There have been many election cycles in Kazakhstan in which the public could have been forgiven for not knowing the polls were coming.
Not this time.
In Almaty, the country’s largest city, the evidence is hard to miss. Billboards and banners carry the cheerful faces of candidates hoping to win a seat in single-mandate districts in the March 19 parliamentary election. Uplifting ads play on the radio. Vans emblazoned with campaign materials drive down the streets.
Megaphones blare recorded messages promising long-awaited solutions to problems that have plagued society for years:
"We will ban dense construction in cities."
“We’ll bring down prices."
"We’ll pipe gas into homes and improve air quality."
Voters in Kazakhstan may not be used to high-octane electioneering, but they know to be wary of such lofty pledges. Something is different this time, though. For the first time that many people can remember, hardline critics of the authorities are joining the race. Or trying to, at least.
This election is being sold by the government as an important milestone in President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s claimed march toward political liberalization.
Tokayev’s road to Damascus moment happened in January 2022. An explosion of nationwide public anger at the legacy of cronyism created by his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was a sharp wake-up call. And since Tokayev was ultimately a beneficiary of that earlier regime, having been handed the reins by Nazarbayev in 2019, he understood that something would have to change.
On the legitimacy-shoring front, one decisive measure was to call a snap presidential election in which he could run as his own man. Tokayev won with 80 percent of that vote in November – a victory that skeptics argue was marred by the lack of any real alternative.
But his backers will argue that changes to the constitution, approved in a rushed referendum in June, will be more consequential. One provision in those amendments was for a transition from proportional representation to a mixed system. If earlier only candidates from either the party of power or the handful of pocket parties were able to get into the Majilis, as the lower house of parliament is known, in this election, 29 of the 98 elected representatives will be self-nominated and picked by single-member constituencies. A similar proportion will be in place for local assemblies, or maslikhats.
Tokayev is confident this is the recipe for drawing passions away from the streets, where locked-out critics of the government have to date been compelled to do their politics.
“This new model for forming the Majilis and maslikhats will fully insure the interests of voters both at the national and regional levels, and will provide a wide range of views in representative bodies,” he said in a speech in January.
On the face of it, the uptake has been formidable.
The Central Electoral Commission reports that 435 candidates have been registered in the 29 single-member constituencies. The competition is particularly sustained in Almaty and in the capital, Astana. The two districts of Astana are seeing more than 40 contenders apiece vying for a seat. More than 100 hopefuls are in the running across Almaty’s three districts.
Nominees include entrepreneurs, journalists, teachers, and the unemployed, among others. There are some recognizably critical voices in there too, like the president of the Kenesary Khan Foundation, Ualikhan Kaisarov, and activist and member of the unregistered Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, Inga Imanbai. One figure who has gained a fair bit of attention is Sanjar Bokayev, a businessman who used to be former deputy chairman of the now-renamed Nur Otan ruling party’s Almaty branch, but who has latterly cast himself as a would-be scourge of the ruling order.
Yerlan Karin, whose bland official title of Secretary of State for Domestic Information Policy belies the outsized role he has played in engineering these reforms, is buoyant.
“The participation of such a large number of public figures and civil activists, including those who usually speak from critical positions, speaks of trust and support for the ongoing reforms,” he wrote on his Telegram channel in February.
Karin turns to polling to buttress his case. A survey by the state-affiliated Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies has shown that 72 percent of people queried by pollsters believe "the country is moving in the right direction," he said.
Independent polling is generally weak, so there is no certain way to evaluate the reliability of that figure, but it is certainly fair to suggest there is a more positive vibe in the air.
“When has it ever happened in Kazakhstan that real – not fake – opposition figures took part in the elections?” taxi driver Olzhas Asylkhanuly told Eurasianet. “Tokayev is great, he made a promise, and he is really following through.”
It isn’t all sunshine, however. Amid the optimism, there are reminders of a past when opposition politicians could expect to be kept from running through dubious means.
When Almaty-based activists Aigerim Tleuzhanova and Kosai Makhanbayev, who have both faced legal troubles over their participation in the protests of last January, and journalist Sultan-Khan Akkuly tried to register their candidacy, they were initially refused that privilege. In a surprising turn of events, however, all three managed to get that decision by election officials overturned in the courts.
The outcome marks a break from the past, but critics of the election process feel the whole situation illustrates how vote officials still appear to act as gatekeepers serving the interests of the status quo.
There are few that believe that any of the most uncompromising opposition figures can make it into parliament.
Imanbai, the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan activist, has had a lively campaign. Her team have put up posters all over Almaty, her social media channels are a busy treadmill of updates, and she stands tirelessly on the street delivering her message through a megaphone. The message is unabashedly crowd-pleasing: human rights for all, down with corruption, make the government accountable, and fight unscrupulous developers.
For all that, Imanbai has little optimism about her prospects.
“The authorities are only creating the appearance of ongoing reforms, both for Kazakhstanis and for the international community, but in fact, the same political processes that we observed during the Nazarbayev era are taking place today,” she told Eurasianet.
This may be the self-preserving talk of a candidate who knows she cannot compete against much better-resourced and more handsomely financed opponents. But critics of these elections argue that letting abrasively oppositional characters into parliament was never part of the plan.
Sergei Duvanov, a veteran gadfly, believes the authorities are working to a plan of filtering out objectionable candidates and getting their own people into the legislature. The energies of government opponents are disparate, and the single-mandate system simply means the protest vote will be diluted across numerous candidates, Duvanov told Eurasianet. And if worse comes to worst, and a real opposition candidate wins a race, administrative levers will be pulled to ensure they cannot take their seat, he predicted.
“Despite today's euphoria, the election results will show that nothing has changed in our political arena since Nazarbayev,” Duvanov told Eurasianet.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.