The month-long campaign for a snap parliamentary election in Kazakhstan on March 20 has entered the home straight but political observers still remain puzzled about the necessity for calling an early election. The only unknown result of the poll is the number of parties that will manage – or rather be allowed – to clear the 7% threshold.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev dissolved the lower chamber of the country’s rubber stamp parliament, the Mazhilis, on January 20, fearing that the dismal economic conditions may complicate his ruling Nur Otan party’s chances of claiming a landslide victory in a scheduled election next year. Kazakhstan is suffering from low oil and other commodity prices and sluggish demand for its exports – mainly oil and metals.
Last year Nazarbayev was re-elected for another five-year term with 98% of the vote on a 95% turnout in a snap presidential election. In that election the strongman – who has ruled the country since before it obtained independence in 1991 – simply towered over other two little-known candidates who were just there to give the appearance of competition.
This time round, however, voter apathy and the lack of name recognition for his party and the other five parties may lead to an embarrassingly low voter turnout. The election also coincides with the spring festival of Nowruz, which is marked for three days in Kazakhstan on March 21-23, and many Kazakhs will leave during the weekend before, when the election is held.
Kazakhstan watchers expect a low voter turnout will lead to massive vote rigging to save face. Kazakhstan has never had an election – presidential or parliamentary – regarded as “free and fair” by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the election and human rights watchdog.
Nur Otan held 83 seats in the previous parliament with 81% of the vote, while two other pro-presidential parties, Ak Zhol and the Communist People’s Party, had eight and seven MPs respectively, with 7.5% and 7.2% of the vote. All six officially registered parties - all of them support the president and his policies - are also taking part in the election this time around to create an impression of a contest.
In order not to lose face, public support for Nur Otan should be no less than it received in the previous, also snap, election in 2012. This means that with a 7% of threshold only two other parties may qualify to enter parliament. In order for a fourth party to qualify to enter parliament, Nur Otan would have to allow its share of the vote to fall to around 75%.
“[A new] parliament will most likely be a three-party one and it will have the same parties it had: Nur Otan, Communist People’s Party and Ak Zhol,” Yuriy Buluktayev, a researcher from the KISI presidential think-tank, predicted at a recent roundtable on the election in Almaty.
“There is a very high likelihood of a three-party parliament which immediately raises a legitimate question: what is the point? [This election] changes practically nothing,” political analyst Oleg Sidorov argued.
At another roundtable on the election held in Almaty involving representatives of political parties standing in the election, civil society activists and political observers blasted parties for failing to put forward topical issues in their election platforms and for their support for the president’s policies.
“All platforms are similar and the majority of parties standing in the election support the president’s ideas which are good but there are different ways of implementing them but we can’t even discuss them now,” Yerzhan Suleimenov, director of the international media NGO Internews Network in Kazakhstan, told the roundtable, referring to draconian laws restricting freedom of speech in Kazakhstan. “We can’t even say because of our laws ‘let’s vote or hold a referendum on what form of government we want’.”
There are speculations that following the election Kazakh authorities may initiate constitutional reforms, first suggested by Nazarbayev in 2015, to turn the country from a presidential republic into a presidential-parliamentary one, whereby parliament would be allowed more say in political decision-making. The move would be seen as the beginning of the transfer of power in Kazakhstan.
“Should we have a free and fair election now, none of you would win. No party will be able to prove to the electorate that you have the right to be in parliament,” observer Denis Krivosheyev charged representatives of political parties at the roundtable.
Out of 107 parliamentary seats, 98 are filled by candidates from party lists that are elected proportionally from among parties that clear the 7% threshold. A further nine seats are filled by members of the Assembly of Kazakhstan’s People, a talking shop for the country’s ethnic minorities which is appointed by Nazarbayev and serves as a demonstration of the country’s supposedly successful multi-ethnic policy. In order to get elected to parliament the nine candidates from among members of the assembly have to receive at least 50% of votes of the members of the assembly in a separate election on March 21. The assembly has slightly less than 400 members.
The lack of political contest and debate in the country and the crushing of political opponents and suppression of dissent and independent thinking under Nazarbayev’s rule means the parties have struggled to field candidates for the election who enjoy genuine support and recognition among the public.
Nur Otan, which claims membership of about 900,000 in the country with a total population of 17.6mn, resolved this problem by adding genuinely popular sport and showbiz celebrities to its list, which also includes Prime Minister Karim Massimov, his first deputy and the president’s eldest daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva, former Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov and current Finance Minister Bakhyt Sultanov.
The stars include Kazakhstan’s version of teenage heartthrob Justin Bieber, Kayrat Nurtas, a 27-year-old pop singer, Gennady Golovkin, the current professional middleweight boxing world champion, Serik Sapiyev, another boxer with an Olympic gold medal in his belt, Ilya Ilyin, a double Olympic weightlifting gold medal winner, and TV host Artur Platonov (who was believed to have been used by the president’s late son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev, the former husband of Dariga Nazarbayeva, in his media wars with other members of the elite in the early 2000s). The 30-year-old actor Nurlan Alimzhanov, who played a young Nazarbayev in a series of biopics, was also invited to join the ruling party’s list.
The government members and celebrities in the ruling party’s list are simply used as bait to generate voter interest in the election and the party, and as was the case in the past, they are likely to decide to continue to pursue their sport and singing careers, enabling political nobodies to enter parliament in their place.
Sadly the tactics work. One voter told bne IntelliNews the recognition factor was important for her election preferences and she would vote for Nur Otan because of TV host Artur Platonov as “he is famous” and she likes him as “a TV celebrity”. “He tells it like it is,” the voter quipped about the state-dominated Kazakh media which is regarded as “Not Free” by the Washington-based media watchdog Freedom House.