Kazakhstan’s citizens have become accustomed to broken promises of radical political reform since the country became independent in 1991. Even members of Kazakhstan’s “pocket parliament” admit that public confidence in the legislature’s integrity has dramatically plummeted in recent years. On March 10 parliament made yet another tentative step toward rehabilitating its political reputation by deciding to change the constitutional law, “On Elections in the Republic of Kazakhstan.”
In reality, the decision adopted at a joint session of both chambers of parliament seems to be a veiled attempt to firm up the ruling regime so that it can rein in any manifestation of public discontent during the forthcoming presidential election campaign. One of the amendments put forward by parliament bans street demonstrations and meetings organized by individuals, public organizations, or political parties until an election campaign has ended and vote tallies are officially announced. The ban on mass demonstrations and rallies is supposedly necessary to prevent government shutdowns. As the authors of the draft assert, one of the flaws with last year’s Ukrainian presidential elections was the lack of law and order, a mistake that should not be repeated in Kazakhstan (KTK TV, March 10).
For the Kazakh political establishment, the Ukrainian scenario is far more alarming than the ongoing, opposition-engineered demonstrations in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. “The Kyrgyz pot is boiling, but it produces nothing more than just a bubble,” assured the Liter newspaper, alluding to the Kyrgyz opposition’s inability to change the balance of powers in parliament (Liter, March 12). Even independent observers from the Kazakh Association of Social and Political Scientists echoed Astana’s official view, stating that the parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan were “transparent, open, and fair” and that younger voters turned out in greater numbers than in Kazakhstan’s 2004 parliamentary election (Panorama, March 11).
Parliament was spurred to enact such drastic changes after numerous “complaints” from people following the September 19, 2004, parliamentary elections. The proposed amendments and changes to the election law suggest that election authorities have drawn lessons from their past mistakes. Most importantly, the draft law requires members of election commissions to have clean criminal records. The new draft law also removes one of the major restrictions in the current voting system by granting voting rights to citizens who have changed their place of residence (Khabar TV, March 10).
At first glance, the election law reforms advanced by parliament appear to provide for more transparency in the election system. For example, it demands all candidates, parliamentary and presidential, to declare their and their spouses’ income to the election committee, and the income declaration must be certified by the tax office. But election authorities remain unable to create a level financial playing field, as some political parties can easily raise large amounts of outside funding. Parliament unsuccessfully tried to address this question, but most of the legislators loyal to the ruling elite seem to be more preoccupied with problems of public order. “There is no need to stir up the people before election results are made public,” said legislator Vladimir Nekhoroshev (KTK TV, March 10).
However imperfect and contradictory, the proposed reforms signify small steps toward improving the electoral system in Kazakhstan. True, the essential changes to the law, which are to be considered in detail at the next session of parliament scheduled for March 28, were made under growing pressure from international democratic institutions. The opposition strongly contested the results of the September 19 parliamentary elections, and parties such as Ak Zhol and Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan have staged continual protests.
Western democratic organizations have worked to build a bridge between the authorities and the opposition forces. Symbolically, the discussion of changes to the electoral law coincided with a visit by representatives of NATO’s Parliament Associations. The delegation conducted talks with parliamentary secretary Oral Mukhamedzhanov. Among the topics discussed were combating extremism and potable water scarcity (Khabar TV, March 10).
Somewhat reluctantly, Kazakhstan’s authorities are slowly moving towards cooperation with non-governmental and civic organizations. This forced partnership has already produced remarkable results. Nearly one week before parliament proposed the revised draft law on elections, the Congress of Journalists of Kazakhstan offered its own draft law on mass media. The new law should make it more difficult for government officials to file lawsuits against media outlets, and it brings Kazakhstan’s media under state protection.
Free-press advocate Tamara Kaleyeva, head of the Adil Soz foundation, welcomed the legislation as a combination of “everything that is thought to be best and progressive.” The proposed law states that the media “is a public institution required for people to exercise their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and creative work and to receive and disseminate information” (Interfax-Kazakhstan, March 2).
All these developments are true and sound. But the democratic movement in Kazakhstan must wonder if these simple principles of civilized society will still be respected after the presidential elections.