Kazakhstan’s December 4 presidential election gave both the opposition and the ruling establishment an opportunity to test the popular theory of democratic “color revolutions.” Could a popular uprising after a disputed election evict another ruling regime? The ruling regime has now recognized that it must adopt more flexible tactics for dealing with opponents, switching from repressive measures toward dialogue.
Shortly after his re-election President Nursultan Nazarbayev publicly announced that he welcomes constructive cooperation with opposition parties and might possibly incorporate some of his opponents into a coalition government. At the same time, sending a pointed message to Western democratic institutions, he said that Kazakhstan never had liberal governance and has just emerged from authoritarianism. Nazarbayev said that the opposition is an indispensable part of political life in Kazakhstan and will be tolerated so long as it does not engage in rampant fault-finding and smear campaigns (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, December 6).
Some of Nazarbayev’s critics will likely accept his tempting offer to work in the government. Deliberately or not, this strategy will weaken the opposition and ultimately isolate its leader, Zharmakhan Tuyakbay, the renegade former parliamentary speaker who ran against Nazarbayev for the presidency.
The opposition bloc “For a Fair Kazakhstan” is still licking its wounds after its crushing election defeat — Tuyakbay only received about 6% of the vote (see EDM, December 6) — before regrouping. In the meantime the ruling elite is consolidating its electoral victory.
On December 6, leaders of six major pro-presidential parties declared that they would transform their coalition into a “Democratic Union of Kazakhstan.” In September 2005 the Asar party, led by presidential daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva, gathered the six parties together into the People’s Coalition of Kazakhstan to support Nazarbayev’s campaign. Now the movement is expected to promote a partnership with opposition forces in order to make them more manageable.
Dariga Nazarbayeva has clearly reiterated on many occasions that the People’s Coalition would not allow Kazakhstan to suffer a democratic “Tulip Revolution” like neighboring Kyrgyzstan did in March. But the staggering 91.1% vote share received by his father on December 4 had, as she put it, a “shocking effect” on her, as she expected her father to get at most 73% of votes, because about 30% of the population still lives in poverty, and turnout, for the same reason, was expected to be as low as 60% (Sayasat, December 6).
Given the refusal of For a Fair Kazakhstan to accept the election results, it is highly unlikely that the regime will succeed in luring opposition members into government posts. Tuyakbay has ruled out any cooperation with the authorities. For a Fair Kazakhstan issued a statement calling the election illegitimate, alleging numerous violations of voters’ rights, and accusing the Central Election Commission of vote rigging and voter intimidation in favor of Nazarbayev.
Tuyakbay reportedly submitted a list of alleged violations of the election law to the Prosecutor-General’s Office and demanded that voting results be annulled. He threatened to take up 10,000 people into the streets if the authorities do not meet opposition demands (Sayasat, December 6).
Another presidential candidate, Ak Zhol Democratic Party leader Alikhan Baimenov, declared that, despites Nazarbayev’s promises, the elections were not free and fair.
Immediately after these accusations surfaced, the chairman of the Central Election Commission, Onalsyn Zhumabekov, appealed to the Prosecutor-General’s Office in Almaty regarding alleged illegal campaigning methods used by Tuyakbay.
Despite the lingering standoff between election authorities and the opposition, tension is gradually subsiding. Astana reopened the border with Kyrgyzstan that it had closed at the end of November to prevent “troublemakers” from entering the country (see EDM, December 1). The authorities were aware that their decision would provoke international criticism, but sealed the border anyway. Contradicting statements by Interior Minister Bauyrzhan Mukhamedzhanov and Kazakh Ambassador to Bishkek Umirzak Uzbekov, Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev was at pains to explain that the closure of the border had nothing to do with the election and was a routine security measure to stem the flood of illegal migrants (Aikyn, December 3).
Given the current, easily inflammable situation, using force against potential opposition street demonstrations would backfire. Instead, the authorities seem to have adopted a strategy of letting the opposition die a slow death through internal strife and fragmentation into small rival factions. Political scientist Yerzhan Karin believes that even if Tuyakbay and Baimenov forge an alliance against Nazarbayev, they would not be able to overcome their own differences (Aikyn, December 6).
Considering Kazakhstan’s intense diplomatic efforts to gain the presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and become an important member of international community, there is much reason to believe in the sincerity of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s intention to have a constructive opposition. Presidential advisor Yermukhamed Yertysbayev even went as far as to say that parliament should adopt a constitutional law on political opposition after the December 4 elections (Sayasat, November 11).
Nazarbayev has used his post-election speeches to reiterate the need to carry out political reform, giving more powers to legislative bodies, introducing elections for regional governors, and making them accountable before local residents. In conditions of relative economic prosperity these half measures are enough to hold public discontent at bay.