Kazakhstan’s Parliamentary Elections: A Cautious Step Toward Political Pluralism

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 14

(Source: Reuters)

Kazakhstan’s President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, indicated at the time of his re-election in 2011 that conditions were ripe for moving from a single-party to a multi-party parliament. Toward that goal, pre-term elections were held on January 15, 2012 to the parliament’s lower chamber, the 107-seat Majlis.

According to the Central Electoral Commission’s final tabulation of the vote, the presidential party Nur Otan [Fatherland’s Light] garnered 81 percent of the votes cast; the party Ak Zhol [Bright Path], 7.5 percent; and the Communist People’s Party (CPPK), 7.2 percent. These parties cleared the 7 percent threshold for representation in parliament. Four other parties fell below that benchmark. Nur Otan will accordingly hold 83 seats, Ak Zhol eight seats, and the CPKK seven seats, out of the 98 contested seats in parliament. The remaining nine seats were allocated on January 16 by the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan (a consultative body of ethnic groups) to representatives of ethnic minorities. Country-wide voter turnout was 75.5 percent of the registered voters (Kazinform, January 17).

Ak Zhol aims to represent the interests of medium-sized and small businesses in the new parliament. The party’s financial donors are successful medium businessmen from the light-industry and trading sectors. Ak Zhol emerges as the potential approximation of a European liberal party in Kazakhstan. Nevertheless, Ak Zhol advocates trade protectionism against the influx of Chinese industrial and agricultural goods into Kazakhstan. The party supports President Nazarbayev in his capacity as head of state and titular leader of the nation; but it objects to Nazarbayev’s concurrent role as leader of the Nur Otan party. Ak Zhol is prepared to criticize or amend Nur Otan’s initiatives in the new parliament, or to set conditions for endorsing them (meeting with party leader Azat Peruashev and his team, Astana, January 14).

The CPPK’s entry into the Majilis is at least in part a consequence of the disqualification of the old-line Communist Party. In October 2011, state authorities suspended the Communist Party’s activities for six months, after the party had attempted to form a “People’s Front” outside the framework of the law. Some of the Communist Party’s voters then moved to the CPPK, lifting the latter over the threshold into parliament. Well ahead of these elections, state authorities had given a nod to the CPPK to draw votes from the orthodox Communist Party. With a younger core electorate, the CPPK no longer emphasizes Soviet nostalgia or Russian symbolism. Led by Zhambyl Akhmetbekov, the party casts itself as a socialist non-revolutionary opposition to Nur Otan in the newly elected parliament.

Nur Otan relies overwhelmingly on the personal prestige of the party’s chairman, Nazarbayev, and the support of state administration. With Nur Otan inherently a conservative force of order and cautious change, Ak Zhol filling a liberal niche, and CPPK an in-system player advocating for a socially-oriented state, the new parliament seems set to ensure representation of three distinct ideological tendencies in Kazakhstan’s society.

Kazakhstan accredited some 900 international observers and nearly 200 foreign journalists to these elections, in a deliberate effort to ensure maximum openness. The joint mission of the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR, the lead group), the OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly, and the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) was as usual the largest mission with the longest presence in the country. This was also the only mission (among the many other observer groups) to assess these elections, on balance, negatively (OSCE ODIHR, OSCE PA, PACE Election Observation Mission: Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, January 16).

This could not be entirely surprising, given ODIHR’s insistence on the international “gold standard” (1990 Copenhagen Document on elections) in every and all societies, including those not yet prepared to fully meet that gold standard. By the same token ODIHR tends to provide election assessments akin to still photographs, without acknowledging the dynamics of improvement from the previous to the current electoral cycle in the same country. This was clearly apparent in ODIHR’s election assessments in Azerbaijan and indeed in Kazakhstan in previous electoral cycles.

In a more nuanced response, the US government has announced its readiness to work with the newly elected Majilis toward continuing the process of political reforms in the aftermath of elections. The US statement clearly treats the Majilis as legitimately elected (US State Department press release, January 17).