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How Parliament of Kazakhstan has Changed: From Majority System to Party Lists

The election of the new members of the lower house of Kazakhstan parliament was held on schedule on January 10 for the first time in 16 years. Although, this process could hardly be called the election: independent candidates could not be elected, whereas opposition parties in Kazakhstan were denied registration under the pretext of incorrectly completed documents.

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The key issue for registered parties is the unreachable 7 per cent threshold. Only five of six registered parties took part in this year’s election (OSDP announced boycott and refused to observe the election). Two of them, «Adal» and «Auyl», failed to win the required number of votes. As a result, three parties made it to the Mazhilis (lower house of parliament): «Nur Otan», «Ak Zhol», and «People’s Party of Kazakhstan» (former communists – author’s note).

The election did not cause any surprise: the parliament has had a nominal ‘multiplicity of parties’ for the last few convocations with highly disciplined opposition that rarely objects to the key party. The election showed that this model was fine for all parties concerned and must be retained.

The election on the last day of the New Year holidays did not arouse any enthusiasm. The key question asked by voters on social media before voting was not «who should I vote for?», but «what’s more useful: a boycott or «smart voting» for any candidate that has all chances to win the seats of the ruling party?» The  «official» voter turnout was reported as 63.3 per cent, while the unofficial voter turnout was 44.7 per cent (according to «Sandzh» independent think tank).

Members of the Mazhilis in Kazakhstan are elected for five years if the election is regular. In the recent history of Kazakhstan, members of the lower house have «served» full term twice – in the third convocation of 2004 and in the current sixth convocation.

The election system of Kazakhstan has changed a few times. In 1995, a two-chamber parliament was established. The first convocation of the Mazhilis of 1995 consisted of 67 members elected under the majority system, i.e. each candidate is voted for individually.

Back in 1999, the constitution of Kazakhstan was amended: now the number of seats in the parliament is 77, including 67, as before, for deputies elected under the single member constituency, and 10 elected under party lists.

The article that election is deemed valid only with 50 per cent of voter turnout was removed from the basic law. From now on, every election is deemed valid regardless of the number of citizens who come to cast a vote.

In May 2007, the constitution was amended again: now the Mazhilis has 107 seats, including 9 for independent deputies elected by the Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan, and the rest 98 for deputies elected by party lists based on the universal, equal and direct suffrage.

Independent candidates now cannot nominate themselves and must join any registered party in order to take part in the election.

However, it is difficult to register a party: 40 thousand signatures must be collected. In 2019, this number is reduced to 20 thousand, although opposition parties will still face obstacles. For example, when journalist Zhanbolat Mamai announced his intention to establish the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan (DPK), his followers and he faced some tension: the akimat representatives visited the activists; they were summoned for questioning; many followers were detained on their way to Almaty before the constituent congress announced in February 2020, thus preventing the DPK from holding the congress.

Youth’s and women’s political participation

The quota system was introduced at the election of January 10, 2021 for the first time. According to the recent initiative, at least 30 per cent of a party list must be women and young people.

In fact, if we take a look at the change in the gender composition of the lower house of parliament in the last 25 years, we’ll see that the number of women is increasing, although men still dominate.

Twenty nine women became the deputies of the sixth convocation – the maximum number in the whole history of independent Kazakhstan – still under one-third of all parliamentarians, even though the number of women in the country is half a million more than men.

It’s worth mentioning that the idea of quota has been criticised by many people. When the law on political parties was proposed for setting a 30 per cent quota for young people under 29 years old in the parliament, the chair of community board of the justice ministry Serik Akylbai said the initiative «turned the legislative body into a kindergarten.» According to him, «serious people» must take seats in the parliament, and young people cannot be serious.

However, the quotas were approved, yet in a different form: they grouped young people with women. The supporters of the quota system criticised this idea because two different demographic groups that needed support were consolidated into one group fighting for seats.

Moreover, young people and women listed in party lists make no difference: after all, it is not about distribution of seats in parliament, as was proposed earlier, which means that quota system does not mean to change anything.

Explanation: usually, if voting is carried out under party lists, the first n candidates become deputies (in other words, if a party gets nominal 40 seats in parliament, the first 40 individuals on the list become the parliamentarians). In Kazakhstan, a party selects its deputies from the already approved party list after the election.

It means that seats in the Mazhilis can be assigned in any way and quotas won’t be of any use:  even if there is a sufficient number of women and young people on the party list, they won’t necessarily be shortlisted for the final list of deputies from the party. A voter does not influence the final selection of deputies: the citizens may elect a party based on the proposed list of candidates to the members of the Mazhilis, and the party has the decisive vote.

