Kazakhstan: The Anatomy of a Pointless Election

President Nursultan Nazarbayev (center) reacts to the announcement of preliminary parliamentary election results at the headquarters of his ruling Nur Otan party on March 21. The party secured 82.15 percent of the vote. (Photo: Kazakh Presidential Press Service)

With Kazakhstan’s meticulously staged parliamentary election now complete, only one question remains to be answered: Why?

Preliminary results published by the Central Election Commission on March 21 showed that the election had returned a parliament identical to the previous one. President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party secured 82.15 percent of the vote. And only two other parties — the only ones already with seats in the Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament — overcame the 7 percent threshold.

The election was held on the eve of Nowruz, a popular holiday across Central Asia that marks the Persian New Year and celebrates renewal. The symbolism was not accidental.

In the run-up to the vote, Nazarbayev was unambiguous in his desire to see regeneration among the cadres — excluding himself and his immediate circle, that is.

“From the party list, the provisional make-up of candidates to the Mazhilis has changed by 60 percent, and that is right. There are various reasons for this. Some have reached pension age, and there is a desire to bring in younger deputies and include those that are needed at this time,” the president told a Nur Otan party congress at the end of January.

The message seems to have hit home among many casting their ballot.

“There are lots of young people among the candidates. Despite their age, I think that young people can be very skilled and can help usher in new perspectives,” said IT specialist Dinara Shiglova, who voted at the National Academic Library in Astana. “They will help us emerge from this crisis more quickly.”

For all this rhetoric, it was the familiar features of the election that were most striking.

As always, the emphasis lay on creating the simulation of democratic vitality.

State television provided blow-by-blow accounts of election day as it unfolded. Live broadcasts from reporters fanned out across the country were designed to mimic similar formats in countries like the United States, where such coverage typically attempts to help guide viewers through an uncertain process.

With the votes being counted, pundits are weighing in to evaluate the alleged merits of the campaign. One political analyst, Andrei Chebotarev, had words of praise for the parties that re-entered parliament.

“Every one of them, in principle, had an effective election campaign,” Chebotarev was quoted as saying by BNews.kz website.

That view was not shared by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s election monitoring body.

“The parties’ campaign platforms differ little in tone and substance and have centered around themes of social stability, long-term plans to tackle the economic crisis, as well as the maintenance of national unity and values. All of which are aligned with the President’s long-term strategies,” the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights noted in a March 11 report.

Multiple voters interviewed by EurasiaNet.org ahead of and even during the election were unable to name any parties other than Nur Otan, including the ones with deputies.

Another established tradition is the involvement of purportedly independent international observers. Some groups offered words of endorsement even before the election was through.

One among many such figures this time around was a British businessman called Alan Spence, who announced several hours before voting had closed that no violations had been recorded. Spence was joined in a lunchtime televised press conference in Astana by observers from Lithuania, Norway, Austria and Bosnia-Herzegovina, all of whom made similarly complimentary remarks.

An editorial piece in the government-run The Astana Times newspaper by Vladimir Socor, Richard Weitz and Daniel Witt — three U.S.-based pundits — suggested the election would “provide opportunities for new generations of leaders to carry Kazakhstan forward toward a multi-party political system with strong democratic institutions.”

OSCE election monitors have been less impressed.

“It is clear that Kazakhstan still has a long way to go towards fulfilling its election commitments, although some progress was noted,” Marietta Tidei, OSCE special coordinator for the election observation, said at a press conference on March 21. “The ruling party had a clear advantage over others in these elections, and while the parties were generally able to campaign freely, genuine political choice remains insufficient.”

While recording satisfaction with some aspects of the election, the OSCE noted “serious procedural errors and irregularities … during voting, counting and tabulation.” It also said it saw cases of ballot-box stuffing and indications of large numbers of names being added to voter lists on election day.

Last week, a reporter with RFE/RL’s Kazakhstan service challenged the official narrative of a competitive election by reporting Nur Otan was rehearsing a giant celebration rally.

While it is not in itself surprising that Nur Otan should have been preparing for victory, it is telling that many of the rally rehearsal participants were university students made attend by their lecturers. Attempts by the RFE/RL reporter to gain access to the event were roughly rebuffed by aggressive security guards.

The episode reveals how authorities have used their leverage to boost Nur Otan’s electoral chances. 

The Nur Otan electoral party list comprised 127 names, even though only a maximum of 98 seats in the 107-member Mazhilis could be won through the ballot box. (Nine deputies are sent by the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, a grouping of presidential appointees representing the country’s ethnic groups.)

Instead of politicians, the party list includes senior figures in state and private companies, top regional officials and, in the novelty of this election, several celebrities, along with sports and pop stars. An Astana employee for the state railways monopoly Kazakhstan Temir Zholy, whose vice president Roman Sklyar was on the list, told EurasiaNet.org that workers in the company felt obliged to vote for Nur Otan out of deference to the management.

The March 20 vote has nominally fulfilled its function, but cynicism is indubitably festering, although the hollow democratic exercise makes it virtually impossible to assess the scale of such sentiments.

As before, those disappointed with what is being offered can only voice their bitterness in the relative safety of online.

“It would be preferable to have an opposition, to let it run in the election and then to steamroller it and hoodwink it, rather than the empty boredom and apathy that we have,” Gulnara Bazhkenova, editor of the Kazakhstan edition of Esquire magazine, tweeted acidly on election night.

Kazakhstan: The Anatomy of a Pointless Election

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