Kazakhstan: Ruling party sees dominant role trimmed, but little change expected
The legislature will see many new faces, but there is little evidence a dramatic reset is looming.
Three exit polls in Kazakhstan’s snap parliamentary elections have revealed a legislature that will be markedly different in composition to the one that preceded it, albeit still dominated by the ruling party.
Numerous independent hopefuls, meanwhile, have come forward to dismiss the vote as a charade and said they will refuse to recognize the outcome.
With its more than 53 percent of the vote, the Amanat party (formerly Nur Otan) will control the largest bloc in the Majilis, as the lower house of parliament is known.
The rest of the successful parties are a mix of the familiar, the ascendant and the new.
Auyl (Village), a rural affairs-focused party that failed to even surpass the then-7 percent threshold in the 2021 legislative election, is another certain presence in the Majilis, having garnered around 11 percent of the vote, putting it in second place.
It sounded a self-consciously constructive note in its post-vote statement, eschewing any talk of holding the government to account.
“We will work actively on the development of specific policies in the Majilis and maslikhats [local councils] to improve the standard of living and well-being in all villages,” the party said in a statement.
Data from three polling companies published on the night of the March 19 vote showed roughly similar outcomes.
Ak Zhol, an obedient pro-government and business-themed party, appeared to have confirmed its place in parliament by scoring anywhere between 7 and 9 percent of the vote. An ersatz socialist party, the People's Party of Kazakhstan, will have managed the same feat even if, as exit polls suggest, they got a little under 7 percent, since the minimum threshold for entry into parliament has been lowered to 5 percent.
One newly formed party, Respublica, looks to have comfortably overcome that hurdle too.
Respublica is something of an unknown quantity, although pre-vote statements made by its leader, Beibit Alibekov, suggest it does not intend to take a hardline opposition stance in the legislature. Prior to obtaining registration for Respublica, Alibekov described his goal as preventing “rabid populists from coming to power.”
Finally, the viability of the National Social Democratic Party, or OSDP – a once-partially lively but now entirely spent opposition force – may be in doubt if it has failed again in its bid to get into parliament. Only one of the three exit polls showed it just about scraping past the 5 percent threshold.
Official rhetoric about these elections have cast them in dramatic terms. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is eager to be seen as a political liberalizer, and a would-be lively legislature is deemed as central to ushering in what he has referred to as a “New Kazakhstan.”
As of lunchtime on March 20, there was no certainty when the definitive results of single mandate district races were to be made public. Those contests have been hailed by the boosters of this election as the great democratic novelty. Fully 29 of the 98 elected representatives to the Majilis are being chosen in first-past-the-post contests – a fact that officials have said should inject vibrancy into the parliament.
Even before the results were out, however, many of the hopefuls already appeared poised for complaint.
A bout of bitter contestation is looming over voting precinct No. 3 in Almaty. Early returns indicated that Yermurat Bapi, a one-time opposition politician whom critics accuse of latterly having converted his loyalties to the government, had taken the lead. Another candidate in the same race, Inga Imanbai, summoned a midday press conference on March 20 to claim numerous violations and that her team had amassed evidence indicating she should win the seat.
"The machine of the state has been deployed against me and in favor of another candidate, Yermurat Bapi,” said Imanbai, a familiar face on the political scene and a member of the unregistered Democratic Party of Kazakhstan. “Yermurat, you have no moral right to be considered an MP. You exchanged your conscience for a seat. You will get your seat, but you will have no honor or dignity.”
Another complainant is Sanjar Bokayev, a businessman who used to be former deputy chairman of the now-renamed Nur Otan’s Almaty branch, but who has latterly cast himself as a would-be scourge of the ruling order. In a video address shared via social media, he said that “vote protocols (showing results of voting) are being falsified in simply the dirtiest manner.”
“This approach to the elections entirely discredits the whole concept of a ‘New Kazakhstan,’” he said.
The procedure after election business is completed will run along well-rehearsed lines. The government, currently headed by Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov, will formally resign until the new Majilis convenes.
"It is down to the president and the Majilis who will be the next prime minister,” Smailov told journalists on March 19. “We are ready for anything that comes.”
Had the election produced a shock result, there could have been talk of a radically overhauled government, but the continued dominance of the ruling party and its malleable companions makes it more than likely that the new Cabinet will be similar, if not identical, to the one it is replacing.
Beyond the sporadic claims of violations, the authorities may be most concerned by a relatively lackluster turnout. Only 26 percent of eligible voters in the country’s largest city, Almaty, cast their ballot. Turnout nationwide stood at 54 percent, a sharp drop from the historically also-low figure of 63 percent recorded in the January 2021 legislative elections.
Dmitriy Dubovitskiy, a political commentator who runs the YouTube channel Za Nami Vyekhali, argued that the authorities might seek to turn this fact to their advantage.
“The pro-government position will be that Almaty people only know how to make an impression on social media, but that when it comes to adopting a civic position in real life, they just stay at home,” he said. “And these elections have supposedly proven that point.”
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said in a post-vote assessment that it found the elections had brought “Kazakhstan closer to holding elections in line with international standards,” but that “limits on the exercise of fundamental freedoms remain and [that] some political groups continued to be prevented from participation as parties in elections.”
“Democracy is a process that requires constant attention and dedication. We have noted some welcome improvements, including related to election laws, but Kazakhstan will only achieve the stated political goal of democratic development if far reaching reforms continue,” said Irene Charalambides, the leader of the OSCE’s short-term observer mission.
A senior government official told Eurasianet that he considered the OSCE statement an endorsement of recent reforms and a confirmation that the country is “moving towards high democratic ideals.”
“Naturally, there were numerous irregularities and areas of concern that the mission noted. What this means is that building democracy is a work in progress and that we will need to redouble our efforts in our political modernization,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Updated with OSCE observer mission assessment and response from a Kazakh government official.
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