Voter turnout seen low in Kazakhstan's foregone conclusion

By bne IntelliNews March 31, 2011

Clare Nuttall in Almaty -

With Kazakhstan's presidential election on April 3 sure to result in victory for President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled for two decades, the only real question is how low the turnout will be.

The pre-election campaign period has been quiet, and apathy among voters - who assume Nazarbayev will be returned to office whether they vote on or not - is widespread. The three candidates standing against him have all at some point expressed a hope that the president will be re-elected, while opposition groups such as Alga! DCK are urging their supporters to boycott the poll.

Even holding an election was, for a time, in doubt. In January, both of Kazakhstan's houses of parliament voted unanimously in favour of holding a referendum, rather than an election, on allowing Nazarbayev to continue in office until 2020. However, on January 31 the Constitutional Council declared the plan was in violation of the constitution and Nazarbayev announced he would not use his presidential veto to overturn the council's decision. Instead, on February 2, the parliament voted in favour of amendments to the constitution that would allow him to call an early election, which is what will be held on April 3.

The reasons behind the proposal for a referendum to extend Nazarbayev's term in office, and the subsequent decision to drop the idea and hold an early presidential election, have never been revealed. However, the government is clearly seeking a fresh mandate, possibly either to pursue a new socio-economic course or to resolve a power struggle between rival regional elites. But this plan could backfire if few people turn out to vote.

The candidates

Some 22 candidates threw their hats into the ring when the elections were announced, but several withdrew while others failed the Kazakh language test set for potential candidates. Standing against the president are Gani Kasymov, leader of the Party of Patriots and a Nazarbayev appointment to Kazakhstan's upper house of parliament, the Senate; Mels Yeleusizov of the Tabagat environmental movement; and Zhambyl Akhmetbekov, leader of the Communist People's Party of Kazakhstan.

A report from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), highlights the farce of the elections. "The three candidates standing against incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbayev have all expressed the hope that Nazarbayev will be re-elected, and are using the process to promote specific causes," says the report released on March 25. Yeleusizov is using the campaign to promote environmental issues in Kazakhstan, while Kasymov tells bne that he is aiming to position his party for the next parliamentary elections due in 2012.

Nazarbayev is widely popular in Kazakhstan, where he is known as "Papa". He has ruled the country since independence 20 years ago, and for most of the last decade presided over a steady rise in living standards. His role in ensuring good relations between Kazakhstan's various ethnic groups, and good international relations, is increasingly prized in the light of Kyrgyzstan's two revolutions, and the turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East. For many people, the concern is not the result of the current election, but what will happen after his rule ends - he is now 70 years old.

Don't vote!

However, the lack of any real challenge from the opposition candidates is keeping people away from the ballot box. In an attempt to mobilise voters, Kazakh celebrities were recruited to the "Vote for Kazakhstan" campaign. Several of Kazakhstan's most popular signers, including Dilnaz Ahmadieva and Medea Arynbaev, recorded a song by the same name, urging young people, "Don't stand aside, it's for you to decide the fate of the country."

The campaign was intended to counter the "Don't Vote" movement launched by the unregistered Alga! DVK party and the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, together with several high-profile journalists and political activists. Other opposition parties including OSDP Azat and Ak Zhol decided not to field candidates, but are not taking part in the boycott campaign either. "We don't see any genuine opposition candidates in this election. Nazarbayev needed backing dancers, and they are executing their roles," Alga! DVK leader Vladimir Kozlov tells bne. "We do not consider the elections to be legal. Premature elections are only supposed to take place if the president is unable to execute his powers. This is not an election, it's a campaign to prolong the term of the president."

Since independence, support for the opposition in Kazakhstan has been relatively small, a fact that Kozlov attributes to lack of information and under-developed civil society. "There is a very simple reason for the lack of opposition in Kazakhstan. We have a lot of oil and gas, metals, gold and uranium. Therefore - unlike in Kyrgyzstan - we do not have to bow to western pressure on press freedom and democratisation in order to attract investments," Kozlov says. He hopes that turnout will be as low as 15%.

Meanwhile, presidential candidate Kasymov has slammed the boycott movement. "I have stood for the presidency, for the parliament, in many elections," he tells bne. "I never saw a situation where people were told to boycott, not to vote."

The report from the OSCE/ODIHR says the campaign is taking place in an "uncompetitive environment" that is dominated by Nazarbayev's Nur Otan party. It also points out that while the rival candidates largely receive equal coverage in the broadcast media, there is considerable extra coverage of Nazarbayev in his capacity as president as well as advertisements promoting the achievements of the 20 years of Kazakhstan's independence under his rule. "No apparent distinction is made between the incumbent as a candidate and his position as the president," says the report. "The incumbent's campaign posters and billboards are visible in large numbers in all major settlements, displayed on public and private buildings. By contrast, the other candidates' campaigns are barely visible, due to lack of funds and limited organizational capabilities."

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