On the other hand, the problem of representation of young people in politics needs a solution. According to article 51 of the Constitution of Kazakhstan, the members of the Mazhilis may be citizens at the age of 25 and older that have a citizenship of Kazakhstan and residing in the country for the last ten years. However, despite the rules looking soft, it is not that easy for the young people to get into politics judging by the age composition of the parliament.

There was no deputy under 30 in the sixth convocation of the Mazhilis, and only half of the members of the Mazhilis were under 50 in all previous convocations (except the first one: information about age composition is unavailable – author’s note).

In fact, the quota system, as expected, did not change the picture: the median age of a parliamentarian – 53 years old – is in line with the existing trend.

Out of 107 members of the Mazhilis of the seventh convocation, only 5 are under 35 years old, including the youngest deputy in the history of modern Kazakhstan – 25-year-old Madi Akhmetov, who is renowned for asking Nursultan Nazarbayev  «on behalf of the young people» «to let them erect the monument to you on the Nazarbayev avenue in Almaty as you are the founder of our state […].»

As to women, there is one less woman. After all, 30 per cent of seats in the Mazhilis belong to women and young people under 35 years old. By the way, in the last convocation, the consolidated group amounted to 28 per cent (4 out of 5 young members of the Mazhilis were women) without any quotas.

A short yet long term of a member of the Mazhilis

The parliamentary mandate in Kazakhstan is granted for five years, yet there are no restrictions in the terms of members of the Mazhilis – they can remain being legislators for two, three, and more terms in a row, which is practised by some of them.

In the sixth convocation, almost 40 per cent of deputies were re-elected. In 2016, two of the deputies were re-elected for their fifth term in a row, in other words, they have been the members of the Mazhilis since 1999, one deputy has been re-elected for the fourth term in a row.

In the new Mazhilis, two deputies were re-elected for the fourth term, and one was re-elected for the fifth term. But the approximate ratio between the first elected and experienced members of the Mazhilis remains the same.

Post factum reforms

The president of the country Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev promised to announce new political reforms on January 15. In his speech, he mentioned two initiatives regarding the elections to the Mazhilis: reduction of the threshold for the parties from 7 to 5 per cent and introduction of the earlier cancelled «against all» column. A reasonable question arises: why these ideas are being proposed just now, after the election, and why wait for five more years?

However, five-year term is not a binding option. We should always keep in mind extraordinary elections knowing the voting history of Kazakhstan.

Focus on good results

In 2020, the parliament of Kazakhstan worked over many draft laws concerning various spheres of our life. As a result, the number of laws endorsed by the president of the country was 106. 59 of them were relating to the amendments to current laws of various levels of importance.

Moreover, in 2020 the Senate (the upper house of parliament) rejected no laws. No data in this column is available on the website.

As to the laws return to the Mazhlis, there were 15 of them in 2020. There were various acts and regulations among them. For example, the Senate returned the Code of Health, for improvement, draft laws on peaceful gatherings, on amending and modifying some laws by results of the president’s message as of September 1. 

How laws are made in Kazakhstan?

The algorithm of actions to initiate a law in the country is prescribed in the decree of the government of Kazakhstan. For one thing, a draft law may not be initiated by common people – only by deputies of the parliament. But even in this case, there is a strict procedure for making new laws.

First, a draft initiative is being developed. It should take into account the president’s message, provisions of the annual message of the Constitutional Council, Supreme Court, state programmes or programmes approved by the Government, materials of research conferences, workshops and researches, messages of non-governmental organisations, and information published by the media.

Then, the initiative is published on the website  of open laws and regulations. Meanwhile, the document is referred to expert boards and the National Chamber of Entrepreneurs with a notice of its publication. Also, the draft law is analysed and the text and concept of the draft law is referred to the Ministry of Justice. Then the concept is reviewed at the session of the interagency committee. If approved, a working group on draft law is created. This is the way how the initiative turns into a draft law.

However, these are not all required actions. In addition to a vast number of analyses of legal systems, international experience, financial calculations, there are lists of specific arguments proving the relevance of the draft law.

The process of initiation of laws includes a series of expert evaluations, analyses, submissions to various authorities concerned and holding public hearings, publication of the draft law, its coordination with the president’s administration. Only after these steps, the Mazhilis of the parliament considers it. This is the second stage – consideration of the draft law.

If the draft bill is passed by the majority of votes (at least two-thirds of votes for constitutional laws) of deputies of the Mazhilis, it is submitted to the Senate, which considers the draft law within 60 days. Once approved by the majority, the law is passed.

The Senate may decline the draft law and make amendments to it (by majority vote). Once members of the Mazhilis agree with amendments, the draft law is again submitted to the Senate. If the draft law is declined for the second time, it won’t be considered at the current session. If the members of the Mazhilis do not agree with amendments and modifications of the Senate, the disagreements will be solved by conciliation procedures.

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