About three weeks remain until the snap presidential elections in Kazakhstan, which are scheduled for November 20—18 months ahead of the original 2024 date (Tengrinews, September 22). In the words of Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, changing the election date was necessary “to reload the main political institutions” in the country (Ak Orda, September 1).
In parallel to this development, Tokayev has signed a decree on amending the constitution and introducing a single seven-year presidential term, replacing the two five-year terms, which will allow him to stay in power until the end of the decade (Kazakhstan Today, September 19). The haste around these elections has led many experts to view them as Tokayev’s attempt to consolidate power and ensure continuity of his government (Vlast, September 8).
Having been ruled by the same president for almost 30 years, the citizens of Kazakhstan are understandably worried they are witnessing their hopes for democratization crumble and the formation of another lengthy authoritarian rule. Thus, the question should be asked: what prompted Tokayev’s decision?
To begin with, Kazakhstani society has placed a high amount of political trust in Tokayev. However, it will be difficult to maintain the current level of trust and popularity until 2024. Thus, the president and his team understand that they “have a reserve of political trust, which they consider necessary to use before it is too late” (Radio Azattyq, September 2). Furthermore, a closer analysis of Tokayev’s election to the presidency in 2019 and the events that have transpired since is necessary to fully understand the extent of the societal trust he enjoys and the urgency with which it is being utilized in the upcoming elections.
Tokayev began his presidency with little legitimacy. He was former Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s chosen successor, and as such, many viewed Tokayev as a puppet of the long-time authoritarian ruler, whose reign had become synonymous with corruption and mismanagement. All that changed in January 2022, when Tokayev led Kazakhstan through the biggest crisis in the country’s history since the fall of the Soviet Union. At the beginning of the year, Kazakhstan witnessed peaceful protests turn into mass violence across the country, which claimed the lives of at least 238 people and served as an arena for a power struggle between Tokayev and Nazarbayev (Radio Azattyq, September 2).
Tokayev emerged victorious and, in the aftermath, managed to distance himself from Nazarbayev by arresting or replacing high-level officials and oligarchs loyal to the former president. Examples include Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva, who resigned from parliament, and Karim Massimov, the former chief of the State Security Service, who was charged with treason (Radio Azattyq, May 2). Tokayev also changed the name of the capital from “Nur-Sultan” to “Astana,” further distancing himself from the former leader (Aa.com, September 17).
Tokayev’s handling of the January events catapulted his popularity and provided him with much-awaited political legitimacy. To further increase his popularity, in a speech on September 1, the Kazakhstani president promised to raise the minimum wage and open bank accounts for all children, which will accrue half the income of the Kazakhstan National Fund until they turn 18 years old (Vlast, September 8).
Moreover, Tokayev pushed for early elections based on the growing uncertainty he faces both at home and beyond. The fast pace and unpredictable nature of such developments—including the war against Ukraine and Astana’s falling out with Moscow—did not bode well for his chances to win the presidential elections in 2024. Regional experts generally agree that “tight timeframes will prevent competitive alternative candidates from challenging the incumbent’s rule” (Radio Azattyq, September 2).
Four candidates have registered with the Kazakhstani Central Election Commission to challenge Tokayev for the presidency, but their bleak political careers and public standings suggest the strictly formal and ambitionless nature of their bids (KazInform, October 7). Therefore, these elections seem to have been scheduled early to negate the threat of a different, more competitive opponent. Tokayev’s reign after the events of January 2022 has consisted of dismissing high-level officials and trials over oligarchs who have made their political careers and fortunes under Nazarbayev. Thus, the elections have been re-scheduled for this fall because of “the risks associated with the possibility of the return of the Nazarbayev clan to the political field” (Vlast, September 8).
Kazakhstan also faces uncertainty with regards to the wider global political and economic situation. In truth, “the international situation is now turbulent—it is not clear how the war [in Ukraine] will turn out, and the economic situation in Kazakhstan is deteriorating” as a result (Masa Media, September 12). The war in Ukraine and Western sanctions against Russia, which is Kazakhstan’s most consequential economic partner, have led to high inflation in the country (Inform Buro, August 8).
After refusing to support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and help the Kremlin bypass sanctions, Kazakhstan has run into problems with exporting its oil through the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, as Russia has closed it on multiple occasions for irregular inspection and repair (Radio Azattyq, July 8).
For such reasons, steady economic growth is not guaranteed for Kazakhstan, and the country may find itself in turbulent times while struggling to navigate emerging domestic and foreign policy challenges. In this light, the early presidential elections provide Tokayev with a level of certainty and concentrated momentum that he can use to focus on addressing the various political, economic and security issues on the horizon.
Kazakhstan will find itself at a crossroads with the upcoming elections. However, it will be extremely difficult to say early on which road it will choose—democratization or authoritarianism—as one system could be disguised by the other early on. Tokayev may indeed be sincere about his intentions to introduce much-awaited political reforms necessary for democratization—including improved social justice and more equal economic opportunities (The Astana Times, September 1). However, it is possible that the Kazakhstani president may use these elections as a pretext to extend the current political system and become an autocrat who manipulates the constitution and electoral cycles to stay in power. The second scenario seems more likely, but only time will tell what road Tokayev truly intends to take.