Kazakhstan does elections by rote. The vote to pick members of a new parliament this weekend was no exception.
But that might be missing the point. Elections are but an incremental stage in a slow and ongoing political transition.
Preliminary results published on January 11 showed that the ruling Nur Otan party had got 71 percent of the vote.
Another two government-friendly parties got into the Majilis, as the lower chamber is known: the business-promoting Ak Zhol party, with its 11 percent share of the vote, and the ersatz-left People’s Party on 9 percent. Two more parties, Adal (Honesty) and Auyl (Village), did not make it past the 7 percent threshold.
That all translates into a Majilis almost identical in makeup to the one it is replacing.
Sure enough, former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who is chairman of Nur Otan and still the ultimate power behind the throne, lingered on the theme of continuity and the need for monopolizing power in remarks made late on January 10, as exit poll results were emerging.
“Kazakhstanis link the future development of the country with our party,” he said, adding that especially during a time of pandemic, “only a consolidated society, united around a single political force, can succeed.”
No real opposition parties were permitted to run, however, so the elections were a poor bar by which to measure the accuracy of that sweeping claim. And it is not exactly difficult these days to find members of the public willing to vent their spleen at the economic and social funk in which Kazakhstan has been mired for years now.
“Why would I vote for Nur Otan? For a miserable pension? I very much doubt they have many supporters,” Almaty pensioner Bolat Iskanderov fumed in remarks to Eurasianet. “People have been wanting change for a long time.”
The authorities are well aware of such frustrations.
Nur Otan attempted to liven its insipid brand ahead of the elections by having a portion of its candidates selected through primaries. Nazarbayev, the 80-year-old who has been at the helm of Nur Otan ever since its inception in 1999, talked without apparent awareness of the irony about how this process was a chance to “reset the ruling party.” Singers, sportspeople, businesspeople and social media trendsetters were enlisted to give the primaries some glamorous gloss.
And there was some tinkering to partially reflect evolving social and demographic trends. Nur Otan has, for example, proudly trumpeted the fact that almost one-third of the people on its party list were women and that the average age of candidates had dropped by four years, to 48, compared to the 2016 legislative election.
In the end, Nur Otan’s performance was comparatively weaker than at the last election. Then, they garnered 82 percent of the vote. Replicating that figure would have been harder for the public to swallow in light of the economic slump and concomitant drop in living standards brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Independent experts believe that even the 71 percent figure strains credibility, though.
“The authorities should always get more than 70 percent. That is the psychological threshold below which they may not sink, and so they concoct the needed figure,” political analyst Kazbek Beisebayev told Eurasianet.
The finger was accordingly kept on the scale, as the vote-monitoring arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe stated in a post-election report.
“Notwithstanding some increasing scope for a plurality of opinions online, a subdued campaign further narrowed voters’ ability to make an informed choice,” the report noted. “Concerted measures in the run up to elections prevented some domestic observers from an effective oversight. While voting itself was generally organized efficiently, many procedural aspects on election day lacked full transparency.”
In any case, the result is a Majilis again dominated by a Nur Otan filled with new and old blood alike. The latter category includes Nazarbayev’s ultraloyalists, like his eldest daughter, Dariga, who was speaker of the upper house before being shunted out of that job in May, Nur Otan first deputy chairman Bauyrzhan Baibek, Majilis speaker Nurlan Nigmatulin, the head of the presidential administration Yerlan Koshanov and the chairman of the Samruk-Kazyna sovereign wealth fund, Akhmetzhan Yesimov.
There are some who forecast that now the parliamentary elections are over and done with, more fiddling with the constitutional order may be in the offing.
That process had already ostensibly begun in the spring of 2017, when then-President Nazarbayev rushed through reforms supposedly intended to balance power between the executive and parliament. Nazarbayev at the time hailed those changes as historic, but experts were less impressed.
“The powers the president was willing to transfer to or share with the parliament and the government are mostly insignificant (in some cases even of ‘cosmetic nature’),” scholar Zhenis Kembayev concluded in a paper written later that year. “The president remains an absolutely dominating figure in the state machinery and over-centralization of political power continues to be a major feature of Kazakhstan’s political system.”
With the benefit of hindsight, one might surmise that Nazarbayev’s goal in pursuing this reform was to ensure that no president after him would be as powerful as he was.
But the tepidness of Nazarbayev’s 2017 constitutional fix means more work will have to be done to turn the Majilis into a potent force piloted by his cronies instead of the somnolent rubber stamp chamber it is today. Political analyst Beisebayev has picked up on clues changes may be imminently afoot.
“This idea is given weight by a November statement by the leader of the Ak Zhol party, Azat Peruashev, who said that when parliament reconvened, it would initiate laws to strengthen the role of parliament,” Beisebayev said.
Petr Svoik, a political scientist and sometime opposition politician, is less categorical. Kazakhstan’s resource-based economy has run out of steam and the priority now is to maintain stability, not to effect major transformations to the system. That means Nazarbayev’s successor, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, will cling on to his authority for the time being, he said.
“Tokayev is not a nominal figure. He is a real president,” Svoik told Eurasianet. “But he is trying to maintain balance and continuity, and waiting for the transition of power to end naturally.”
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.