By Erica Marat
President Nursultan Nazarbayev might have thought out his strategy carefully before scheduling snap elections on April 3, but the leader is underestimating the role media and social networks will play during the election campaign.
Kazakhstan’s media landscape has changed since Nazarbayev last ran for president in December 2005. The country’s blogosphere has expanded along with greater penetration of Internet. Political opposition has better access to media to voice its criticism. Indeed, the opposition party OSDP “Azat” might have more supporters this time as well.
This time around, political opposition and Kazakhstan’s bloggers will be able to better record the government’s falsification of election results. The Internet has a far longer reach in Kazakhstan, while the blogger community has expanded over the past years. Although no one in Kazakhstan expects mass protests after the election, documented fraudulence during the election will contribute to public discontent over the Nazarbayev leadership.
Two major candidates – Bulat Abilov from OSDP “Azat” and Jambyl Akhmetbekov from the Communist National Party of Kazakhstan – have openly stated that they doubt the elections will be free and fair. Both argue that the two months allocated for political campaigning is unfair to opposition candidates.
Three candidates will compete with Nazarbayev: Gani Kasymov with the Party of Patriots, Communist Party leader Zhambyl Akhmetbekov and environmentalist Mels Yeleusizov. All three are known in Kazakhstan, but their bases of support are too insufficient to challenge Nazarbayev.
In February, three female candidates announced their plans to run for president, including Guldana Tokobaeva, Maya Karamayeva, and Meyramkul Kozhagulova. Karamayev and Kozhagulova tried to register as candidates in 2005 but were not able to pass the Kazakh language exam. None of the women, however, were able to gather enough support in the country to officially register as candidates.
According to most experts, Nazarbayev is a popular enough leader to win in free and fair elections by earning support from at least 60 percent of the population. However, Nazarbayev prefers to see his score reach 90 percent or higher. Given that opposition forces are more assertive this time around, the question now remains – will Nazarbayev be happy with support of 90, 80 or 70 percent of voters?