Nazarbayev cruises towards victory in early Kazakh election

By bne IntelliNews April 24, 2015

Naubet Bisenov in Almaty -


Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s incumbent president, is set to get re-elected for another five-year term in a dull, competition-free and uneventful campaign. The main question in the early election is whether Nazarbayev will have a landslide that is bigger than the previous record-setting 95.6% of the vote on a 90% turnout.

The constant portrayal by the Kazakh state-run media of Nazarbayev as the only guarantor of prosperity and stability will help his re-election, but the lack of real alternatives in the election, tight media controls and the crushing of the opposition following the Zhanaozen violence in December 2011 are also significant factors.

“The election campaign is quiet and seemingly uncompetitive. While there are two candidates running against Nazarbayev, they are unknown. The fact is there is no genuine opposition candidate in this election,” Rico Isaacs, senior lecturer in international studies at Oxford Brooks University, tells bne IntelliNews.

“The campaign began on 26 March, but has been hardly visible so far,” OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Election Observation Mission said in its interim report published on April 16.

The logic behind the snap election is economic, as the authorities feared Nazarbayev’s re-election next year might have been spoilt by the deteriorating situation in the country’s economy which is heavily dependent on the price of oil. “The election was seemingly called ahead of schedule in an effort to avoid holding an election next year during what looks like is going to be potentially choppy times economically,” Isaacs believes. “Perhaps the authorities were thinking it is better to get the ‘democratic process’ out of the way rather than holding it during a time of economic trouble and the potential for social instability and political uncertainty which can come with challenging economic times.”

Nazarbayev is facing two unknown candidates who are widely believed to be stalking horses designed to give an impression of competition and alternative. Turgun Syzdykov, a candidate from the pro-Nazarbayev People’s Communist party, and Abelgazi Kusainov, an independent, pose no meaningful challenge.

Zharylkap Kalybay, an editor of Kazakh-language magazines and a vocal critic of Nazarbayev's pro-Russian policies and integration with Russia within the framework of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), who might have been something of a challenge, was disqualified from standing in the election for failing to collect nearly 91,000 signatures (1% of the electorate) in his support.

Syzdykov has campaigned on social equality and anti-Western sentiments, while Kusainov’s platform is based on environmental issues and labour rights, but observers say Nazarbayev’s election rivals have failed to capitalise on the current developments in the country such as floods in central Kazakhstan or expectations of a devaluation of the national currency, the tenge, to boost their voter recognition.

“I’m for the current president because he’s given us stability. That’s his main legacy to us. For the moment I don’t see any other worthy candidates,” Guliraykhan Rakhmanova, a young housewife in her twenties, told bne IntelliNews.

“We’ve got a president who suits us well. Why do we need someone else?” says Olga Sharafitdinova, young woman from Almaty.

The pro-Nazarbayev sentiment on the ground is however compounded with general voter apathy to the hastily-called election, largely because of ordinary people’s belief that Nazarbayev’s re-election is a foregone conclusion.

The Central Election Commission and other government bodies have employed all means available to remind voters of the election and to get them out to vote: this includes traditional billboards and relatively new means such as text messaging and campaign vans with loudspeakers. A low turnout would cause a headache for the election organisers who would be compelled to employ a tested-and-trusted measure – vote rigging – to ensure a record-breaking landslide and turnout.

“The intrigue of the campaign is its complete uneventfulness. Everybody knows who is going to win and there are no genuine opposition candidates,” Isaacs says. “The biggest question is what percentage is Nazarbayev going to get?”

Nazarbayev has increased his percentage at every successive presidential election since 1999, winning the previous election in 2011 with nearly 96% of the vote. “Anything less than what he got last time might create the impression of a decline in popularity and that is not a narrative the authorities would want to see gain any traction,” Isaacs explains.

Kazakhstan has never held presidential or parliamentary election deemed by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe as free and fair since it obtained independence in 1991. The Kazakh constitution limits presidency to two five-year terms, but the 2007 constitutional amendments abolished this requirement for Nazarbayev, allowing him to be president for life.

Aidos Sarym, an Almaty-based independent political analyst, believes that the percentage Nazarbayev will win his re-election “actually means nothing”. “There can never be such high level of support,” he tells bne IntelliNews. At the same time, the analyst believes that Nazarbayev would have won an election with two-thirds of votes even if a Kazakh election complies with the best Western election standards. “These two-thirds of votes will be more than enough for him to feel secure,” Sarym says, referring to forecasts that Nazarbayev will receive an even higher share of voters compared to his previous performance. To be elected a candidate needs to receive more than half of votes cast. “Life is more complicated and society is stratified. If tomorrow it turns out that there is no 96% of support, there will be a huge disappointment, let alone the outside world’s disbelief in such figures altogether.”


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