A proposal to reorganize Kazakhstan's political system would reconfigure the legislature, while enhancing its powers. Ultimately, however, the executive branch would retain a preponderance of power.
Kazakhstan's State Democracy Commission wound up nearly a year of work on February 19, making non-binding recommendations on political reform. President Nursultan Nazarbayev chaired the session, welcoming the proposals but stressing that there was no question of Kazakhstan turning away from a powerful presidency. "Society has learnt an important lesson, realizing that powerful authorities and democracy are not polar opposites," he told delegates.
The commission comprising leading administration officials, MPs, political activists and NGO representatives - was established in March 2006 in connection with Kazakhstan's overall effort to promote political and economic modernization. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The commission's biggest proposed changes concern parliament. One would alter the election format for the lower house, the Mazhilis, by boosting the number of deputies elected on party lists to 50 percent, with the rest elected to single-seat constituencies. In the current system, 10 are elected on party lists and 67 to single-seat constituencies.
Nazarbayev called for a clear choice between a majority system and proportional representation. He spoke out against expanding the number of Mazhilis seats, calling for a "compact and professional parliament." However, he supported a bid to expand the upper house by reserving a quota in the Senate for the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan, which brings together the leaders of Kazakhstan's ethnic minorities and is composed largely of delegates loyal to Nazarbayev.
The president also backed proposals to hand some of his powers to parliament, including the right to nominate members to the Constitutional Court, the Central Electoral Commission and the Audit Committee. Parliament may also gain oversight over the budget and input in the formation of the government.
Critics contend that Nazarbayev would not experience any significant loss of power under the new system, given the existing parliament's near-absolute loyalty to his political course. Kazakhstan's parliament currently contains just one opposition member and rarely challenges government policies. The largest party in parliament currently is Nur Otan, which controls 46 out of 77 seats and is led by Nazarbayev himself. Nur Otan has been consolidating itself by swallowing up other parties and now looks set to step into the role of official majority party, if such a position emerges from the political reform ahead. Addressing the democracy commission, Nazarbayev who backed the idea of public funding for political parties - described Nur Otan as "de facto the parliamentary majority party."
The commission put forward proposals to transfer more powers to local councils, but opposition parties argue that true accountability on a regional level can only be brought about by making the powerful office of regional governor popularly elected, rather than appointed by the president.
The impetus for reform appears to be economic development rather than democracy. While supportive of the proposed changes, Nazarbayev is nevertheless cautious, repeatedly warning against the type of revolutionary change seen in Ukraine, Georgia and neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Speaking to the democracy commission, he spoke at length about the potential dangers of upheaval: "The recent experience of our CIS neighbors has demonstrated with all obviousness that democracy cannot be built where citizens do not observe the law and constitutional order, where deep-rooted social chaos reigns.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asian affairs.