It’s no secret that a victory for Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in the November 20 snap presidential election this weekend is a foregone conclusion. The election model used is one that Kazakh citizens experienced throughout the three-decade reign of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev and when Tokayev won his first guaranteed victory in 2019. In other words, a model that means no real contest.
The seemingly pre-determined election campaign has featured Tokayev and five candidates that do not pose any kind of genuine opposition to the incumbent. Even during the televised debates this week, for which Tokayev himself did not show up, the candidates did not appear to bring up any criticisms of Tokayev or his policies.
Chief economist of Emerging Market Watch (EMW), Metodi Tzanov, said in EMW’s Emerging Markets Insights newsletter this week: “While poll access is not particularly extensive, the available data indicates a landslide victory for Tokayev. He faces no real opposition since all major political parties in Kazakhstan chose to back him. Of the other candidates, the most prominent one is Zhiguli Dairabayev, former head of the Kazakh Farmers Association who was backed by a smaller party (Ayil). Kazakhstan's Social Democratic Party also put forward one of its functionaries, Nurlan Auesbayev, even though it had not contested elections since 2016. The other three candidates are complete underdogs and include a human rights activist, a sociologist, as well as a former tax committee official who is currently active in family institutes.”
In the lead-up to the election, there have been a number of arrests of political activists across the country combined with reports of threats and intimidation tactics used against independent opposition media outlets. These trends are also reminiscent of the Nazarbayev era.
The election this weekend is clearly not a step towards democratic reforms, but rather an ongoing survival plan for Tokayev that emerged after the "Bloody January" political unrest and was exacerbated by political and economic shocks wrought by Russia’s war against Ukraine that started in February.
Tokayev called an early election just as Kazakhstan’s former colonial master found its hands tied with its ongoing bungled invasion of Ukraine. Some observers believe this was no coincidence. Tokayev has a greater chance of consolidating power while Russia’s gaze is away from Kazakhstan, rather than hyper-focused on it. The Kremlin’s preoccupations mean no potential for Russia to repeat a 2014 Ukraine-type involvement in Kazakhstan. In that scenario, pro-Moscow leader Petro Poroshenko won but immediately lost power following protests.
Once elected, Tokayev will have a single term lasting until 2029. As things stand, the effects of his campaign promises, good or bad, should come to pass with no, or minimal, interference from outside forces.
The presidential term will certainly be plagued by challenges amid deteriorating economic conditions. Even now, Tokayev’s regime appears to still fear repeat scenarios of the countrywide unrest that manifested in January.
Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee (locally known as KNB) announced on November 17 that a group of seven people had been arrested after the KNB foiled their plans to "organise riots and a coup and proclaim a provisional government". KNB officials noted that the suspects “share the views of” fugitive banker Mukhtar Ablyazov, who has long rebranded himself as an opposition leader in exile in France.
Though a big self-promoter, Ablyazov poses little threat to the regime, but the authorities use his name to serve as a de facto scapegoat for any kind of actions that prompt the government to crack down on opposition movements. While it is unclear if the seven individuals posed an actual threat, the NSC may have shared the news as a warning to those who might have an actual intention to take part in large-scale protests during the election.
This highlights the Tokayev regime’s willingness to keep carrying a stick, but where is the carrot?
Tokayev has positioned himself as a political reformer, yet his reforms, such as those billed in the referendum that took place earlier this year to apparently strengthen the Kazakh parliament and weaken the presidency, are seen as largely cosmetic. The way this upcoming election has been organised only further proves that Tokayev is not serious about enacting major democratic reforms.
Where his actions in office thus far do point is to the reality that Tokayev does not aspire to become a political reformer, but an economic one with a focus on economic modernisation under authoritarian rule.
This approach is not entirely new to the Kazakh authorities. Even under Nazarbayev, there was a general idea that Kazakhstan should strive to emulate economically successful autocracies such as Singapore, rather than genuinely transform into a democracy over time. Curiously, one of Tokayev’s postings as a diplomat during the Soviet era was to Lee Kwan Yu’s Singapore.
Pushing the image
Even back when he was the de facto “puppet president” of Nazarbayev with much less power after he was elected in 2019, Tokayev publicly pushed the image of a president who is aware of the economic difficulties facing regular Kazakhs who have not, or have hardly, benefitted from the country’s oil-rich status. It’s an image he has been trying to enhance this image this year while consolidating power and, given the message sent by the unrest, cracking down on a number of “Nazarbayev clan” members, namely both Nazarbayev relatives and allies.
It is hard to tell whether Tokayev’s policies, which he claims are meant to root out the former “oligarchic capitalism” seen under Nazarbayev, will ultimately be felt by the Kazakh population—especially amid global trends that have levels of food price inflation in Kazakhstan at towards 20%. But Tokayev is certainly attempting to draw in more foreign investment, particularly from the West, amid the weakening of Russia’s status as the leader of the former Soviet Union and domestic fears that Kazakhstan could be next on Russia’s list of territories to “re-take” after Ukraine.
Kazakhstan’s Chamber of Commerce this month launched an investment promotion campaign, citing investor interest from various Western investment companies and financial institutions, on the back of investor appetite that has unquestionably grown in the midst of the sanctions imposed on Moscow and the exodus of many regional corporate headquarters from Russia.
Not only has Tokayev been focusing on solidifying Kazakhstan’s key role along the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR, or the “Middle Corridor”)—which in connecting China to Europe avoids Russia and also takes in Azerbaijan and Georgia or Turkey—he's also been trying to grab some of the foreign investors Russia lost after it launched its war in Ukraine.
Last month, Kazakh Prime Minister Alikhan Smaiylov briefed reporters that more than 50 international firms have relocated from Russia to Kazakhstan since Moscow invaded Ukraine in late February, while another 56 that have exited Russia in recent months had "expressed their willingness to settle in Kazakhstan".
But can Tokayev’s Kazakhstan maintain the momentum of relevance beyond its role as an “alternative” to Russia?
Responding to this question, CEO of independent strategic business consultancy Macro-Advisory, Chris Weafer, told bne IntelliNews in emailed comments that “Kazakhstan has now emerged as an attractive investment location in its own right and not just as part of the Russia story.”
“Investors look for the combination of ‘economic predictability’ and ‘political stability’ as basic conditions for investing in any emerging market,” Weafer noted. “Under President Tokayev and thanks to strong export-led government cash-flow, those two conditions are now firmly evident in Kazakhstan. The same criteria can no longer be applied to Russian assets nor to most of the other Eurasian states.”
However, risk sensitivities remain for investors in the long-term, Weafer noted.
“There are some bad legacy issues, e.g. involving corruption and crony capitalism, which investors remember and worry whether sufficient change has taken place to prevent such episodes repeating,” Weafer said. “The government has already made great strides, e.g. with the Astana Financial Centre and the adoption of international laws, but it will have to continue to demonstrate how much the country has changed and the actions taken to prevent any discriminatory actions against foreign investors in the future.”
Of course, outside providing guarantees to Western investors, Tokayev will also have to continue maintaining a balancing act between a shaky partnership with Russia and the growing relevance on China in Kazakhstan’s economy, as both entities are likely to see an over-involvement of Western investment in Kazakhstan as a threat to their own interests.
Given such challenges coming from the outside and socio-economic anxieties growing inside the country, Tokayev is set to face a difficult seven-year term that may or may not succeed at bringing about the rapid changes desired by foreign investors and the Kazakh people.