Kazakhstan launches election campaign amid voter apathy

Kazakhstan launches election campaign amid voter apathy
President Nursultan Nazarbayev's authoritarian rule has created a thriving personality cult in Kazakhstan and led to the disappearance of genuine opposition.
By Naubet Bisenov in Almaty February 23, 2016

Kazakhstan officially launched campaigning for the March 20 early parliamentary election on February 20, but despite the efforts by state propaganda to sell the election as key to overcoming economic hardship, voters show apathy and indifference as they believe a new parliament will make little difference.

On February 19 the Central Election Commission completed the registration of lists of candidates submitted by political parties and registered lists of 234 candidates fielded by six political parties. Ninety-eight members of the Kazakh parliament’s lower chamber, the Mazhilis, are elected proportionally from among officially registered 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 strongman President Nursultan Nazarbayev and serves as a demonstration of the country’s supposedly successful multi-ethnic policy.

The country’s six officially-registered political parties intend to take part in the election but only three – the ruling Nur Otan and two other pro-presidential parties, Ak Zhol and Communist People’s Party (KNPK) – held seats in the previous parliament (83, eight and seven mandates respectively). Nur Otan, chaired by Nazarbayev, fielded 127 candidates from among government members, regional governors and celebrities; Ak Zhol – 35, KNPK – 22, National Social-Democratic Party (OSDP) – 23, Auyl – 19 and Birlik registered eight candidates.

No difference in parties

The lack of political contest and debate in the country and the crushing of political opponents and suppression of dissent under Nazarbayev’s rule for over a quarter of a century means there is essentially no difference between the political parties. The only distinguishing factor is the degree of their support for Nazarbayev and his policies. This is reflected in lists of candidates political parties compiled for the election: even the ruling Nur Otan struggled without beefing up the numbers with pop and sport celebrities, while the lists of other parties only have a handful of recognisable political figures, if any.

In addition to political apathy, as in the early presidential election held in April 2015 when Kazakhstan was entering what Nazarbayev described as its worst crisis, the current parliamentary poll is taking place against the background of a significant slowdown in the oil-based economy caused by a double whammy of low commodity prices and economic troubles in the country’s main trading partners – Russia, China and the EU. As a result, living standards are rapidly deteriorating: the population’s real incomes fell year on year by 2.2% in October, 5% in November and 7.8% in December 2015.

“I have heard about the early election but I have no idea what it is about,” Aybek, a 30-year-old businessman enjoying a balmy winter weekend with his family in Almaty’s First President’s Park told bne IntelliNews. “I haven’t heard of the start of the election campaign and I am not aware of parties standing in the election.”

Foreign spectre

Perhaps in order to overcome the population’s indifference to politics in general, and the current election in particular, the communist KNPK launched their campaign with a stunt aimed at the West – a ploy intended to rally parts of the electorate brainwashed by the Kremlin-controlled Russian media. On February 21 young activists of the People’s Communist Party’s Almaty city branch protested against the “Western culture of violence” by destroying a pile of video tapes and discs with foreign films that “symbolise the destructive culture of the Western film industry”. Real protests are a rarity in Kazakhstan as the cumbersome bureaucratic procedures make it almost impossible to air legitimate grievances in public.

Celebrities to deal with economic problems

Almagul, a middle-aged businesswoman, said she was aware of the election campaign but did not know whether it had started or not. She also admitted she did not know who she would cast her vote for but said that authorities had called an early parliamentary election to improve the economic situation in the country. “I believe the authorities think the election is somehow going to solve the economic crisis that is why they want us to vote,” she said. “On the other hand, I have not been affected by the crisis so far.”

Much younger voters said they were perfectly aware of the election and boasted they could even recognise a few candidates fielded by parties. “If [pop singer] Kayrat Nurtas is indeed standing in the election he will definitely sweep the votes,” said a 19-year-old college student who gave her name as Aygerim, referring to Nur Otan’s celebrity-studded party list. “But I don’t think pop singers will make good legislators.”