Kazakhstan has pushed up its presidential election date to December 4, and the incumbent, Nursultan Nazarbayev, seems perfectly positioned to secure a third, seven-year term.
Nazarbayev, who has presided over Kazakhstan's boom economy since the country gained independence in 1991, was formally nominated on September 9 by the Otan Party. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The presidential vote was originally scheduled for 2006, but parliament on September 7 decided to move up election-day. Nazarbayev's main challenger in the election is expected to be Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, a leader of the For a Just Kazakhstan opposition movement.
Over the past two years, the democratic process has proven dangerous to incumbents in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Disputed votes in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan prompted regime-change in each country, a process commonly referred as the "color revolutions." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But political observers in Kazakhstan say that Nazarbayev and his supporters have studied the political lessons, and have implemented a comprehensive blueprint to avoid a repetition of revolutionary events in Kazakhstan.
Nazarbayev has so far implemented his political plan flawlessly, some political analysts say. As a result, he appears to be virtually unbeatable. Political analysts Vladimir Solovyev and Alexander Sidorov, writing in a commentary published by the Kommersant daily on September 8, noted that Tuyakbai "is entering the election fight in not his best form and has little hope of winning." Kazakhstan, like other nations in Central Asia, has a history of rigged elections. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But Nazarbayev's popularity seems sufficiently strong at this stage that he could easily win a free-and-fair vote, some observers say.
One commentary, published in late August by the Russian RIA Novosti news agency, characterized Nazarbayev's strategy as the "colorless evolution." It appears specifically designed to neutralize the forces that produced revolutionary change in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
Moving up the election date is an important component of the president's political strategy, observers say, as it gives the opposition little time to find its rhythm and mount an effective presidential campaign.
Keeping the opposition off balance is a major component of the presidential strategy, some analysts say. Since the country's parliamentary elections in 2004, the government has maintained political pressure on opposition parties that some contend is designed to keep Nazarbayev critics fragmented. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. For much of 2005, opposition-oriented media outlets have faced considerable official scrutiny, some being hit with huge fines in libel cases involving government agencies -- cases that presidential critics insist are politically motivated. A few observers say the government has also resorted to outright intimidation, noting several incidents last spring in which thugs tried to disrupt opposition political activity. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Perhaps the most important aspect of Nazarbayev's reelection strategy centers on social policy. Taking advantage of Kazakshtan's oil-and-gas wealth, the government has massively increased spending on social programs and education. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The rise in state spending is designed in large measure to alleviate a major source of discontent poverty which has served as the catalyst for the revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
Nazarbayev has also taken care in recent months to engage directly with voters by traveling extensively across the country. In early September, for example, Nazarbayev made a campaign-style visit to Almaty that received extensive coverage on state television. At a September 6 appearance at a hospital, Nazarbayev said the government would pay "special attention" to improving healthcare in coming years. A day earlier, during a meeting with business leaders, Nazarbayev stressed job creation. "Your work will improve peoples' lives," the president told the assembled entrepreneurs. "They will get jobs and income."
The last key aspect of Nazarbayev's strategy concerns foreign policy. The Kazakhstani government in recent weeks has sought to bolster relations with the United States, which is widely suspected in Central Asia of acting as the sponsor of the "color revolutions." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In late August, Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev visited Washington, where he reaffirmed Kazakhstan's support for the US-led military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. US officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, reciprocated by praising the Kazakhstani government as a reliable strategic partner.
In addition, presidential supporters sought to use a September 6 visit to Almaty by former US chief executive Bill Clinton to bolster Nazarbayev's re-election bid. Clinton was in Kazakhstan ostensibly to promote an anti-HIV/AIDS initiative, but pro-presidential television reports hinted that the visit provided a tacit US endorsement of Nazarbayev's candidacy. Many media outlets emphasized Clinton's praise of Kazakhstan's economic performance. "Bill Clinton's visit ... is of particular significance," said one report broadcast by Khabar Television on September 7. "Washington has confirmed once again who it counts on."
Nazarbayev has not been afraid to directly and publicly address the issue of the color revolutions. In a live television broadcast in late August, Nazarbayev took questions via telephone from citizens. When one asked about the possibility of the color revolution phenomenon spreading to Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev countered that the country was too prosperous to experience such upheaval. He also warned that an attempt to promote radical political change could wreck Kazakhstan's economic growth. "I am reminded of the brilliant quote by Victor Hugo:
Ibragim Alibekov is a pseudonym for a regional journalist.