On Sunday December 4, citizens of Kazakhstan went to the polls to elect their president. While the incumbent, Nursultan Nazarbayev was expected to win, his principal challenger, Zharmakhan Tuyakbay of the opposition bloc “For a Fair Kazakhstan,” played to the cameras. Giving a forced smile and raising his hand in a “V for victory” sign, he slipped his ballot paper into the box.
But the preliminary vote count announced the next morning by Onalsyn Zhumabekov, chairman of the Central Election Commission, surpassed the opposition’s worst fears. Nazarbayev received 91.1% of the votes, while Tuyakbay placed a very distant second with 6.1%. Alikhan Baimenov, leader of the Ak Zhol party, recorded a paltry 1.6%, while the communist Yerasyl Abylkasymov and environmentalist Mels Yeleusizov each drew a ridiculous 0.3%.
Zhumabekov reported a turnout of 77% and congratulated Nazarbayev on his re-election. Although the Central Election Commission has not yet finished counting the ballots from 34 polling stations located in Kazakhstan’s embassies abroad, Zhumabekov believes that these 800 or so ballots will not significantly change the preliminary figures (Khabar TV, December 5).
In interviews with state-run media outlets, foreign election observers and political analysts almost unanimously reported that all democratic principles of a transparent and fair election had been observed and that no serious violations of voting procedures were registered. There were, however, isolated cases of multiple voting reported in Kostanai region and some observers were denied access to polling stations in Ekibastuz, northern Kazakhstan. Some names were also omitted from voting lists.
The poll results announced by the CEC came as no surprise. The independent Association of Sociologists and Political Scientists had predicted Nazarbayev would take 76% of the votes, and Tuyakbay 8% (see EDM, November 8, 29). Exit polls taken by a Kazakh polling agency in Almaty showed 78.3% voters supported Nazarbayev and 14% for Tuyakbay. Not surprisingly, Nazarbayev reaped most of the votes in the predominantly Russian-populated northern Kazakhstan, and very few votes in Kyzylorda region, Tuyakbay’s home base.
Most analysts link Nazarbayev’s high popularity to his successful economic course, particularly compared with the chaos and poverty seen in neighboring Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Political scientist Nikolai Kuzmin believes that 64% of Kazakhstan’s population is quite satisfied with the present economic situation, while 75% hope for gradual improvements and are optimistic that living standards will continue to improve under Nazarbayev (Kazakhstan TV, December 5).
Nazarbayev became first secretary of Kazakhstan in 1989 and was first elected president in February 1990. He thus enjoys a rare political longevity among the few remaining communist-era rulers in the Commonwealth of Independent States. Speaking at a campaign rally in Astana, Nazarbayev explained that the sole reason that he entered the 2005 presidential race was to complete the reform process and lead the country to prosperity (Izvestiya Kazakhstan, December 3).
Nazarbayev may deserve some credit for preserving peace and stability in Kazakhstan, which became the main slogan of his election campaign. Law-enforcement agencies and even the Central Election Commission went out of their way to demonize opposition forces for allegedly planning post-election disturbances. The Interior Ministry implemented tight security measures in the final days of the campaign. Three days before the election, CEC chair Zhumabekov stunned journalists with “revelations” that some candidates hoped to discredit the results of the election by preparing falsified reports about alleged violations of election rules and calling on people not to use electronic voting machines. “We know that behind these activities stands the central council of the opposition movement,” Zhumabekov bluntly declared (Sayasat, December 2).
The weakness of the opposition was evident in the lack substance in their pre-election programs and also in the ongoing internal strife among the opposition political parties. There was considerable mud slinging between Tuyakbay (supposedly the unified opposition candidate) and Ak Zhol leader Baimenov. Leaders of the For a Fair Kazakhstan bloc suspected that the regime had let Baimenov into the race to draw votes away from Tuyakbay. Communist candidate Abylkasymov admitted that the opposition had suffered a severe defeat and become a laughing stock in the public eye due to their own rivalry for political power. Symptomatically, just before the election, members of the pro-opposition Voters’ League of Kazakhstan fled their organization in droves. For a Fair Kazakhstan also lost several key members. Nazarbayev made a gracious gesture toward the opposition, saying that he would welcome any constructive cooperation adding, “We need evolution but not revolution” (Khabar, December 5).
Nazarbayev’s resounding electoral victory is a welcome development for the international struggle for geopolitical dominance in Central Asia. Nazarbayev will have to continue maneuvering among the United States, Russia, and China and their conflicting economic and political interests, but it is a game he is accustomed to playing.