To an outside observer, the December 6 presidential decree on electing of village governors (akims) and experimental elections of local leaders in several districts, including the cities of Astana and Almaty, appears to be a good omen of far-reaching political reform. The official wording of the decree, as published in the official press, defines the ultimate objective of the move as “a further democratization of society.” This vague wording adds little explanation regarding the true purpose of the decree. Not long ago, President Nursultan Nazarbayev had reiterated, “Kazakh society is not ripe yet for such constructive political reforms” (Epoha, December 10).
Paradoxically, the opposition reacted coolly to the new decree. In the run-up to the September parliamentary elections, opposition leaders had vociferously demanded administrative reforms at the regional level, specifically calling for governors to be elected by local residents. Yet the pro-democratic Ak Zhol party has good reasons to be under whelmed about the presidential decree. It believes the authorities have snatched a popular administrative reform from the hands of its political opponents. Ak Zhol has always claimed a prominent spot in demanding the popular elections of governors. In a deliberate slap at Ak Zhol, Nazarbayev publicly announced that his decision to sign the decree on electing governors was prompted by the parliamentary faction of the pro-presidential Otan party (Yegemen Kazakhstan, December 8).
The first attempt at direct election of governors came in the Karasay district of Almaty region in 1999. In 2001 about 70 akims were popularly chosen according to new electoral procedures. However, those elections were limited to a handful of districts and villages in the South and the experiment did not develop into a nation-wide practice. Therefore, independent political observers reacted coolly to the latest declaration. According to political scientist Andrei Chebotarev, “I think that in taking this step the president consolidated the centralized state administration system, particularly the executive vertical [power structure]. To all appearances, he does not fear that electing governors would lead to the destruction of this vertical. On the other hand, though, the president has not yet taken a final decision” (Epoha, December 10).
Nurbolat Masanov, a political scientist from the opposition camp, does not believe that the decree on electing governors “will produce anything serious,” as legislative authority in Kazakhstan belongs to a government controlled by the president, while parliament is stripped of any law-making power (Epoha, December 10). Despite harsh criticisms heaped on the presidential decree, Ak Zhol cannot afford to remain aloof from this important political campaign. The co-chairman of Ak Zhol, Alikhan Baimenov, said that his party would take part in the gubernatorial elections (Interfax-Kazakhstan, December 9).
The Nazarbayev regime is still reluctant to give too much power to legislative bodies. Addressing the parliamentary faction of the Otan party, Nazarbayev expressed his concerns about the possible political consequences of electing district governors. Alluding to the “clan mentality” of Kazakhs, he said that these elections might lead to the division of village communities according to kinship and clans (Khabar TV, December 6). His doubts reflect the ruling elite’s deep-seated fear of any change to the current, heavily centralized system of governance. Once direct election is introduced for district heads, the opposition will likely demand the popular election of regional governors as the next step in democratic reform.
Nazarbayev would like to keep the appointed regional governors in their posts as long as politically possible. Astana has announced that experimental elections of district and city governors would be phased in gradually, first in the cities of Almaty and Astana in August 2005, then spreading to other districts through 2007 (Khabar TV, December 6).
Despite a few weak voices of dissent, a majority of the parliament backs the presidential decree. “It is high time to elect akims [governors]. We must implement the will of the people,” said legislator Nurlan Sabilyanov (Yegemen Kazakhstan, December 7).
The leadership’s attempts to come to terms with the opposition have failed so far. On November 2 President Nazarbayev signed a decree to create a National Commission on Democratization and Civil Society, a consultative body with the stated aim of “promoting a nationwide dialogue on vital problems of Kazakhstan’s political development” (Yegemen Kazakhstan, November 3). Nazarbayev stressed that the National Commission would be instrumental in discussing with all political parties how to decentralize state power and delegate more functions to parliament, such approving nominees for ministerial posts (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, November 26).
However, leaders of Ak Zhol, the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, and Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan did not turn up for the first session of the National Committee held on December 8. Altynbek Sarsenbayev, a prominent figure in Ak Zhol, explained that his party believed that the National Committee was a useless organization designed by the leadership to be used as a mouthpiece to prepare early presidential elections (navi.kz, December 9). There are clear signs that the National Committee was, in fact, intended to neutralize the influence of the opposition. “The head of the state assured me that important political reforms would not be carried out without considering the National Committee’s opinion,” said Bulat Utemuratov, who is both the chairman of the National Committee and deputy secretary of the Security Council (Panorama, December 10).
The ruling regime has nothing to gain from further conflicts with the opposition. With 53 of the 77 parliamentary seats, Otan has secured a majority for the government. Amangeldy Yermegiyayev, co-chairman of Otan, said, “What society needs now is evolution, not revolution.”
But the situation is not altogether conducive to peaceful development. Recently Deputy Prosecutor-General Abdrashit Zhukenov formally announced that the September 19 parliamentary elections, despite “minor deviations” from electoral law, were legitimate (Khabar TV, December 8). This decision by the Prosecutor’s Office disrupts Ak Zhol’s plans to hold a nationwide referendum to declare the election results invalid. With these polar views, the prospects for a national dialogue do not seem favorable.