In the months after Kazakhstan was rocked by deadly turmoil following major street protests in January 2022, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev turned his hand to resetting the political system.
Last month, he dissolved the rubber-stamp parliament and called for a snap election to be held on March 19. Municipal and regional assemblies will hold votes on the same day.
“We have entered a new era in the development of Kazakhstan,” Tokayev said at the time. “These elections will concretize the changes taking place in society and will give a powerful impetus to further modernization of our political system.”
Overhauling the legislature is a part of the president’s sweeping reform agenda, which has been dubbed Jana Kazakhstan (New Kazakhstan). The mission, unspoken but unmistakably implied, is to scrape away the remnants of the corrupt cronyism that prevailed in the era of Tokayev’s predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped aside in 2019. Officials also speak in lofty terms of political liberalization and the imminent appearance of an order that will more effectively reflect the wishes and needs of the public.
In political terms, the parliamentary elections are stage two of this program. The first step arrived in November, when Tokayev, 69, was reelected with 80 percent of the vote for what he vows will be his only remaining term in office. If he sticks to the plan, he will step down in 2029.
The ultimate point of that election was for Tokayev to demonstrate that he was his own man. When he was first elected to his post in 2019, he was widely viewed as a Nazarbayev creature, dependent on his still-powerful sponsor. By late last year, he sought to show he was putting clear blue water between himself and his erstwhile mentor.
This parliamentary election comes with some technical novelties. Until the 2021 legislative vote, elected lawmakers could only win seats in the 107-member Majilis, as the lower house is known, through their position on party lists. In March, 70 percent of lawmakers will be elected that way, while the remainder will compete in single-member districts.
It has – on paper – become easier to register a new political party. While aspiring parties used to have to have 20,000 members, that threshold has been lowered to 5,000. The number of people that need to belong to regional branches of would-be parties has likewise been slashed.
When Tokayev first unveiled this tinkering with the party-registration system, it triggered a minor flutter of euphoria in the usually moribund political scene. The Justice Ministry has for decades been rejecting applications, and the liberalization rhetoric was taken as a sign that major changes were looming. Figures like TV personality Dinara Satzhan, not previously known for her interest in politics, took to Instagram to announce that she didn’t want to be “left out of the trend” and that she was planning to bring women together to create a political organization.
It was not long before realism reared its head.
Sticking to its traditional script, the Justice Ministry continued rejecting applicants for alleged non-compliance. A party called Alga, Kazakhstan (Forward, Kazakhstan) got pushed back half a dozen times. Namys (Dignity) had no more luck.
Figures in those aspiring parties think they know what the problem is: They are actually critical of the government.
Namys leader Sanjar Bokayev is a businessman who used to be former deputy chairman of the now-renamed Nur Otan ruling party’s Almaty branch. His stated vision is to create what he dubs a “digital party” that would appeal to progressive-minded young people. Speaking to Eurasianet, he complained that even with the simplified system, party registration is too difficult.
“For example, you initially have to provide the Justice Ministry with a list of initiative group members consisting of 700 people, all of whom, every single one, has to then be present at a party congress,” he said. “If even one of then cannot come for any reason, you will be denied registration.”
Such arbitrary hurdles are clearly designed to lock out genuinely independent parties, he argued.
Sergei Duvanov, a rights activist and journalist with a long history of expressing anti-government views, agrees.
"Declarations about the New Kazakhstan are not carried into practice. The authorities are using old methods of dealing with political opponents," Duvanov told Eurasianet. “There is no doubt that Akorda [the presidential administration] will form a pocket parliament, so in March, voters will only be able to choose among those allowed to stand by virtue of their loyalty to the authorities.”
A couple of parties have made it through the gauntlet, though, to become the first new parties to be registered in two decades.
Baitak bills itself as a green party. Skeptics are suspicious and point to the fact that its leader, Azamatkhan Amirtayev, until recently occupied an executive role at a state-owned company.
Last year, when eco-activists clashed with municipal authorities in the capital, Astana, over plans to drain a local lake that served as a home for wild ducks and swans, Amirtayev took the side of officials. That did not do much to bolster the believability of his green credentials. City Hall won that battle in the end.
Beibit Alibekov, another once-apolitical businessman, has been successful in his bid to get his Respublica party approved. Alibekov is not especially coy about Respublica’s de facto role as a spoiler party. Prior to obtaining registration, he described his goal as preventing “rabid populists from coming to power.”
And what policies does Respublica support? Advancing Tokayev’s Jana Kazakhstan agenda is near the top, as it turns out.
Vadim Boreiko, the creator of a popular political YouTube channel, has uncovered evidence that points to strong ties between Tokayev’s administration and the Respublica team. In what may or may not be an unrelated development, Boreiko’s apartment was last month targeted by vandals. Tokayev responded to that and other cases of journalists being intimidated by demanding that police conduct a thorough investigation.
The fortunes of legacy, Nazarbayev-vintage parties are not looking too bright either these days.
Amanat, the new name of the Nazarbayevite Nur Otan party, had an overwhelming presence in the Majilis dissolved in January. It is far from certain that its dominance will be preserved in the next legislature.
And Tolganai Umbetaliyeva, the head of the Central Asian Foundation for the Development of Democracy, believes that the ostensibly business-oriented Ak Zhol party and the socialist-lite People’s Party can likewise not expect to have the thumb placed on the scales in their favor come election day. That is not least because the ultimate loyalties of those parties are far from certain.
“Old parties are expressing support for Tokayev’s policies, probably so they can survive and get back into parliament. But once they get their mandates, they may end up being used by the Nazarbayev people,” Umbetaliyeva said. “So trust toward them from [the presidential administration] is low.”
The only other currently available options for voters are the rural interests Auyl (Village) party and the National Social Democratic Party, or OSDP – a once-partially lively but now entirely spent opposition force.
Ak Zhol and People’s Party are wearing themselves out even before the competition begins properly.
Last month, Ak Zhol lawmaker Azamat Abildayev caused an outcry when he expressed support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The remarks were met with a swell of indignation and led to Abildayev’s ouster from the party and parliament.
The People’s Party, meanwhile, has suffered several defections in quick succession amid growing discontent among the ranks over the leadership of Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, whose public standing hinges in large part on his former status as an informal advisor to Nazarbayev.
The upshot of all this will likely be a parliament that is new, but yet familiar insofar as it will ultimately take its cue from higher powers.
“It is important for Tokayev that new personalities appear in the Majilis who are going to participate in the construction of a New Kazakhstan while also respecting the political rules established by the authorities,” Umbetaliyeva said.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.