Kazakhstan’s presidential election on April 3 is set to be a non-event as incumbent leader Nursultan Nazarbayev breezes back into office. Analysts predict he’ll get well over 90 percent of the vote. Campaigning, which begins on March 3, also looks set to be a dull affair in the absence of any real opposition challengers.
Most of those standing against Nazarbayev are stalking horses, but one of them has decided to liven up the proceedings by first demanding that the president give him $100 million, and then dropping out of the race in a huff – or at least the pretense of one.
Zhaksybay Bazilbayev, a little-known anti-corruption campaigner, is most famous for standing against Nazarbayev in elections in 1999 and 2005 but dropping out ahead of the vote to call on his supporters to back the incumbent. In this election, however, he decided Nazarbayev owed him a favor in return – in fact, Bazilbayev claimed the president owed him $100 million for giving Nazarbayev a clear run for the top job on two previous occasions, the Gazeta.kz media portal reported.
The presidential administration, Akorda, failed to respond to Bazilbayev’s appeals, so on March 1 he went public, asking for his money back – and threatening to step down from the race unless Nazarbayev did.
Passengers boarding trains for the long journey between Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, and its commercial hub, Almaty, can now nurse a comforting thought: in a few years travel times will be dramatically slashed – and it will be partly thanks to China.
Revolution by post? “The Tunisians, the Egyptians…Who’s Next?”
Almaty residents have found some unusual post in their mailboxes this week. Among the usual stack of adverts for supermarkets and pizza delivery lies a mysterious political tract on the tumultuous events in the Middle East entitled: “The Tunisians, the Egyptians…Who’s Next?”
“The dictators of Egypt and Tunisia were not saved by the parliaments in their pockets or their tame parties,” the leaflet warns, over a picture of a Middle Eastern demonstrator waving a placard reading “Game Over.”
“Not even amendments to the law allowing these ‘leaders of the nation’ to put themselves forward for elections a limitless number of times helped. Today the exiled leaders of banned opposition movements are returning to these countries, and the world is observing the sun setting on the dictatorships of the ‘leaders of the nation’…”
The message is hardly subtle: Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, goes by the official title of Leader of the Nation and (under a special constitutional provision) can stand for president an unlimited number of times, unlike any other citizen.
The leaflet lists a few familiar characteristics of the regimes overthrown in the Middle East: long, limitless rule; falsified elections; suppression of dissent; tame parliaments and parties; corruption involving energy proceeds; policies that enrich the ruling classes; inflation that hits ordinary people.
All these factors have uncomfortable parallels with Kazakhstan – but there are also dissimilarities. Public content with Nazarbayev’s rule (consistently revealed in reliable opinion polls) is one, and it can’t be disregarded -- even if it’s largely fuelled by a loyal media and political apathy.
The preparations for April’s early presidential election in Kazakhstan, billed by Astana as the incumbent president’s impromptu reaction to a shelved bid to extend his rule through referendum, are proceeding at such breakneck speed that skeptics are wondering just how spontaneous this snap election actually is.
Then, on February 11, within hours of accepting the nomination of his party, Nur Otan, to stand as its candidate, Nazarbayev managed not only to put together the paperwork to submit his bid to the Central Electoral Commission but also to pass the Kazakh-language test in which candidates must make the grade to be eligible for the presidency – all in one day. That’s certainly fast work on the part of the no doubt flustered officials at the electoral commission and the linguistic commission that administers the language exam.
Kazakhstan’s rubber-stamp parliament has voted unanimously in favor of leader Nursultan Nazarbayev’s proposal to hold a snap presidential election. No one would expect anything less from the yes-men in this legislature, which is stuffed with loyalists and in 2007 voted – after a perfunctory debate lasting just a few minutes – to grant him president-for-life status by exempting the man known as Leader of the Nation from constitutional term limits.
Parliament voted today to amend the constitution to allow Nazarbayev to call an early presidential election, in which he’s likely to win a landslide even greater than his 91 percent victory in the 2005 poll.
Astana has never staged an election judged free and fair by credible international monitoring bodies, and this one’s hardly likely to be any different. Critics expect massive pressure on public-sector workers and students to deliver the right result in their areas, and intimidation of any genuine opposition candidates who make it through the registration process. Rival candidates won’t be expecting much in the way of coverage of their campaigns in the mainstream media, either.
No date has been set for the election, but insiders have mooted early April or early May as possibilities.
The Leader of the Nation hasn’t yet confirmed he’ll stand, but he has indicated on several occasions recently that he’s ready to rule for as long as his adoring public wants him to.
The United States has again pressed Kazakhstan over a bid to dispense with presidential elections for the next decade – but are its words falling on deaf ears?
As Kazakh Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev met US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington on January 26, she reminded him that extending the rule of President Nursultan Nazarbayev to 2020 through a referendum – currently pending a ruling from the Constitutional Council – would be a “setback for democracy,” the State Department said.
“During the meeting, Secretary Clinton emphasized the United States’s concern that the national referendum that would extend President Nazarbayev’s term of office to 2020 would be a setback for democracy, and we hope that Kazakhstan will renew its commitments to democracy, good governance, and human rights,” Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley told a press briefing in Washington after the meeting.
Not surprisingly, that wasn’t mentioned in the Kazakh Foreign Ministry statement on the talks, which focused rather on Clinton’s “gratitude for the leadership of Kazakhstan” in promoting nonproliferation and contributing to efforts to stabilize Afghanistan (also mentioned by Crowley).
That angle got wide coverage in Kazakhstan’s state media, which also talked up what the Foreign Ministry described as Nazarbayev’s high standing in the eyes of US congressmen.
You might imagine that Astana would want to keep off the world stage amid the international outcry over an ongoing bid to extend the rule of Kazakhstan's Leader of the Nation.
But fresh from steering his country through the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – during which he fondly reiterated Astana's commitment to the OSCE’s democratic values – Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev is heading to the United States, which has been a vociferous critic of the bid to prolong the rule of President Nursultan Nazarbayev to 2020 (by which time he’ll have been in power for three decades) by referendum.
During his three-day trip, which gets under way January 24, he'll be meeting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with whom he shared a podium at a press conference at the OSCE summit in Astana in December. The two described to journalists how they’d discussed Kazakhstan’s commitment to democratization, which now looks somewhat ironic as the bid to keep Nazarbayev in office until the age of 80 steamrolls ahead.