A reconfiguration of Kazakhstan's political landscape is underway. Some opposition leaders are hoping to regain their footing through the creation of a new political party, while forces aligned with President Nursultan Nazarbayev are merging in an effort to reinforce the incumbent administration's grip on power.
At a mid-July gathering of the For a Fair Kazakhstan opposition movement, former presidential candidate Zharmakhan Tuyakbai announced an initiative to forge a new social-democratic party designed to cater to the interests of average Kazakhstanis. The party would strive to use "all the potential of the market economy for the good of ordinary people," Tuyakbai said in a July 19 statement, issued four days after the original announcement. In subsequent comments, Tuyakbai sought to attract the support of the large share of citizens who have yet to experience the fruits of the country's oil & gas boom, arguing that a social-democratic party would distribute the state's energy profits more evenly.
"Contemporary social democracy in no circumstances rejects the market," he said in an interview with the Zona-kz. web site posted July 25. "On the contrary, it uses the advantages of market economy laws and their results to resolve social problems."
"[Social democracy] does not just allow things to take their own course or permit wild competition," Tuyakbai continued. "[It] strives to create a situation in which the fruits of labour by the strong satisfy not only their own requirements but also assure a dignified standard of living for all members of society via taxation and a system of redistribution."
With domestic and foreign investors fiercely protective of their lucrative interests in energy-rich Kazakhstan, Tuyakbai may need to tread carefully when mooting redistribution of wealth. However, there is no denying that many citizens have experienced only a marginal benefit from the country's oil riches, and this vast pool of potential voters may thus find Tuyakbai's message to be attractive. "We will be a most electable party," he told Zona-kz. Tuyakbai dismisses concerns about splitting the opposition vote.
But is there room for another party on the political stage? Kazakhstan already boasts opposition parties across the political spectrum, from the centre-right Nagyz Ak Zhol party to the far left Communist Party.
Some observers contend that a new party would further split the opposition, rather than restore a sense of momentum. Nazarbayev opponents have experienced a steady erosion of influence since the 2004 parliamentary elections, when the opposition won only one seat. (The Ak Zhol party won it but declined to take it up in protest at what it said was the illegitimacy of the election.) [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In the 2005 presidential contest, Nazarbayev took 91 percent of the vote, trouncing Tuyakbai. This year, opposition activists have continued to face considerable pressure, and have been unable to mount a political offensive. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
It is not clear whether the new party would face difficulty in obtaining official registration. The Alga party, for example, hasn't been able to register since it was set up a year ago on the basis of the defunct Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan. Some observers in Kazakhstan believe the government might be more open to sanctioning a new party that draws votes from opposition rivals.
As the opposition mooted a new party, the prevailing view on the pro-presidential side of the political spectrum was that strength lies in unity. The parties of the president and his eldest daughter merged at the beginning of July, creating a super-party with an estimated 700,000 members, and controlling 60 per cent of seats in the lower house of parliament. The remaining seats are held by other broadly pro-presidential parties.
In effect, Otan, the party chaired by the president, absorbed Asar, the party set up by his daughter, Dariga, to contest the 2004 parliamentary election. As the opposition Svoboda Slova newspaper put it, Otan swallowed Asar "like a boa constrictor swallows a rabbit."
The merger came in the wake of reports of a rift between Nazarbayev and his daughter following the murder of opposition figure Altynbek Sarsenbayev in early 2006. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Many observers interpret the Otan-Asar merger as a move by Nazarbayev and his supporters to restrain his daughter's political ambitions. "It is clear that Asar's departure from the country's political scene was agreed and carried out at the initiative of Nazarbayev's entourage, which had started to become too concerned in recent times at the vigour of his eldest daughter," said a Svoboda Slova commentary.
Some reports suggest that far from putting an end to Dariga's political career, the political merger stands to weakens political rivals, including other powerful relatives of the president such as his son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev.
The key to understanding the merger of pro-Nazarbayev parties may lie in the presidential succession. Since Nazarbayev's re-election in 2005 for what is constitutionally his last term, members of Kazakhstan's political elite have been looking ahead to the next election, expected in 2012. "The merger of the two parties is the first step in preparing the transfer of power into hands that are reliable from Nursultan Nazarbayev's point of view," Svoboda Slova commented. "Otan has been rejuvenated in order to work towards the president's future successor."
Speaking at the July 4 meeting at which Otan and Asar formally merged, the president presented the move as a step forward for democracy. "Boosting the role of parties in the political system will be one of the main priorities of democratic reforms," Nazarbayev told delegates. Parties will come to play a greater role in the democratic process, Nazarbayev suggested: "We should come to an agreement that the party which wins the elections will nominate the prime minister and take part in forming the government."
But for all the talk of democracy, some elements of Otan and Asar's merger indicate that it took place with scant regard for the democratic process. Svoboda Slova was among several media outlets contending that the merger had been rushed through without debate. "It is notable that the merger of the parties was managed without internal party discussions," it said. "Nobody asked the opinion of the rank-and-file members of either party."
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asian affairs.