Kazakhstan: Low election turnout tempers talk of political reset

Kazakhstan: Low election turnout tempers talk of political reset
Tokayev registering ahead of casting his ballot in Astana. / Presidency of Kazakhstan.
By Almaz Kumenov for Eurasianet March 21, 2023

Kazakhstan’s trumpeted full embrace of democratic values has turned out more of a damp squib than a grand fanfare.

Passivity was the prevailing mood in the country’s largest city, Almaty, during snap parliamentary and local elections on March 19. By the time polling stations closed, only 26% of eligible voters had cast their ballot. 

Turnout was a little better nationwide – 54% of the 12mn eligible voters cast their ballot – but still far from impressive. The 63% turnout in January 2021 was itself an underwhelming figure – the lowest since 1999.

Absent was the mass public engagement that a senior advisor to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev alluded to in the run-up to the vote.

The political reforms being carried out by Tokayev, the advisor, Yerlan Karin, wrote on his Telegram account, presage “the renewal of a system of social values, the awakening of civic activity and have contributed to the involvement of citizens in the process of the country’s radical transformation.”

Polling stations in Almaty visited by Eurasianet offered little evidence of that. The voting hall was uncrowded, the members of the voting precinct commission registering the details of arriving voters looked bored, and the authorised vote observers barely looked up from their phones. 

This is perhaps not too surprising. Almaty’s inhabitants are traditionally more sceptical of government initiatives and opposition activity, such as it is, tends to be strongest in the city. It isn’t opposition sentiment that will worry the authorities, however. It is the palpable boredom and indifference that may undermine the credibility of the election. 

Alibek Zhumalinov, a resident of the city’s micro-district No. 3, came to the polling station alone. His parents and sister stayed at home.

“They are busy, everyone has their own things to get on with,” he told Eurasianet. “Besides, no one in my family believes that their votes can affect anything. They are convinced that [the government] has already decided everything for them.” 

The main sales pitch made by officials for this election was that it would usher in a more diverse parliament. Two new parties have been registered in the past few months and, in the most important novelty, 29 of the 98 elected representatives to the Majilis, as the lower house of parliament is known, will be self-nominated and picked by single-member constituencies. The idea of that provision was that some winning candidates might turn out to be independent-thinking types beholden to no party interests.

Zhumalinov was doubtful. He believes only politicians loyal to the government will be able to get into parliament.

Ardak Iskanderova, a homemaker, did not bother voting at all. She told Eurasianet that she didn’t know who the candidates in her constituency were. And even if she did know their names, she still would not have bothered, she admitted.

“I don’t trust anyone. Now they’re promising us hills of gold, but as soon as they win the elections, they will immediately forget about us. That’s how it has always been,” Iskanderova said.

Viktor Nekrasov, who described himself as an art director, was less cynical. He cast his vote for the economist Murat Temirkhanov and expressed disdain for the “populists and sycophants” currently sitting in parliament.

“Our MPs need to focus on solving economic problems and improving our standard of living in these difficult times,” Nekrasov told Eurasianet.

There is a lot at stake for the country’s rulers in this election. Tokayev supporters have presented this as a historic reset of the system created by his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down in 2019 but retained important behind-the-scenes influence. The legacy of that president’s blend of authoritarian rule and cronyism contributed in large part to the startling wave of protests that shook Kazakhstan in the first few days of 2022. Spooked by turbulence that looked briefly as though it might bring an end to a brief spell in the president’s seat, Tokayev soon thereafter began preaching about the need for deep-rooted political reform as he sought to put clear blue water between himself and Nazarbayev. He has loftily dubbed this agenda as the creation of a “New Kazakhstan.” 

Independent vote monitors and representatives of opposition-leaning candidates have said they recorded multiple transgressions on election day. They included the allegedly unjustified expulsion of monitors, the marshalling of college students and state employees to drive up turnout figures, obscuring ballot boxes from the view of observers and bans on photography and filming in polling stations.

The authorities appear eager to be seen as taking these matters seriously.

Science and Higher Education Minister Sayasat Nurbek denied reports of students being compelled to vote.

“We have taken the usual criticism about students being forced to participate in elections … very seriously. Serious instructions have been given to all rectors, deans, and departments,” he said. “Any student can apply directly to [the student rights ombuds office] if they believe that their rights have been infringed or if pressure was exerted.”

The unusually low turnout figure may unwittingly help bolster the credibility of such denials. Although it hardly looks ideal that many have stayed at home, the authorities can now more credibly argue that these elections were organic and not choreographed.

The Prosecutor General's Office said it was investigating cases of voters casting ballots on behalf of relatives.

This may not be enough.

Yelena Shvetsova, director of Erkindik Kanaty, a non-profit group that monitors elections, still sounded shaken when speaking to Eurasianet about how polling station officials in the capital, Astana, had just expelled yet another of her group’s observers – the seventh that day – on bogus grounds. The government is using “administrative resources” to thwart self-nominated candidates in single-mandate districts, she suggested.

“These elections are no different from the previous ones, which were held under Nazarbayev. [We are seeing] endemic violations of the law and of the rights of independent observers. We did not see any ‘New Kazakhstan’ today,” Shvetsova said.

Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.

This article originally appeared on Eurasianet here.