With less than a month remaining before election day, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his advisors are certainly following the November 6 parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan. While separated geographically by thousands of miles, the two countries share political systems rooted in nepotism and family clan governance that recall the Soviet era. The economies of both Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan heavily depend on mining and oil production, and the majority of the rural population in both countries is living a hand-to-mouth existence behind the official façade of economic growth. In a sense, Astana regards Azerbaijan’s election as a litmus test indicating to what degree the population can tolerate old regimes (Delovaya nedelya, November 4).
The overwhelming majority of Kazakh political analysts, including the few still sympathetic toward the opposition, do not doubt that Nazarbayev will emerge as the clear winner in the December 4 presidential election. Lending a democratic veneer to the presidential race, a record 18 contenders, including three female candidates, initially registered with the Central Election Commission. But only five of the registered candidates – Nazarbayev, Mels Yeleusizov (Environmental Association), Alikhan Baimenov (Ak Zhol Democratic Party), Zarmakhan Tuyakbay (For a Fair Kazakhstan bloc) and Yerasyl Abylkasymov (Communist Party) – will actually compete on December 4. The other candidates either failed the Kazakh language test or fell short of constitutional requirements.
An October 20-27 opinion poll conducted by the Eurasia polling agency concludes that 67% of the population would cast their votes for Nazarbayev. Tuyakbay would place a distant second, with 13% of the votes. This estimate resembles the popularity ratings compiled by the Association of Sociologists.
Already the opposition newspaper Vremya has admitted that the democratic “color revolutions” that swept through Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan knocked on the wrong door with Kazakhstan. Every day Tuyakbay, the main opposition candidate, has more than 1 million newspapers advancing his cause, an enormous publicity tool that not even Nazarbayev enjoys. Yet the incumbent president still basks in overwhelming popularity (Vremya, November 3).
Nazarbayev skillfully appeals to the masses, and, more importantly, possesses an immense resume supported by the spectacular social and economic achievements recorded over the last six or seven years. Speaking on October 31 at the Congress of the Federation of Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, the president promised better social protection for working people and legal protection for small business. In return, he received the unanimous support of the audience for his election platform. In another clever move Nazarbayev, recently reduced gasoline prices substantially. But rising inflation, the gap between the incomes of foreign-owned companies and the miserable payments received by local workers, and high unemployment among youth and women are still cause for concern. However, these social ills can hardly affect the positive image of Nazarbayev created at home and abroad by the powerful presidential media (Panorama, November 4).
In this atmosphere, public applause for the president drowns out complaints and critical voices, and minor breaches of the law on the part of the executive slide by. The Central Election Commission has registered multiple cases of regional governors refusing to provide facilities for opposition candidates to campaign. In fact, Deputy Minister of Information Yerlan Baizhanov told journalists that two-thirds of pre-election coverage spread by the national news agency Kazinform was dedicated to Nazarbayev.
The generally calm atmosphere ahead of voting is occasionally disturbed by scuffles with the opposition. On October 28 the Prosecutor-General’s Office asked parliament to strip Senator Zauresh Battalova of his immunity from prosecution. Battalova, a Tuyakbay supporter, was accused of staging an unauthorized rally in the central part of Almaty on October 8 in support of press freedom and the jailed opposition leader Galimzhan Zhakiyanov. While parliament did not give its sanction to detain Battalova, Zhakiyanov was released from his penal colony on probation after the rally.
The politically correct methods Nazarbayev uses when dealing with his opponents are duly appreciated by the West. Another advantage for Nazarbayev is the growing sense of national dignity and optimism recovered by Kazakhs under Nazarbayev’s presidency. Russians and other ethnic minorities fear that the interethnic peace may be threatened if anyone else enters the office (Megapolis, October 31).
For many analysts the main puzzle is not the question of who will win the elections, but what shape the new government will take after Nazarbayev’s re-election and what changes to the existing system will be introduced. Nazarbayev has not concealed his dislike of parliamentary rule. Apparently he does not favor radical changes in the administrative policy either . While Baimenov, the Ak Zhol candidate, is calling for changes in Kazakhstan’s political life and a young president to lead the country, but the majority of the population would be quite happy to continue with the present state of affairs.