This weekend, voters in Kazakhstan will go to the polls to approve a revised constitution that authorities insist will guarantee a democratic future for all.
For Anuarbek Toktasyn, a member of the unregistered Democratic Party, it will simply be an occasion to register his disdain for the former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, since one amendment will strip the 81-year-old of his honorific title of Leader of the Nation and a whole range of legal protections.
“It's time to restore justice. He sunk people into poverty. And for this we give him these honors?” Toktasyn said indignantly to Eurasianet.
Toktasyn is a little shaky on the rest of the overhaul to the constitution. And he’s not alone.
Even the people charged with explaining the referendum to the public appear to accept that most are unfamiliar with its purpose and that they might remain perplexed even when it is explained to them.
“It is possible that many of you will find it complicated to see what the difference is between the old and the new version of the constitution,” Yerlan Karin, a special advisor to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, said in a video primer on the referendum.
Karin tries to make the job of understanding easier by breaking down the purpose of the vote into five blocks: trimming the overwhelming powers of the president; redistributing power through the branches of government; enhancing the role of parliament; increasing public participation in the running of the country; and strengthening the civil rights of citizens.
Within those rubrics lie 56 changes to a constitution first adopted in 1995. While Karin makes a virtue of the fact that the reforms were crafted by legal experts, the wider public had absolutely no say in the process.
And Kazakhs have been given little time to consider the implications of what they are voting for, let alone debate. The plan to hold the referendum was announced only one month before the appointed date of June 5.
Voters will be asked only to answer in the positive or negative to the entire block of changes.
“This muddle is difficult even for experts to understand, let alone normal citizens who are not going to start delving into them,” Dosym Satpayev, a political analyst, told Eurasianet.
For the authorities, the details are superfluous anyhow, since this referendum is just a dress rehearsal for the presidential elections in 2024, said Satpayev.
Tokayev, who is all but certain to win those elections, has made political reform an integral aspect of his brand since January, when the country was rocked by violent unrest. It was only in early May that he publicly floated the idea of a referendum, though, saying that 16.4 billion tenge ($40 million) would be set aside to pay for the exercise.
Some of this money has been spent on advertising. While referendums might normally generate a clash of positions between groups favoring or opposing the reforms, the campaigning in this instance is largely intended to inform the public that a vote is happening. The messaging is nevertheless unsubtly signaling a desire to see everybody greenlight the proposals. Billboards, internet banners, and text messages have variously carried the slogans “Let’s build a new Kazakhstan!” and “Vote for change!”
To make sure the word got out as far as possible, referendum organizers commandeered the government Telegram account once used to keep the public informed about the COVID-19 outbreak.
While pledging a total reset in how it runs the country, the government is using well-worn methods of persuasion to run this vote. Vetted political analysts and figures with prominent public profiles are routinely wheeled out to express their unconditional support for the constitutional reforms, often deploying canned phrases like “the proposed amendments are of historical significance” or “the country has no future without these reforms.”
Local media, much of which survives only by virtue of the subsidies provided by the state, has been jammed with articles by political scientists, entrepreneurs, scientists and figures from the cultural scene arguing for the need to abandon the current, inefficient system of rule and build a new society. Public associations and workers at major domestic companies have likewise been dragooned into supporting the referendum.
Dissenting voices are almost nowhere to be heard. And certainly not on state television.
Vitaly Voronov, the founder of the public anti-corruption foundation Transparency Kazakhstan, is one such rare critic. The promised reforms will not effect any real democratic transformations, he argued in an interview with news and analysis website Exclusive.kz.
“So far, I have seen little fresh air in any of the provisions that are being voted for,” he said. “In fact, the republic of Kazakhstan is and will remain a super-presidential republic.”
In the absence of such objections, the authorities are already all but claiming an early victory. The referendum Telegram channel on May 23 reported, for example, that of the 4,000 people questioned in a recent survey, more than 72 percent backed the constitutional reforms.
This is an extravagant claim given that even the state concedes many are in the dark about the contents of the reforms. Promos for a June 3 pre-referendum marathon show to be aired on state news channel Khabar dwell on this exact point. The advertisement opens with one anchor answering his phone and listening to a voice at the other end of the line asking: “Can you explain what we’re all voting for?”
“I didn’t see any sensible explanations or an objective discussion of what we should vote for, let alone criticism,” Igor Afanasiyev, an Almaty-based marketing specialist, told Eurasianet. “As always, the staff-appointed opinion leaders are just feeding us the initiatives of the new president that they are now serving.”
Afanasiyev says he will not vote as a matter of principle. But he will be in a minority.
Gulzhan Alimbekova, director of the Center for the Study of Public Opinion, an outfit that conducts research projects for the government, is predicting a high turnout, fueled in large part by optimism that Tokayev’s reforms will deliver an improvement in living standards. Even so, she admits, many people, especially those living in remote and rural areas, are lacking in understanding of the specifics because of the weakness of the public information campaign.
“Calls to vote come from everywhere, but there are no clear explanations of the reforms,” Alimbekova told Eurasianet. “I observe from my own experience as an ordinary citizen that such information is not available to me. Nobody has invited me anywhere. Nobody has tried to reach out to me.”
Satpayev is cynical. He sees the referendum as a symbolic effort in persuading the public that democratic reforms are happening and that they are being pushed through by the people, rather than the rubber-stamp parliament, as has customarily been the case. And the real point to all that is to bolster Tokayev’s standing.
“In the referendum, people will not be voting for amendments, but for the incumbent president,” he said. “This will help the authorities see the real extent of support for Tokayev among the population.”
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.