On April 26, Kazakhstan held an early presidential election, the fifth presidential election in its modern history since gaining independence in late 1991. Unsurprisingly, the incumbent, Nursultan Nazarbayev, won the vote by a landslide. According to the Central Election Commission’s official communiqué, he obtained 97.75 percent of the total votes cast, compared with 1.61 percent for the candidate of the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan, Turgun Syzdykov, and 0.64 percent in favor of Abelgazy Kussainov, an independent. The latter had previously served as minister of transport and communications in the first government of Karim Massimov between March 2009 and April 2011, and subsequently as governor of Karaganda province (2012–2013), in Central Kazakhstan. Since January 2013, he has chaired the Trade Unions Federation of Kazakhstan, after being appointed to this non-political position by Nazarbayev himself (Election.kz, Tengrinews.kz, April 28; Zakon.kz, April 27).
In the previous presidential election of April 2011, which had likewise been organized before Nazarbayev’s seven-year term officially expired, the Leader of the Nation (“Yelbasy” in Kazakh, as the president is officially known since the adoption of a special law in mid-2010), garnered the approval of 95.5 percent of voters. In December 2005, he obtained a bit less, 91.2 percent. The official turnout at last week’s presidential vote in Kazakhstan also beat earlier records. The Central Election Commission says turnout this year stood at 92.5 percent at the end of Election Day, against 90 percent of all registered voters in 2011, and slightly more than 77 percent in 2005 (Bnews.kz, April 27; Ktk.kz, April 4, 2011; Today.kz, December 5, 2005).
The election’s outcome was predictably hailed by observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Russia- and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as “fully compatible with international democratic standards.” In contrast, Western observers—represented by the European Parliament and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—sounded critical of the way both the ballot and the subsequent vote count had been handled. In its preliminary report, the OSCE particularly stressed the “lack of credible opposition in the country, with several prominent critics of the government either imprisoned or living in exile.” It also pointed to the fact that Nazarbayev’s opponents had publicly praised his achievements and track record. Similarly, in 2011, Mels Eleusizov, the candidate of the Tabigat environmental association, cast his own ballot for Nazarbayev in front of TV cameras (Osce.org, RIA Novosti, 24.kz, April 27; Inform.kz, April 3, 2011).
The controversy surrounding the transparency and fairness of the last election notwithstanding, what lies ahead for Kazakhstan, amid the downturn in the world oil market and the looming recession in Russia, is far more important. On April 8, Nazarbayev approved the so-called Nurly Zhol (“Bright Path” in Kazakh) anti-crisis program through to 2020, which will benefit from $15 billion worth of funding from the National Oil Fund, in addition to around $9 billion worth of grants and loans by international financial institutions such as the World Bank. It is expected to generate at least 400,000 new jobs by the end of 2019, mainly as a result of large-scale investments into infrastructure development. This orientation has already led some local pundits to compare Nurly Zhol with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s to cope with the Great Depression (Akorda.kz, April 8; Inform.kz, November 24, 2014).
In his inaugural address on April 29, Nazarbayev further elaborated on the next few steps he intends to take with a view to guaranteeing domestic stability and making sure that Kazakhstan can enter the elite club of the world’s top 30 economies, in line with the “Kazakhstan 2050” Strategy unveiled in late 2012. The five priority areas where the government will conduct reforms are (Akorda.kz, Forbes.kz, April 29):
• increasing the share of the middle class in the national economy;
• ensuring smooth socioeconomic development throughout the regions;
• combating corruption;
• implementing a vast industrialization program to create new jobs; and
• strengthening national unity and solidarity.
To deliver on these promises, the government—led by Massimov, who was quickly reappointed to the prime minister’s office days after Nazarbayev’s triumphant victory—will establish the National Commission for Modernization. It will be aided by the International Advisory Council comprised of authoritative local and foreign “thought leaders” to pilot the reforms. Earlier, on March 11, Nazarbayev had proposed a package of five institutional reforms to be implemented on his watch, including (Kapital.kz, Kursiv.kz, March 11):
• creating a modern, compact and highly-trained civil service;
• conducting judiciary reform to increase transparency, stamp out corruption and guarantee the economic rights of both citizens and foreign investors;
• diversifying the economy as part of ongoing industrialization;
• improving social mobility and strengthening citizenship; and
• implementing a wholesale reorganization of the government sector to broaden public oversight, improve accountability and rebalance the power between the executive, the legislature and the courts.
However, the main challenge for Nazarbayev remains to enable the continuity of his regime. Constitutional reform stripping the presidency of some of its prerogatives in favor of parliament and the government could be one way to limit the risk of turmoil by diffusing power more broadly. Still, it will not pave the way for long-term stability for which broader structural political and socioeconomic reforms are required. The example of neighboring Kyrgyzstan is especially telling: while it is currently the most democratic country of Central Asia, it is also the least stable one because of widespread poverty, corruption and nepotism at all levels.