Kazakhstan is holding a snap, opposition-free presidential election on April 26 that should enable septuagenarian President Nursultan Nazarbayev to remain in power through the end of the decade.
The 74-year-old Nazarbayev has already ruled Kazakhstan for a quarter of a century. If he wins reelection as expected, he would be 80 when his next term ends in 2020. Some observers are cautioning that the ageing president’s continued rule is storing up political complications for the future.
The incumbent is universally expected to trounce little-known challengers, Turgun Syzdykov of the government-loyal Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan and Abelgazi Kusainov, a member of the ruling party led by Nazarbayev, Nur Otan.
These two purported rivals are widely seen as stalking horses, standing only to lend a veneer of democratic competition to an election in which Nazarbayev is forecast to match or better the 95.5 percent share of the vote he reaped in the last presidential election in 2011.
As Dosym Satpayev, director of the Kazakhstan Risks Assessment Group think-tank, told EurasiaNet.org, “In Kazakhstan, elections play the role of a formal ritual rather than a real competitive battle.”
This time round, Syzdykov has been spotted lauding Nazarbayev, according to findings released ahead of the vote by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. OSCE monitors have never deemed any election in Kazakhstan to be free and fair.
The cards are well stacked in Nazarbayev’s favor, observers suggest. Real opposition parties are non-existent in Kazakhstan these days: they have been closed down or co-opted into tame movements, their leaders neutralized or jailed.
Amirzhan Kosanov, an opposition-minded politician who is non-party affiliated, believes this snap election was called 20 months early due to concerns in Astana about “a possible rise in protest sentiment, because of the authorities’ inability to fight negative phenomena like corruption, social injustice, and social stratification into a handful of rich and millions of poor,” he told EurasiaNet.org. Another significant factor is the potential for rising social discontent connected with Kazakhstan’s economic slowdown, and troubles with the Eurasian Economic Union.
The official reason is to give Nazarbayev a fresh mandate to push through an economic stimulus package as Kazakhstan grapples with overcoming low oil prices and the repercussions of a downturn in neighboring Russia.
Ahead of the vote, Nazarbayev – whose official title is Leader of the Nation – enjoys an approval rating of 91 percent, according to an opinion poll commissioned by an Astana-funded think-tank and conducted by UK research company Ipsos MORI.
Although polls are notoriously unreliable in Kazakhstan, such a lofty figure may not be wide of the mark: many voters speak of Nazarbayev with pride bordering on reverence. “I’m for our Leader of the Nation because I like his policy, because he’s a good president, because he thinks about his people and about the country’s future,” businessman Yerbol Bekbergenov told EurasiaNet.org.
Voters credit Nazarbayev with delivering petrodollar-fuelled prosperity, stability (much prized amid the upheaval in Ukraine) and the maintenance of ethnic harmony in multi-ethnic Kazakhstan – a country which the president compared to “paradise” while on the campaign trail.
Nazarbayev’s critics charge that his popularity is fuelled by a cult of personality, typified by a giant statue of him in Almaty’s First President’s Park in which these voters were speaking to EurasiaNet.org.
Not everyone buys the party line. “I’m not voting because I consider myself a democrat, and in a democratic country presidents should only be elected twice,” a sixty-year-old unemployed man told EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity. “How long can Nazarbayev rule for? He’s been in power since 1989, for 26 years.”
Nazarbayev, who rose to power in 1989, prior to the Soviet Union’s collapse, has the constitutional right to stand for president for life: legislation enacted in 2010 granted him a personal exemption from term limits and the right to dabble in policy-making for life.
Speculation about political succession has been rife in Kazakhstan for years, and this snap election has not laid it to rest. “The main question is what will happen after the elections,” Satpayev said. “Will the president serve to the end of his term, or will he finally start implementing a mechanism for the succession of power?”
The eventual successor will struggle to adapt a personalized, top-down political system constructed by and for Nazarbayev, with weak institutions requiring urgent reform to strengthen them for the post-Nazarbayev future, Satpayev added.
For Nargis Kassenova, director of the Central Asian Studies Center at Almaty’s KIMEP University, “the future is ridden with political risks whether he stays in power or decides to step down.”
While Nazarbayev remains in office, “there is a bigger possibility that the stagnation of the system will continue,” she told EurasiaNet.org. “With the closed off political space and lack of mechanisms and institutions for defining national and public interest, the country’s development will continue to be driven by vanity projects, and the creation of a genuine political community will be stalled.”
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.