The August 18 snap elections for Kazakhstan’s national parliament and local assemblies brought, as predicted, a landslide victory for President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party. With amazing speed, on the morning of August 19 the Central Election Committee announced that Nur Otan had gained 88.5% of the votes cast, far outpacing its main opponents, the All-National Social Democratic Party, with a paltry 4.6%, and the Ak Zhol party with 3.2%. Nur Otan was awarded all of the 98 seats available in parliament.
No one had doubted that Nur Otan, backed by enormous administrative and financial resources and, most importantly, by Nazarbayev’s high popularity, would easily win the vote. But the incredibly wide margin by which the ruling party won triggered protests from defeated political parties and puzzled observers alike. Not a single opposition party managed to pass the 7% threshold to take seats in parliament. Before the elections analysts had almost unanimously believed that Ak Zhol and the All-National Social Democratic Party had enough public sympathy to win a few seats in parliament.
The election results were a deep disappointment not only for the defeated parties, but also for democratic forces in Kazakhstan as a whole. The resounding victory leaves Nur Otan the sole political force in the country, with unlimited decision-making power. Parliament has now been purged of the few remaining critics and whistle blowers. Pessimists fear that the parliament, which has already fallen into disrepute by bowing to presidential power on every issue, will be reduced to a non-entity under Nur Otan (Zhas Alash, August 30).
Western observers were conspicuously restrained in their assessment of the elections. A press release circulated by the European Union Presidency merely stated that the elections had “failed to meet a number of international standards, in particular with regard to the legal framework and the vote count.” At the same time, the Presidency of the EU lauded “the efforts of the Central Election Commission toward enhancing the transparency of the election process.” Election authorities in Kazakhstan presented only favorable comments from Western observers for public consumption, censoring even slightly critical observations. Taskyn Rakhimbekov, head of the National Network of Independent Observers, reported numerous violations of the vote counting rules in nine regions. Leaders of the All-National Social Democratic Party reported that by August 28 regional branches of the party had filed 322 lawsuits with the Prosecutor-General’s Office and the Central Election Committee, listing violations of the election law (Panorama, August 31).
In an obvious attempt to alleviate a tense situation, State Secretary Kanat Saudabayev called on political parties to face the realities, recognize the outcome of the elections, and cooperate with the ruling party in order to contribute to the country’s political renewal. But mainstream opposition forces rejected the conciliatory tone of his message. Leaders of the All-National Social Democratic Party, Ak Zhol, and the People’s Communist Party of Kazakhstan made a joint appeal to Nazarbayev, demanding that the parliamentary elections be canceled as illegitimate. The losers are calling for repeat elections and warned the president that the domination of a single party in parliament amounts to political stagnation and the resurrection of the one-party Soviet system (Sayasat, August 28).
President Nazarbayev did not bother to respond to the complaints from the defeated. He triumphantly waved to the crowd during his party’s noisy victory celebrations, staged only one day after the elections — and before the Central Election Committee announced the final results of the voting. He called for calm and peace, saying Nur Otan’s victory was “the choice of the people” and that his party would cooperate with all political parties (Khabar TV, August 19).
Many analysts are inclined to conclude that, given the lack of solidarity among the opposition ranks and endless internal strife within other political parties, the crushing defeat of Nur Otan’s opponents was inevitable. “Minor violations” of the voting procedures, acknowledged by election authorities, were largely ignored by international observers and drowned out by the positive assessments of the “progress” made by Kazakhstan since the 2004 parliamentary election. To outsiders the façade of the electoral system in Kazakhstan may seem flawless. Seven political parties participated in the elections; no serious conflict between authorities and observers was reported; all political parties had access to media during the election campaign; and voters were given the choice to use either paper ballots or electronic voting machines.
But while preoccupied with the democratic appearances of the elections, authorities are losing voters’ confidence. Independent reports say 77% of the electorate in Astana and 60% in Almaty did not go to polling stations. The turnout was higher in obedient rural areas where local akims from the ranks of Nur Otan easily influence local opinion.
Parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan displayed what some Russian observers call “Asian-style democracy” with European content. By shoring up his decaying Nur Otan party through controversial constitutional amendments, relying on an enormous propaganda machine, and whisking away Western criticism, Nazarbayev made a final move toward the perpetuation of his authoritarian power. In a recent interview with the Russian Vesti television program, Nazarbayev praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as a wise political leader who deserves lifetime tenure in the presidency.
It is quite logical that Nazarbayev, growing impatient with Western pressure for comprehensive political reforms, loathes any change of the political environment. But Nur Otan’s stunning election victory may become the last nail in the coffin of his regime if the party fails to meet its pre-election promises and sticks to iron-fisted rule.