With a parliamentary election campaign in full swing at home, Kazakhstan is pressing its case abroad for the OSCE chair in 2009.
Addressing the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna on July 26, Culture and Information Minister Yermukhamet Yertysbayev stressed Kazakhstan's commitment to freedom of speech. Concern about Kazakhstan's respect for individual liberties has already prompted the OSCE to delay a final decision on Astana's bid to chair the organization in 2009. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Yertysbayev pledged that Kazakhstan would soon take specific steps to improve the country's civil rights framework. "Kazakhstan is today taking specific steps to introduce innovations in the sphere of culture and information, governed by principles of freedom of speech and the individual right to receive information," he said in remarks quoted by Kazinform news agency.
He outlined measures to improve the media environment, including plans for a more liberal media law. While welcoming the proposed reform, OSCE officials called for action in several additional areas, including abolishing provisions granting officials special protection from defamation and promoting greater pluralism. "We hope that some of our earlier suggestions will be taken on board in the new drafts, and they will also be discussed with the media NGOs of the country," an OSCE press release quoted media freedom representative Miklos Haraszti as saying.
The new law will take account of OSCE recommendations, Yertysbayev said, including establishing the right to confidentiality of sources and relaxing registration rules. Changes to libel law are also planned. However, it is widely believed that the projected amendments will stop short of abolishing special protection for officials.
Amid accusations of an unfair election campaign, opposition leaders in Kazakhstan cast doubt on the government's good faith in promoting a fair media environment. "It's pure demagogy to say one thing and do another," Tulegen Zhukeyev, co-leader of the opposition National Social Democratic Party (NSDP), told a round table at the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies on August 1.
Zhukeyev accused the government of "writing draconian laws" then toning them down to prove its democratic credentials. "In Vienna there are a few naive people who believe [the government line], but this in no way promotes freedom of speech," he added.
The NSDP has already lodged complaints with the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) over alleged irregularities during the parliamentary election campaign. The vote to elect a new lower house of parliament is scheduled for August 18 two years ahead of schedule. The early election is needed to allow recently adopted constitutional reforms to take effect. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
One of the party's complaints involves a dispute with state-run Khabar TV, which refused to broadcast NSDP video advertisements, saying their content was against the law. The Justice Ministry agreed with the television station, ruling that the material could cause social tension, CEC Chairman Kuandyk Turgankulov said on August 6 in remarks quoted by Kazakhstan Today news agency.
Another row erupted after the main state newspaper Kazakhstanskaya Pravda in late July altered the text of campaign material written by NSDP co-leader Zharmakhan Tuyakbay. The CEC found in favor of the NSDP, Turgankulov said on August 6, and the prosecutor's office has urged the newspaper's management to observe the law.
The NSDP has also complained about "biased coverage" by local government-controlled media outlets in Almaty. Mayor Imangali Tasmagambetov is standing for parliament on the ticket of the Nur Otan party, which is headed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and which is expected to achieve a landslide victory.
Pre-election monitoring of broadcast outlets performed by the independent Center for Social Technologies (CST) suggests that Nur Otan has thus far dominated the airwaves during the campaign. According to the research, Nur Otan received over three times more airtime than any other party on August 4. However, the previous day coverage was more even, with all seven parties that are vying for parliamentary seats receiving similar amounts of airtime.
One CST finding the government will welcome suggests that the airwaves are not being used to smear opponents: negative reporting about political parties in broadcast media including state outlets is rare, it says.
Opposition complaints about the electoral process are not limited to media coverage. Parties also cite obstruction from local officials many of whom are Nur Otan members as they campaign in the regions.
Ak Zhol leader Alikhan Baymenov said his party has encountered obstacles since the first day of electioneering, when an event to launch the party's campaign in the south was blocked by local authorities. "Officials working in the localities cannot work any other way," he told journalists at the time.
Ak Zhol's candidates for local elections scheduled for the same day as the parliamentary poll have also been pressured to abandon their campaigns, Baymenov says
The CEC has requested more information from the NSDP and Ak Zhol about their grievances. "The CEC is itself above all interested in exposing infringements of electoral law," it said in a press release on August 2.
Under a new requirement, political parties must gain at least 7 percent of the vote to secure representation in parliament. Many local analysts believe that, at most, Nur Otan, the NSDP and Ak Zhol may clear this electoral threshold. Nur Otan deputy leader Kayrat Kelimbetov believes his party could end up controlling up to 90 percent of parliamentary seats.
Opinion polls have thus far varied widely. One survey conducted in early July by the Kazakhstan branch of Russia's Institute for Comparative Social Research (known as CESSI) projected that Nur Otan would receive 68 percent of the vote, making it the sole party to clear the 7 percent barrier. In late July, meanwhile, a CST poll found that Nur Otan enjoyed 38 percent support, while NSDP had 22 percent. Ak Zhol had 5 percent support, not enough for it to win parliamentary seats. Most polls indicate that roughly a quarter of the electorate remains undecided.
In the 2004 parliamentary election, the opposition won just one seat. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Observers predict a greater opposition presence in the next parliament, given that the government is keen to burnish its democratic image. How the OSCE appraises the August 18 poll will likely to be the main factor in determining whether Kazakhstan chairs the organization in 2009, or not.