Kazakhstan’s “Virtual” Presidential Election Campaign

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 63

It has all the accouterments of a real contested election. Four candidates are vying for Kazakhstan’s highest office in the land. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has dispatched its election monitors, thereby automatically giving the upcoming April 3 presidential vote a tinge of credibility in the eyes of the Kazakh authorities – whatever its post-election assessment may be. But the lack of participation of opposition parties has resulted in an “uncompetitive environment,” the OSCE’s election observation mission has already noted.

The incumbent, 70-year-old President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been Kazakhstan’s leader since the final days of the Soviet Union, is certain to head for a landslide re-election that will give him another five years in office.  He is not personally participating in the election campaign because, he says, his long record of service and January 28 annual address to the nation speak for themselves.  His party Nur Otan is holding well-attended rallies throughout the country’s regions on his behalf, stressing the themes of stability, growth, and welfare and portraying Nazarbayev as the guarantor of ethnic accord.

None of his three challengers – Senator Gani Kasymov of the Party of Patriots, Mels Yeleusizov of the Tabigat Ecological Union, or Zhambyl Akhmetbekov of the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan – are plausible candidates. They have openly stated that they want the incumbent to win and are solely seeking to promote specific causes through their own participation. Kasymov, for example, the best known of the three, has named Nazarbayev one of the “people who inspire” him on his Facebook page.

Not surprisingly, Kasymov, 60, has a long-standing reputation for being Nazarbayev’s puppet.  The president appointed him deputy of the Senate, the upper house of parliament, four years ago as part of the presidential quota. He put his candidacy forward at the very last moment – as he did in the 1999 presidential elections, in which he garnered 4.7 percent of the votes – rounding out a field of weak candidates. Kasymov’s goal is to improve the state structures, for example, by introducing a 30 percent quota for women in parliament and other executive bodies.

It continues to be a mystery how Kasymov managed to pass the rigorous Kazakh language examination, a prerequisite before being registered as a candidate that was failed by several presidential hopefuls. By his own admission, he decided to sing a song in Kazakh to the linguistic commission after learning another candidate had cited a poem. However, he has so far successfully evaded the scrutiny of Kazakh journalists offering him the opportunity to prove to the public that he is indeed able to speak the state language.

The OSCE has criticized in its first interim report published on March 21 that “the application of the mandatory language test lacked clear criteria” and that it “remains partly unclear” how the linguistic commission, appointed by the Central Election Commission, arrived at its conclusions.

The environmentalist Yeleusizov, 61, is also a familiar face.  He is a friendly man who has proudly presented his grandchildren on television and has spoken out against the planned construction of a nuclear power station in Kazakhstan. Yeleusizov was also a candidate in the last presidential election in 2005 and received 0.28 percent of the votes, i.e. less than 19,000 votes.  He wants to draw people’s attention to the environmental issues in Kazakhstan, such as water.

Kazakhstan’s main state television station, Khabar, with its expertise in praising outstanding public figures has had difficulties finding the right attributes to make him look like a strong contender. “A real man should plant a tree, build a house and raise a son. All these points have been fulfilled by Mels Yeleusizov and more,” said Khabar (Khabar TV, March 27).

Akhmetbekov, 50, from the pro-presidential Communist People’s Party, seems to be the only candidate to have put genuine effort into campaigning. He was a no-name candidate when the campaign began on March 3. After a first few clumsy television appearances, where he showed off his singing and karate skills, he has moved on to more appropriately visiting a machine-building factory in the mining town of Karaganda and speaking with workers. Akhmetbekov’s aim is to raise awareness of the Communist People’s Party, which emerged in 2004 after a split from the opposition Communist Party of Kazakhstan. Its candidate in the 2005 presidential election received only slightly over 23,000 or 0.34 percent of the votes.

Nazarbayev’s campaign posters and billboards are ubiquitous and can be seen both on public and private buildings in all the major cities. By contrast, the campaigns of the other candidates are barely visible outside Astana and Almaty, the political and financial capitals of the country, respectively, due to the shortage of funds and limited organizational capacities, says the OSCE’s election observation mission.

The OSCE, which has never judged an election in Kazakhstan to be free or fair, has stated that many of its recommendations made after previous elections for improving the legal framework “remain unaddressed.” The long list of shortcomings includes undue restrictions on candidate eligibility, excessive restrictions on freedom of assembly, and undue limitations on freedom of speech.

A second interim report of the OSCE dated March 25 also found that “many election commissions have a de facto majority of members affiliated with the ruling Nur Otan party.”  Opposition parties and civil-society groups “see voter turnout as the only uncertain outcome in this election.”

The opposition “Alga! Party” and the Communist Party of Kazakhstan have called for a boycott of the election as the only way for the people’s voices to be heard. While Nazarbayev may receive over 90 percent of the votes, they say, these might come from only 15 percent of the voters. The authorities have responded by launching a television ad campaign in which young men and women sing about the importance of “voting for Kazakhstan.”

Less than two months ago, President Nazarbayev unexpectedly called for a snap election on April 3, although his term-in-office would have ended only in late 2012. This was preceded by a national drive, started in mid-December, to gather enough signatures to hold a referendum on extending his term in office until 2020. More than 5 million signatures were collected, by far exceeding the required threshold. Following international criticism, including from the US government, the idea of the referendum was scrapped. Kazakhstan’s leadership was praised for this decision.        

In spite of the obvious flaws of the election campaign, the incumbent is truly popular and would likely win a comfortable majority in an open and fair election. According to a survey by the Kazakhstan Institute of Social-Economic Information and Forecasting presented this March, 74.8 percent of the population trusts the president to varying degrees, but only 62.9 percent trust the government, 53.7 percent parliament, and 32.5 percent the courts and the security organs to different degrees. The poll was conducted last September on behalf of the Fund of the First President, for which 1,400 people were questioned.