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IWPR and Chatham House Organized a Joint Online Event “Kazakhstan’s First Parliamentary Elections in the Post-Nazarbayev Era”

On December 10, 2020, The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in Central Asia, CABAR.asia analytical platform, and Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Programme organized a virtual round table on the topic “Kazakhstan’s First Parliamentary Elections in the Post-Nazarbayev Era”.

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During the meeting, experts discussed the upcoming parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan, scheduled for January 10, 2021, and looked at the situation from the point of view of both the opposition and governmental authorities.   

The event was opened by Annette Bohr, an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House. After greeting the participants, giving an overview of the situation, and introducing the speakers, Annette Bohr gave the floor to the co-chair of the event – Anthony Borden, IWPR’s Executive director. Borden delivered his welcoming speech and expressed his gratitude to all the partners and participants for joining the event and contributing to the discussion.

Following Borden’s speech, the chair of the event introduced the first speaker Shalkar Nurseitov, a political analyst based in Almaty. Nurseitov gave an overview of Kazakhstan’s current political landscape, talked about the competing parties, and legislative changes to the elections.

Shalkar Nurseitov. Photo: personal archive

Referring to the political ‘reforms’ of Tokayev, Shalkar Nurseitov said that in fact, these were just some “cosmetic changes” to the already existing laws on political parties, peaceful assembly, and elections. “The first law that was passed and signed by Tokayev is the parliamentary opposition bill. This law was designed and promoted by the Ak zhol party represented in the current majlis. This bill gives Nur Otan the right to have a sanctioned rival in Majilis.

The second ‘reform’ is related to the law on elections. The main change, which is promoted as a sign of democratic legalization, is that 30% of the quota on the party list for women and youth was included in the law. But it is worth mentioning that this is required while registration with the central election commission. 

Another change is an amendment to the law of peaceful assembly, and it says that only sanctioned rallies are allowed. Many human rights experts both in Kazakhstan and on the international level say that it is not the law that gives freedom to people.

The last change, which has been named as a reform, is amendments to the law on political parties. As you know in Kazakhstan it is really hard to register a political party with the ministry of justice, and now the government is basically saying that we are decreasing the requirement for membership from forty thousand to twenty thousand supporters” Nurseitov said.

Giving information about the current Majilis Shalkar Nurseitov mentioned that it is represented by three political parties – Nur Otan with 84 seats, Ak zhol with seven seats, and Kazakhstan People’s Party (former Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan) also with seven seats. He added that the Majilis also has The Assembly of People of Kazakhstan which has 9 seats and is headed by Nursultan Nazarbayev, which means Nur Otan actually has 93 seats and not 84.

“Nur Otan is the number one political actor in the upcoming elections. The party recently presented its party list which consists of 126 candidates and 77 of them were picked by the Primaries. 49 members were given an opportunity to be on the list by Nur Otan’s Central Office Quota which includes Dariga Nazarbayeva, Nurlan Nigmatulin, Askar Mamin, and Koshanov, head of Tokayev’s administration.

Nur Otan has also monopolized the news cycle since March 2020. When the Kazakh government started the first lockdown in the middle of March, Nur Otan started the #BizBirgemiz Campaign (We are Together) which they framed as support from the party to impoverished people. Nazarbayev called some oligarchs and other businesspeople in Kazakhstan to join this campaign and since then this campaign has been promoted as the main campaign in Kazakhstan to help people in the challenging time of the pandemic.

Baurzhan Baibek visited several regions of Kazakhstan, but because of the coronavirus stopped his tour around the country. Baibek’s visits to regions have been widely covered by Nur Otan media and state-owned media as well. Recently, Tokayev announced Nur Otan’s 21 million tenge election plan which is also promoted as the big plan to help the impoverished people of Kazakhstan to tackle the challenges of the pandemic. We will see that Baibek, Nazarbayev, Tokayev, and Akims will be campaigning for Nur Otan over the next months.

Another political party that will take part in the elections is Ak Zhol and this party is Nur Otan’s sanctioned rival #1. This party’s list consists of 38 candidates including Azat Peruashev and Dania Yespayeva who is the first female candidate for the presidency. Ak Zhol has portrayed itself as a constructive opposition party and it is worth mentioning that it is led by a former Nur Otan member Azat Peruashev. 

The second sanctioned rival for Nur Ontan is Kazakhstan People’s Party which was developed from the former communist party. Kazakhstan People’s Party list consists of 113 candidates, which is a big number, and interestingly this list is very diverse representing people from all walks of life. In 2016, this party gained 7.18% of votes or seven seats.

The next sanctioned rival of Nur Otan is the Auyl party. The party-list consists of 19 candidates and the party positions itself as a party of hard-working farmers and villagers. One of its activities is signing the memorandum of understanding with professional associations over the last three months. It will be interesting to see how the Auyl party will work if it gets sits in the Majilis.

