Nazarbayev tries to insulate ruling party against rising unpopularity

Nazarbayev tries to insulate ruling party against rising unpopularity
Kazakhstan's ruling Nur Otan party mobilises music and sport celebrities to boost name-recognition in the snap election called for March 20.
By Naubet Bisenov in Almaty February 4, 2016

This article is part of a series looking at the impact of the fall in oil prices on the region's biggest oil producers. The other articles are on Azerbaijan and Russia.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev is taking no chances as economic conditions in Kazakhstan deteriorate rapidly. By dissolving the country's rubber stamp parliament and calling a snap election for March 20 he hopes to minimise the danger of the ruling Nur Otan party suffering a significant loss of support. At the same time Nur Otan's party list is being stuffed with celebrities to try to give it some name recognition.

Nazarbayev called a snap parliamentary election on March 20 after some members of the outgoing parliament urged parliament's dissolution several months ahead of schedule, on the grounds that it would save the budget some €12.5mn to hold elections together with scheduled local elections. 

The real reason, according to Rasul Zhumaly, an Almaty-based independent political analyst, is to try to ensure the ruling party is insulated against rising unpopularity as the economic crisis deepens.

“Early elections undermine trust in the law and the constitution, and the intoxication with them is contrary to the terms set by the constitution and a sign of the lack of confidence in and the unsustainability of the political system. They are a sign of the insecurity of decisions adopted by the authorities,” Zhumaly tells bne IntelliNews. “Bearing in mind the very difficult economic situation which is expected to worsen further this year, at a time of social and even political crises, the authorities will be able to claim that the country has a new parliament and any changes should be expected only in the next election in four or five years.”

As in the early presidential election held in April 2015 when Kazakhstan was entering what Nazarbayev described as the 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.

“This is a decision taken by those at the top, because it is not a spontaneous decision by MPs who all of a sudden showed a lack of confidence in themselves,” Zhumaly explains. “This is proven by the fact that, soon after calling for the dissolution of parliament, these MPs expressed their desire to get into the next parliament and have already been included in the party list of Nur Otan.”

Talking shop

Ninety-eight members of the Kazakh parliament’s lower chamber, the Mazhilis, are elected proportionally from among officially registered parties that pass the 7% threshold. A further nine seats are filled by members 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.

Nur Otan, chaired by the president, held 83 seats in the outgoing parliament, while two other pro-presidential parties, Ak Zhol and Communist People’s Party, had eight and seven MPs respectively. All six officially registered parties are expected to take part in the election to create an impression of a contest.

However, “there is no fundamental difference between five or seven political parties that will be allowed to stand in the election because they all express only one point of view, which is the one of those at the top, although they have different names,” Zhumaly says. “There is no real opposition or truly independent party in Kazakhstan at the moment which would represent the interests of a certain population stratum. Using the trappings of power, authorities don’t register parties, citing various reasons, so only those parties that show absolute loyalty to those at the top are allowed to enter the constitutional field.”

The truly opposition Alga! party is not registered by authorities and its leader Vladimir Kozlov is serving a 7.5-year prison term for allegedly organising protests in the oil town of Zhanaozen in December 2011, which ended with security forces cracking down on the protests, killing at least 16 people.

Because only registered political parties which are pro-presidential are allowed to compete, this undermines the credibility of the election and will discourage voters from taking interest, the political analyst suggests.

“When there is an imitation of a multiparty system with one party and its subsidiaries, we cannot talk about voter enthusiasm and involvement in the election campaign or real debate. As a result, there won’t be a high voter turnout,” Zhumaly suggested in reference to the alleged 95% turnout in the latest presidential election, which Nazarbayev supposedly won with 98% of the vote.

The analyst estimates the real turnout in the forthcoming election at “no more than 15%” as political life in the country – ruled by Nazarbayev for more than a quarter of a century since 1989 when it was still part of the Soviet Union – is “reminiscent of the Brezhnev era stagnation in the Soviet Union, with all its attributes such as a personality cult, and the lack of liberties and pluralism”. “In this situation they [the government] are trying to show that some changes are happening and something is being done in the country. This is an imitation of vigorous activity.”

Name recognition

Nur Otan registered a list of 127 candidates, more than 40% of whom are near the retirement age. The list is peppered with present and former government members and regional governors such as 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 list also includes a constellation of Kazakhstan’s music and sport celebrities which, Zhumaly believes, should boost the popularity of the ruling party, which lacks real public trust and respect.

“The pool of cadres and personalities trusted by the president is narrowing every year and this is confirmed by the fact that Nur Otan’s election list contains a great number of old people,” he says. “That pop singers and famous sportsmen are included in the list also shows that this slim cohort of loyalists doesn’t enjoy sufficient trust and popularity in the country and it doesn’t allow Nur Otan to position itself as a competent and capable force.”

The extensive list of prominent government figures and celebrities will allow Nur Otan to appoint political nobodies to parliament in their place, once the government members take up their posts and celebrities opt to continue their careers in sport or show business. “If Nur Otan were popular enough there would be no need to attract celebrities to boost the party’s name-recognition,” Zhumaly suggests. “Nur Otan’s attempt to substitute its inability to fairly compete and debate topical issues with the popularity of pop singers and sportsmen speaks of the party’s self-esteem.”

Sparks of protest

The announcement of the snap election coincided with occasional protests by a small, but vocal, group of dollar-denominated mortgage holders, whose monthly bills have soared after the nearly 50% drop in the value of the tenge in the past year. The group has seized an opportunity to demand the conversion of their dollar mortgages into tenge ones at a favourable rate. As if in response to the group’s demands, the National Bank said on February 3 that it would extend the refinancing programme until December 1, 2016, and expand a list of banks participating it in. The programme envisages converting mortgages at the pre-August devaluation rate of KZT188.35 to the dollar (the current rate is around KZT370 to the dollar) and reducing the interest to no more than 3% a year.

Analyst Zhumaly believes that despite many potential protest groups in the country – “not just mortgage payers but also public-sector workers, oil workers, jobless, self-employed, miners, farmers and young people and jobless graduates” – their representatives “will not manage to get into the Mazhilis or even local legislative bodies”. Even though independent candidates can stand in local elections, the chances of opposition candidates being elected are very slim as Kazakhstan has never held an election recognised by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a human rights and election watchdog, as “fair and free”.

At the same time, “those at the top should realise that sooner or later they will start facing reality and real public opinion in the country and real processes in society,” Zhumaly concludes.