The concept of “managed democracy” is maturing in Kazakhstan, the energy-rich Central Asian state where President Nursultan Nazarbayev has tightly controlled the political process since it gained independence. Analysts believe snap parliamentary elections are likely to be held soon in order to create the appearance of a competitive political system.
The likelihood of an early legislative vote increased November 10, when a group of 53 deputies from the 107-member Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament that is widely considered a rubber-stamp body, urged Nazarbayev to dissolve the legislature and hold early elections. Some experts and political insiders now expect balloting to be moved up to January. The vote is currently slated for next August.
One of Nazarbayev’s diplomatic priorities in recent years has been crafting an international image for Kazakhstan as a rising, modern state. In connection with that PR drive, Kazakhstan secured the 2010 chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the continent’s leading democratization vehicle. But Astana’s image-building efforts have been consistently hampered by the country’s poor record on holding free elections, a record that resulted in the country having a one-party parliament at the same time it was serving as OSCE chair.
A main aim of calling early elections appears to be changing the perception that the political system is rigged. Some experts, however, believe any changes will have more to do with the style, rather than the substance of Kazakhstani politics.
“They [Kazakhstani leaders] want some kind of institutionalized two-party system – that’s what they’ve always talked about – but then it’s really about finding the party that’s going to be a loyal opposition,” Rico Isaacs of the UK's Oxford Brookes University, author of the book Party System Formation in Kazakhstan, told EurasiaNet.org.
The Nur Otan party, led by Nazarbayev, currently holds all elected seats in the Mazhilis. All other parties competing in the last parliamentary election, held in 2007, failed to clear the 7 percent electoral threshold needed to enter the legislature. Under rules adopted following that election, at least two parties are guaranteed seats in the next parliament, even if the second party fails to break through the 7-percent barrier.
MP Nurtay Sabilyanov said early elections to install a multiparty parliament would be timely ahead of Kazakhstan’s upcoming 20th anniversary of independence on December 16. Those comments compounded speculation that Astana wishes to cloak the election in the feel-good factor that the independence celebration is expected to generate.
Kazakhstan has already held an early election this year, when Nazarbayev secured 95.5 percent of the vote in April’s presidential balloting. Sabilyanov drew a connection between the likely early parliament vote and Nazarbayev’s grandiose development plans for the next decade. A new parliament could also pave the way for a government reshuffle: the Mazhilis is required to approve the prime minister, a post Karim Masimov has occupied since 2007.
Whenever the parliamentary election takes place, analysts feel confident that Nur Otan will be assured of gaining a dominating parliamentary majority. They also believe that the second party will likely be Ak Zhol, whose leader Azat Peruashev was a Nur Otan member until assuming the Ak Zhol leadership post in July.
Peruashev is also an associate of Nazarbayev’s son-in-law Timur Kulibayev, tipped as a possible successor to the 71-year-old president. In a commentary published in October, the Guljan news website interpreted the political maneuvering at Ak Zhol as a plan “to construct Kazakhstan’s political future under the control of Nursultan Nazarbayev (the Nur Otan leader) and his son-in-law Timur Kulibayev (the shadow leader of Ak Zhol).”
Kulibayev – a billionaire businessman who heads the Samruk-Kazyna fund, which controls Kazakhstan’s state assets – has denied having immediate political ambitions, but Ak Zhol is still seen as a potential political vehicle for him.
Opposition parties aren’t figuring much in the administration’s tactical thinking, analysts said. The few genuine opposition parties operating in Kazakhstan present little threat to Nur Otan, given its stranglehold on the political scene through the wide-ranging powers of the president and his control of the parliament. As Isaacs pointed out, “neither Nur Otan, nor Nazarbayev really needs to wrong-foot the opposition”—but the administration still has a wary eye on dissenting voices.
Presidential adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbayev has named Nur Otan’s domination of the party political scene and the fragmented opposition as key factors making an early vote favorable for Astana.
The opposition OSDP Azat party, co-led by Zharmakhan Tuyakbay and Bolat Abilov, came in second in the last parliamentary election but failed to clear the 7 percent barrier to secure seats. Party leaders attributed the underwhelming electoral performance to vote-rigging. Western election observers have never deemed an election in Kazakhstan since 1991 to be free-and-fair. In the upcoming voting, Tuyakbay predicted that OSDP Azat would finish second “if the elections are honest and transparent.”
OSDP Azat may be the only credible opposition force eligible to stand in a snap election. The plans of one wing of the opposition have been derailed by the six-month suspension of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan in October. The party was suspended over its membership (deemed illegal by a court) of the Khalyk Maydany (People’s Front) alliance, which it formed with the unregistered Alga! party.
Alga! – viewed with disfavor by Astana for its ties to London-based oligarch and Nazarbayev opponent Mukhtar Ablyazov – planned to use Khalyk Maydany to fight for seats under the name of the Communist Party, which is now excluded from elections until April.
Alga! leader Vladimir Kozlov – a ferocious critic of Nazarbayev – is forming a new party called Khalyk (People), but it is not yet registered to stand in elections.
Another new party attempting to register in time for the vote is Tabigat (Nature), announced by environmentalist Mels Yeleusizov on November 8. His party is likely to be viewed more favorably in Astana—Yeleusizov is such a fan that, though he stood against Nazarbayev in the April election, he nevertheless cast his vote for the incumbent instead of himself.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.