Kazakhstan gets multi-party parliament, but elections still flawed

By bne IntelliNews January 16, 2012

Clare Nuttall in Almaty -

Two smaller parties won seats in Kazakhstan's lower house of parliament alongside the ruling Nur Otan party in the January 15 parliamentary elections. The result has been hailed as the start of a multi-party system in Kazakhstan, but international observers say the election fell short of democratic standards.

Ak Zhol took 7.46% of the vote, while the Communist People's Party of Kazakhstan took 7.2%, lifting both parties past the 7% threshold required to take a seat in the parliament.

Allowing other parties to join the parliament, where previously all the seats allocated by public vote were occupied by Nur Otan deputies, was one of the government's aims in bringing the election forward from August to January. Changes to Kazakhstan's electoral code made during the last parliament guaranteed that at least one opposition party would take seats in the parliament even if it failed to pass the threshold. The move was intended by the authorities in Astana, who have been closely watching the unrest in the "Arab Spring" countries, to make Kazakhstan appear more democratic.

Speaking late Sunday after the vote at the Nur Otan headquarters in Astana, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev described the election as "a great day of joy". "Just now we have heard the exit poll results - our party won with convincing results," Nazarbayev told party members, Kazinform reported. "It demonstrates that our programme, our work were supported by the people. They understand us, they are with us, and they continue to trust us."

However, according to observers with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), the elections "still did not meet fundamental principles of democratic elections."

At a press conference in Astana this afternoon, OSCE/ODIHR officials highlighted the fact that several opposition parties had been unable to stand, while other popular candidates were de-registered close to election day. "The authorities did not provide the necessary conditions for the conduct of genuinely pluralistic elections. Several political parties were blocked from standing and a number of candidates were de-registered without due process," said a statement from the OSCE/ODIHR.

Cosmetic changes

Although two parties are likely to have passed the 7% mark, broadening representation in the parliament, this is not expected to result in real changes. Ak Zhol at least has become increasingly close to Nur Otan, while opposition parties that have provided genuine criticism of the regime have been forced out.

Alga! DVK has been for the last decade trying unsuccessfully to register with the authorities, while the Communist Party of Kazakhstan received a six-month ban in October because of its leader Gaziz Aldamzharov's support for striking oil workers in the town of Zhanaozen. Kazakhstan's green party, Rukhaniyat, was disqualified from fielding candidates on dubious grounds after its leaders criticised the government's handling of the strike. Several individual candidates for other opposition parties were prevented from standing. "If Kazakhstan is serious about their stated goals of increasing the number of parties in parliament, then the country should have allowed more genuine opposition parties to participate in this election," João Soares, head of the short-term OSCE observer mission and the delegation of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, told journalists in Astana.

While there were fewer reports of electoral violations in this election than in Kazakhstan's April 2011 presidential election, some cases of fraud and other violations were noted. "This election took place in a tightly controlled environment, with serious restrictions on citizens' electoral rights," said Miklós Haraszti, head of the ODIHR's election observation mission. "Genuine pluralism does not need the orchestration we have seen - respect for fundamental freedoms will bring it about by itself."

According to the Central Elections Commission, turnout across the country was 75%, down from the 89% in the 2011 presidential election, suggesting that less pressure was put on people to vote. The level of interest in the election has been low, and although a small demonstration (numbering around 30 people) was organised in Almaty, mass public protests are not expected.

Voting took place in a tense atmosphere in Zhanaozen, where just one month ago on December 16 at least 16 people were shot dead by security forces when police tried to evict striking oil workers from the town square. Zhanaozen is still under a state of emergency and there was a heavy military presence in and around polling stations.

The lowest turnout was in Almaty city, where just 41.38% of registered voters participated in the election. Almaty is Kazakhstan's former capital and the business and cultural centre of the country. Sophisticated Almaty residents tend to be sceptical and cynical about Kazakh politics and the election process. Turnout was also relatively low at 53.3% in Astana. However, in Almaty oblast, turnout reached 92.6% and in several other regions it was over 80%. Kazakh television showed voters queuing at polling stations in the western Atyrau region.

Given that Nur Otan will hold a substantial majority of seats in the new parliament, significant changes in Kazakhstan's political direction are not expected.

Speaking to Nur Otan members, Nazarbayev indicated that the government would push ahead with its existing programmes, as well as working to tackle the expected onset of a second wave of the international economic crisis. "The results of the elections, for we know the preliminary ones, speak for the fact that Kazakhstan continues and will continue its course for the country's development, economic and political modernization, welfare gain of Kazakhstanis, and the most important thing, unity, welfare, mutual understanding and tolerance in the multiethnic society," Nazarbayev told party members.

The biggest question in the coming days will be the composition of the new government, since the current government must resign with the election of a new parliament. Nazarbayev aide Yermukhamed Yertysbayev indicated in December that Karim Massimov, independent Kazakhstan's longest-standing prime minister could be replaced by Deputy Prime Minister Umirzak Shukeyev, or Timur Kulibayev, head of Kazakhstan's sovereign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna and Nazarbayev's son-in-law. Since Kulibayev has been sacked over Samruk-Kazyna's handling of the Zhanaozen strike, this leaves Shukeyev as the most likely candidate.

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