On September 7 the lower house of Kazakhstan’s parliament put an end to months of speculation and scheduled presidential elections for December 4.
Members of parliament and the Constitutional Court had argued over whether elections should be held in December 2005 or December 2006. The debate arose from a controversial move by parliament seven years ago. On October 7, 1998, parliament amended the constitution to extend President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s term of office from five to seven years. While a presidential election was expected in December 2000, it was moved forward to January 1999.
The current debate was over how to determine the exact date of the election–seven years from the last election or the first Sunday in December after a presidential term ends, as specified in the constitution. Until the last moment, Central Election Committee Chairman Onalsyn Zhumabekov, who replaced Zagipa Balieva after opposition accusations about alleged violations of the election law, insisted that election should be held in December 2006. The Constitutional Court was not explicit on this point.
Now, with the date set, the next unanswered question is whether election procedures will be transparent and fair. Nazarbayev, in an apparent attempt to dispel any doubts and to forestall Western criticism, called on all political parties to set up a public body to monitor the elections (Khabar TV, September 9).
With former U.S. President Bill Clinton visiting Almaty on September 6, Nazarbayev used the occasion to warn Western organizations that foreign institutions and embassies should not interfere with the election process in Kazakhstan. This declaration reveals his worries about the outcome of the elections if they are influenced from the outside.
In fact, most political analysts and election experts believe that Nazarbayev will easily win. The director of the Kazakh Institute for Strategic Researches, Bolat Sultanov, says that his institute forecasts that up to 70% of the electorate will vote for Nazarbayev (Central Asia Monitor, September 9). That estimate comes close to the results of the public opinion poll conducted by the Association of Sociologists and Political Scientists, which also puts Nazarbayev’s rating at 70%. His main political opponent, Zarmakhan Tuyakbay, the candidate nominated by the For Fair Kazakhstan bloc, is polling as low as 3%. Other candidates for the presidency, including the independent Senator Ualikhan Kaisar and the leader of the Ak Zhol party, Alikhan Baimenov, are hardly more popular (Aikyn, September 8).
It was an open secret that Nazarbayev would run for another term, but he publicly declared his intention only on September 9, at the congress of his party, Otan. He has already laid a solid foundation for his future electoral victory by touring the regions of the country on “working visits” that looked suspiciously like a well-organized election campaign. At every stop he basked in praise and public support for his political and economic policies.
Otan and Asar, the political party headed by the president’s eldest daughter, Dariga, announced on September 9 that they had set up an election bloc, the “People’s Coalition of Kazakhstan in Support of Nursultan Nazarbayev.” But even the pro-presidential forces cannot display full unanimity. For example, the Civic, Rukhaniyat, and Aul parties remained outside the new coalition. Azat Peruashev, leader of the Civic Party, expressed his doubts about the need to form such an ambiguous coalition that would produce adverse propaganda effects during the election campaign in a society already fed up with all sorts of parties, factions, and blocs (Aikyn, September 9).
On the other side of the aisle, human rights activists established their own independent “For a Fair Election” monitoring body consisting of the Kazakh International Bureau for Human Rights, the Sociological Research and Information Institute, and independent journalists. However, the chances of the opposition winning in fair and honest elections are very slim. Opposition parties are seriously weakened by internal splits and rivalries for leadership within the various organizations. The single candidate put forward by For Fair Kazakhstan, former speaker of the Senate Tuyakbay, is not unanimously recognized by opposition forces. Baimenov from the Ak Zhol party sees Tuyakbay as a rival rather than a fellow opposition figure. The Marxist-Leninist faction of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan has also questioned Tuyakbay’s political integrity (Ekspress-K, September 10).
For the majority of the population, it is almost certain that Nazarbayev will be elected for another term. On the plus side, Nazarbayev projects an image of a leader well versed in political and economic matters and who is equally popular at home and abroad. Many Kazakhs sincerely believe that there is no one in the opposition or in the government to replace him. A relatively strong economy, stability, and peace in the multi-ethnic society will be Nazarbayev’s trump cards in the upcoming elections.
More presidential hopefuls will likely emerge before October 3, the Central Election Committee deadline for registering candidates. But it is difficult to expect that any one of them would have a better chance of winning than Nazarbayev.