Despite heated emotions during televised campaign debates broadcast on November 17 and candidates’ last-ditch efforts to win the minds of the electorate, the outcome of the December 4 presidential election in Kazakhstan can be easily predicted.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev was visiting Ukraine and did not even bother to participate in the debate. Fielding questions from Ukrainian journalists in Kyiv he, in a joking manner, ruled out any possibility of a “color revolution” in Kazakhstan. This time last year he was not so confident of his odds of winning re-election, but endless “working tours” of Kazakhstan’s regions a and powerful publicity campaign boosted his popularity. Experts from the Reputatsia opinion-polling group predict that Nazarbayev will get almost all — 100% — vote cast on December 4 (Panorama, November 25).
While the election campaign has been relatively peaceful so far, observers are wondering what course events will take after the election. The authorities endlessly insist that the likely losers in the election are plotting mass disturbances. Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedzhanov has reported that his office possesses confidential information that “certain individuals” are plotting anti-government activities by exploiting the death of opposition activist Zamanbek Nurkadilov (see EDM, November 22). “My statement is a warning,” said the interior minister, who added that the police would not hesitate to use force against any public disorder (Izvestiya Kazakhstan, November 18).
The threatening tone of Mukhamedzhanov’s statement is addressed at presidential candidates Zharmakhan Tuyakbay, from the “For a Fair Kazakhstan” opposition bloc, and Alikhan Baymenov, the leader of Ak Zhol party. Both of them have hinted that if they believe the elections are unfair, then people will take to the streets. Tuyakbay said that public protests might result from the alleged intimidation and persecution of his supporters by law-enforcement agencies. He believes that conflict between the authorities and the opposition could be provoked by “third forces” disguised as opposition groups. Baymenov has boasted that some regional akims (governors) and even members of the Central Election Commission covertly support his candidacy (Panorama, November 25).
Nazarbayev’s most powerful trump card is undoubtedly the positive image he enjoys in the West. Foreign participants in the Congress of Financiers of Kazakhstan and the plenary meeting of the Council of Foreign Investors held in Astana on November 24 and 25 heaped praise on Nazarbayev for successfully propelling his country through economic crisis and onto rapid growth.
Carefully maneuvering between the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and conservative members of parliament, Kazakhstan’s Central Election Commission agreed to amend the election law by removing Clause 6, Article 44, which bans street demonstrations, rallies, and other forms of political activities until a preliminary vote count is announced. The chairman of the CEC, Onalsyn Zhumabekov, reported that the commission was considering a new version of the election law to guarantee the right to peaceful rallies during the election period. But in all probability the law will not be updated until after the presidential ballot, as the authorities fear chaos and mass disorder after the ban on rallies is lifted (Sayasat, November 16).
The West clearly needs a Kazakhstan that is politically stable and economically strong. This preference was evident at a recent meeting at the Caspian Information Center in London. Reportedly, the conclusions made by members of the British parliament and experts from the London School of Economics were discouraging for Nazarbayev’s opponents. The Caspian Information Center declared that the ban on street demonstrations and rallies between the close of balloting and the end of vote counting does not violate human rights and does not indicate backsliding in the development of Kazakhstan’s democratic institutions. Russian observers sarcastically noted that Europe is sobering up after the foiled coup d’etat in Andijan, Uzbekistan, in May and the bitter fruits of the March Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan (Izvestiya Kazakhstan, November 18).
In comparison to the September 19, 2004, parliamentary elections, the presidential campaign is running smoothly and there seems to be scant forces that could disrupt the election. Kazakhstan expects an unprecedented number (roughly 1,000) international observers from the Council of Europe, OSCE, European Union, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which give an air of democracy and transparency to the process. However, the Association of NGOs in Almaty and the Regional Network of Independent Observers (RNIO) announced that they would also monitor the voting.
Less than a week from election day, many questions remain unanswered. What does the political future hold for opposition leader Tuyakbay, Nazarbayev’s main challenger? What domestic and foreign policy course will a re-elected Nazarbayev implement?
While the observers who refer to Kazakhstan as a bulwark of democracy in Central Asia are not far from the truth, it is a fragile bulwark that still must pass a key test in democracy on December 4.