On June 20, speaking to parliamentary faction of his Nur Otan party, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev said he had decided to dissolve the lower chamber of parliament, the Majilis. In an unprecedented move, one day before that decision, 61 members of the Majilis had petitioned the president to dissolve the lower chamber of parliament, which, as they put it, “obstructs reform.” Whatever the true motivation behind the deputies’ surprising letter to Nazarbayev, the president used it as an opportunity to disband the lower chamber and announce early parliamentary elections.
The public is stumped by this bizarre situation, in which members of parliament have voluntarily given up their well-paid positions. But a closer look suggests there is a great deal of logic in the supposed “collective madness” of the Majilis deputies.
After Nazarbayev introduced a number of constitutional amendments in May, including new election procedures and enhanced decision-making powers for the Senate, Majilis deputies found themselves in a precarious situation (see EDM, May 21). Currently the Majilis has 77 deputies, but with the new amendments the number of seats will be increased to 107.
According to new regulations, the Senate can now assume the legislative functions of the Majilis if the lower house is dissolved by presidential decree before its term ends. The current Majilis was elected in 2004, and its five-year term thus expires in 2009. However, it has been clear since the introduction of the constitutional amendments that Nazarbayev sought early parliamentary elections and that dissolution was imminent. By following the president’s lead, many Majilis members hope to retain their seats in parliament or get good positions in government. President Nazarbayev said he appreciated the “historic decision” of the Majilis members and vowed that every former Majilis deputy would “stay on board” and be given a good job (Delovaya nedelya, June 22).
The Central Election Committee (CEC) announced that new elections to the Majilis on party lists are scheduled for August 18, while elections for slots allocated to the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan will be held on August 20. Regional parliamentary elections will be held at the same time.
CEC chair Kuandyk Turgankulov expressed his confidence that the parliamentary elections would be transparent, fair, and open. Voters will be given the option of using either electronic voting machines or paper ballots.
At first glance, the snap parliamentary elections have all the trappings of democratic competition. The opposition has welcomed the planned widespread use of proportional representation and the involvement of political parties in the election process. However, the tight schedule, which caught mainstream opposition forces unprepared, greatly reduces the chances of any political party — other than Nur Otan — to win seats in parliament. In his political reform speech last May Nazarbayev promised financial aid from the state budget to political parties during election campaigns, but CEC chair Turgankulov said the new regulations were still under consideration, and political parties would have to rely on their own financial resources this year (Khabar, June 21).
It is already becoming clear that only Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party, with its practically inexhaustible war chest, will have unlimited access to financial resources. To make the situation even more complicated for the opposition, the government has just adopted a new law that prevents political parties from forming blocs to contest the election. This restriction also gives Nur Otan, the largest and most powerful party, an undisputed advantage over other contenders. The only option left for other political parties in this circumstance is to merge with larger groups. Two of the main opposition forces, Nagyz Ak Zhol Democratic Party and the Social-Democratic Party, have already reached an agreement to form a single party. Similar attempts to join forces were made by the agrarian Adilet and Ak Zhol parties. Agrarian Aul and the Party of Patriots seem to be pondering the possibilities of a merger. But chances are not equal among other political groups and factions. The Communist Party of Kazakhstan and the rival People’s Communist Party of Kazakhstan can hardly gloss over their long-standing mutual accusations. The weak and ambiguous Rukhaniat party is simply ignored by others. Nevertheless, election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will have little reason to accuse the ruling regime of restricting the election rights of political parties (Liter, June 24).
The upcoming parliamentary elections are likely to divide society along ethnic lines. Activists from Slavic national organizations hope to gain more seats in parliament. On June 10 the popular writer Mukhtar Shakhanov announced the formation of his Khalyk Rukhy (People’s Will) party, which seeks to promote the Kazakh language and culture and revive “national moral values.” But it is unlikely that Khalyk Rukhy, if it is even registered, will be able to collect the necessary 50,000 signatures before the election starts.
Given the advantages of the ruling Nur Otan party, the governing elite does not need to unnecessarily violate election procedures and resort to dishonest tactics. The current pre-election configuration will allow Nur Otan to win most of the seats in parliament without vote rigging or manipulating voting results. But it is already becoming clear that most of the political parties will not have time to conduct a proper election campaign. But if nothing else, the new election will distract public attention from the scandalous stories around Rakhat Aliev, the now ex-husband of Dariga Nazarbayeva, the president’s daughter.