Economic stagnation, together with Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov’s death in September appear to have left the 76-year-old president of neighbouring Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, puzzling over his legacy.
Nazarbayev unveiled on January 26 a set of draft constitutional changes to deliver “a serious redistribution of powers and democratisation of the political system as a whole”. He followed this up by announcing a modernisation programme, which appeared to recognise the need to diversify the ailing oil-dependent economy.
The modernisation drive was widely dismissed as yet another programme that likely won’t lead to any tangible results, but the constitutional blueprint sparked speculation about the true purpose of such reforms.
The package of amendments, if passed, would redistribute 40 functions from the president to the government and parliament. The changes, currently under “nationwide discussion” until February 26, include a parliamentary majority-formed government; a requirement for the president to consult the Mazhlis, the lower house of parliament, prior to appointing a candidate for prime minister for confirmation by parliamentary vote; and a right to a vote of no-confidence granted to parliament against the cabinet or individual ministers.
Kazakh analysts have largely dismissed the proposed changes as cosmetic. Civil rights campaigner Yevgeny Zhovtis told Vlast.kz that much in the suggested changes remains unclear. "So far [the changes] don’t seem meaningful. It is not clear whether the authorities will, after all, bring back the opposition into the political system.” Zhovtis was specifically concerned over whether the opposition will be granted “equal access to media and the voters”. “Without access to the media and there will be no access to the people," he added.
Zhovtis’ concern is echoed in the lack of real alternatives to the ruling Nur Otan party. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), based on their observations of the snap parliamentary elections in 2016, said the elections presented no “genuine political choice” as well as “lack of pluralism of opinion in the media”. Nur Otan won a landslide victory with 82.5% of the vote. Nur Otan’s dominance has blurred any existing distinction between the president’s party and the government itself, OSCE concluded.
Independent political analyst Dosym Satpayev wrote on his Facebook page that “first, you must reform the party and electoral system, such that parliament is not filled by ‘zombie-parties’ and ‘weathervane deputies’, but by elected competitive players”. The reform might weaken the presidency without actually strengthening the parliament, he argued, possibly leaving the country with a “a weak president and a weak parliament” instead of the prevailing “strong president and a weak parliament”. Satpayev sees such parliamentarianism without pluralism as a downgrade.
Other analysts speculated that the reforms were Nazarbayev’s method for preparing a system that would ensure a smooth transition of power following his inevitable exit. Research Fellow at the Russian Academy of Science, Stanislav Pritchin, wrote an extensive piece for the Diplomat on Nazarbayev’s attempt at emulating the Uzbek succession model. Pritchin reasoned the Kazakh president had appointed Karim Masimov as the head of the Kazakh security services in order to play the role of Rustam Inoyatov, his counterpart in Uzbekistan, during the power transition from Karimov.
The Kazakh equivalent of the Uzbek kingmaker, nonetheless, runs the risk of holding his own views on who the real successor should be. Therefore, Pritchin posits, a redistribution of some powers to the parliament and government could allow the authorities to keep Masimov’s personal opinions in check when carrying out the succession process.
It is suspected that Nazarbayev's daughter Dariga, a senate member, is being prepared to take her father’s place, though other hypothetical candidates include Samat Abish, deputy head of the state security service, and Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev, speaker of the upper chamber, who constitutionally would automatically assume the presidency in the event of Nazarbayev's death.
But the reforms should not be seen as a race to the finish - merely an insurance policy for a succession scenario. Nazarbayev does not appear bent on giving up his power soon.
“At present, the president is not planning to go anywhere and, for the most part, won’t be sharing power with anyone,” independent Kazakh political analyst Aidos Sarym wrote in a Facebook post. “[His] control levers are [still] there.”
That much is true. Apart from the aforementioned dominance of Nazarbayev’s party in parliament, the president will retain the power to appoint 15 members of the 47-member Senate, regional governors and mayors of Astana and Almaty, not to mention his veto power over most government decisions. Nazarbayev, as he has stated himself, will remain as the “supreme arbiter” of the Central Asian nation.
During a televised address on January 25, Nazarbayev, 76, who has ruled Kazakhstan for over a quarter of a century, emphasised there “was, is and will be a state with a presidential form of government”.