Zhanaozen tragedy overshadows Kazakh parliamentary elections

By bne IntelliNews January 13, 2012

Clare Nuttall in Almaty -

The result of the January 15 parliamentary elections is not in doubt, but Kazakhstan goes to the polls in a less stable situation than it has been for many years, with the risk of popular protests if the election is perceived as farcical. Given the decision to schedule an early election was aimed at avoiding unrest, recent events such as the Zhanaozen tragedy could mean the move backfires spectacularly.

The vote is taking place less than a month after Kazakhstan's independence day, when at least 16 people were killed in clashes between striking oil workers and police in the western oil town of Zhanaozen.

Three opposition parties - Alga! DVK, the Communist Party and Rukhaniyat - have been prevented from standing in the elections to Kazakhstan's lower house of parliament, the Mazhilis. Of the six parties standing against the ruling Nur Otan party, some are too closely aligned to the regime and have too small a following to give an outlet to anger and frustration against the authorities. If, for the first time, the Zhanaozen tragedy has mobilised public opinion against the government, this is more likely to be played out on the streets of west Kazakhstan rather than in the ballot boxes.

Blood on the streets

For Kazakhs, the shootings were reminiscent of the Zheltoksan uprising in December 1986, one of the first mass protests against Soviet rule, which was violently put down. Bloodshed on the scale of the Zhanaozen tragedy is unprecedented in independent Kazakhstan, and the country is still coming to terms with what happened. Together with a series of terrorist attacks, most of them also in the oil-rich west, this has shattered Kazakhstan's record of stability.

As politicians in Astana delivered their speeches congratulating the government on its achievements, fighting broke out in Zhanaozen when police tried to clear the central square of demonstrators so that the 20th anniversary celebrations could go ahead. This followed seven months of strike action, but what had started as an industrial dispute over pay and conditions became steadily dirtier. KazMunaiGas and its subsidiaries at the Uzen oilfield sacked more than 1,000 strikers. A lawyer representing the strikers was imprisoned, journalists covering the story have been attacked and beaten, and there have been several unexplained deaths around the strike, including the murder of Zhansaule Karabalayeva, the 18-year-old daughter of one of the strike leaders.

When Kazakhstan's parliament proposed that the elections, originally scheduled for August, be brought forward, they cannot have predicted the events in Zhanaozen. On the contrary, Kazakhstan's politicians had been hoping to get the elections quickly and calmly out of the way before an expected second wave of the international economic crisis hit later in 2012. They also wanted to give the parliament a veneer of democracy by allowing a second party to take seats alongside Nur Otan.

The result of the elections is a foregone conclusion. The Nur Otan, which currently holds all 98 of the seats in the parliament that are filled by popular vote, will retain a large majority. Kazakhstan's electoral rules have been changed to allow the runner-up in the election to also take seats even if it does not pass the 5% threshold. Speaking in November, even before a date for the election was set, presidential aide Ermukhamet Ertysbayev told Interfax-Kazakhstan: "Nur Otan will come first in the future elections, followed by Ak Zhol."

This is borne out by an opinion poll carried out by Almaty-based think-tank Alternativa in early January. 72.2% of the 1,200 respondents said they planned to vote for Nur Otan and 14.3% for Ak Zhol, a one-time opposition party that has become increasingly close to the ruling regime. Only 2.5% of respondents said they would vote for the next most popular party, the Communist People's Party of Kazakhstan.

Opposition party Alga! DVK has for the last decade failed to register with the authorities, and is unable to take part in the election. Two other parties have also been prevented from standing. On October 4, the Communist Party was banned from any activity for six months by an Almaty court because of its leader Gaziz Aldamzharov's involvement with Halyk Maidany, an unregistered organisation supporting the Zhanaozen strikers. Rukhaniyat, the Green Party, was deregistered by the Central Election Commission (CEC) on December 26, ostensibly over legal problems with its party list. The party's leaders had criticised the handling of the situation in Zhanaozen.

A report from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), which is monitoring the elections, criticises the CEC's decision. "Rukhaniyat was not given the opportunity to present its position. The CEC press release regarding the decision was prepared and distributed before the session started," the report says.

Sunday's election may well follow a similar pattern to the April 2011 presidential election, which was severely criticised by the OSCE/ODIHR. President Nursultan Nazarbayev was returned to office with 95.5% share of the vote, and the post-election report listed widespread violations including ballot-box stuffing, carousel voting and pressure put on students and state employees to vote for the president. Official figures said turnout was 89%, but election observers said privately it was closer to 30%; there has been a similar level of disinterest in much of the country in the run-up to this election.

The exception is west Kazakhstan, where the Zhanaozen tragedy was followed by riots in the nearby town of Shetpe and demonstrations in the regional capital Aktau - both highly unusual in Kazakhstan. Residents of Zhanaozen, despite living under a state of emergency until January 31, will be able to vote on Sunday, after Nazarbayev reversed a decision by the CEC.

While they and other angry voters, particularly in the west of the country, will not be able to express their anger through the ballot boxes, if this election is perceived to be as fraudulent as the last one it could be a problem for the authorities. The decision to schedule an early election was made well before the Zhanaozen tragedy, with the aim of avoiding unrest; it could spectacularly backfire.

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