to his name on the voting list.
“It’s a technical mistake,” polling station chairwoman Aya Kaliyeva said, denying the lists had been falsified. Electoral officials apologized and offered to arrange an emergency vote, which the voter declined.
Independent observers from the Young Voters’ League reported a host of irregularities, including instructions to polling stations in southern Shymkent to provide a 100 percent turnout and students being ordered to vote. Other reports said some students had been threatened with expulsion if they failed to show up at the polls.
The league questioned the official turnout of 89.9 percent. Based on its own projections, the group estimated turnout at 59 percent. The government’s high turnout figure was recorded despite a campaign for a boycott among some opposition forces objecting to what they viewed as undemocratic conditions. Nazarbayev said on April 4 that he regretted that opposition forces had not participated.
Nazarbayev’s vote total was uncannily close to a pre-election prediction of 95.9 percent made by his adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbayev.
“The message emanating from the top is that he has brought stability, economic success and enhanced Kazakhstan international reputation,” Rico Isaacs, a lecturer in International Studies at the UK’s Oxford Brookes University, told EurasiaNet.org. “This narrative needed to be translated in quantitative terms in relation to the election which in essence meant a massive landslide from Nazarbayev, and, at 95 percent, it was.”
“Given that over the last 20 years those elites most supportive of Nazarbayev have put him on a pedestal as ‘father of the nation’ there was little chance that they could afford for him to obtain less of the percentage of the vote than in 2005. As he got 91 percent in 2005 it was inevitable that he would score higher,” Isaacs added.
After Nazarbayev’s inauguration, expected in May, he is set to appoint a new government. Opinion is split on whether he will replace Karim Masimov, who has served Nazarbayev loyally as prime minister for over four years. “His number is probably up,” the Megapolis newspaper commented on April 4. “The question is only how far away he will be sent.”
Isaacs suggested that Nazarbayev might keep Masimov in place. “Given the president's constant message of ‘stability,’ it would make sense for him politically to hold on to Masimov in the short-term until he has a much clearer idea about the succession,” Isaacs said. “Then he can move his favoured candidate into a central position, whether it be PM or another senior government post.”
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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