The fourth party is the Adal party. This is a very interesting case because it is known as the former Birlik Party and it has been very dormant in the previous elections. It participated in the last parliamentary elections and gained only 1% of votes. Timur Kulibayev’s close ally Serik Sultangaliyev leads the party and the party’s list consists of 20 candidates. Recently one of the candidates from the Adal party Eldar Zhumagaziyev said that ‘Our rivals for the upcoming elections are Ak Zhol and Auyl’ not mentioning Nur Otan.

To sum up my points, I can say that the upcoming elections in Kazakhstan can be called the Nazarbayev – Tokayev regime sanctioned elections because of the following reasons. First, in Kazakhstan currently only sanctioned rallies are allowed, only sanctioned political rivals of Nur Otan are allowed to take part in the elections, and only sanctioned organizations are allowed to conduct opinion polls. The main picture here is that Nursultan is very nervous in the upcoming elections because of the upheavals in the neighboring countries and because of the fact that last year many Kazakhstanis went out to the streets after the presidential elections. However, in my opinion, this January we will not see many people going out to the streets because there is no political party trying to capitalize on the popular discontent with the government or Nur Otan, so we will not see the scenarios that we saw in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan” Nurseitov concluded. 

The next speaker, Assem Zhapisheva – a journalist and political activist based in Almaty discussed the upcoming elections from the point of view of the opposition that has been locked out of the process.

Assem Zhapisheva. Photo: personal archive

“The main question for Kazakh opposition in these elections is to gather people on the streets because there has never been a prospect that actual opposition groups will be allowed in the parliament. It has been 15 years since the last political party in Kazakhstan was registered” Zhapisheva said.

According to Assem Zhapisheva, there are currently three main opposition groups in Kazakhstan. First, the formal opposition groups including the Ak Zhol party, Adal (former Birlik) party, and Kazakhstan People’s Party. Zhapisheva added that the Adal party members refused to disclose their funders, but as Adal and Nur Otan are registered by the same address, the question of funding diminishes. The second opposition groups include El Tirege, Uran, and few other movements and they differ from the independent organization by focusing on social reforms and economic problems rather than political issues. The third and smallest group which Zhapisheva called “the real opposition” and which are planning to protest on the election day includes Janbolat Mamayev’s Democratic party, Ablyazov’s Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, and few other groups.

“Ablyazov’s Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan which is considered extremist by the Kazakh authorities has decided to implement the so-called smart vote strategy for this elections. They are urging people to vote for any other party except Nur Otan, but it is not working. The reason is that when Mukhtar Ablyazov urged his followers to vote for the Social Democratic Party the party withdrew themselves from the elections and when he called his people to vote for Ak Zhol, they stopped working on that particular day,” said Zhapisheva.

Analyzing the possibility of upheavals among the Kazakhstanis, Assem Zhapisheva said that she does not expect mass protests after the elections for several reasons. First, the elections are scheduled for January 10 when people are still celebrating New Year with their families at home and would not want to go out in the cold winter days. Second, people in Kazakhstan are not fully interested in the upcoming elections and the opposition will not be able to gather more than 100-200 people.

“For people to go to the streets and protest there should be some triggers and in the case of Kazakhstan, we have two triggers that usually work. The first trigger occurred when Nazarbayev stepped down last spring. The second trigger might be an economic reason and even if some protest happens, they will be connected to money and not politics” Zhapisheva said in conclusion to her speech. 

The last speaker Daniyar Kussainov, who is a political scientist, looked at the upcoming elections in the context of the larger regional picture and compared the situation in Kazakhstan with Belarus and Kyrgyzstan.

Daniyar Kussainov. Photo: personal archive

Daniyar Kussainov started his speech by claiming that it is too early to call the current Kazakhstan post-Nazarbayev era, as Nazarbayev still holds a lot of power and at least two people with the same surname are one of the main actors of these elections.

“What is interesting about these elections is the nervousness of the authorities because of the political unrest in the post-soviet countries such as Belarus and Kyrgyzstan. It is obvious that Belarus is neighboring the EU countries and the influence of the international actors is much greater in Belarus than in Kazakhstan. The fact that Kazakhstan is being stuck between Russia and China does not put Kazakhstan in a favorable position for the involvement of other international actors. Another difference between Belarus and Kazakhstan is the absence of the opposition party that is a contestant for the upcoming elections in Kazakhstan. In Belarus, it was clear that Tikhanovskaya was the symbol of the opposition and we observed the solidarity among the opposition forces, but we do not have a similar situation in Kazakhstan. During the last presidential elections, it was Amirzhan Kosanov who has played the decorative role of opposition. Kosanov even managed to mobilize some protesters to the streets but soon he accepted the election results. Meanwhile, the independent observers who managed to get the protocols from the election committee proved that Kosanov has won in certain districts. So, an oppositional figure does not exist in Kazakhstan neither in terms of personality nor a political party.

Moreover, the weather can also affect the possibility of protests. The weather conditions during the protests in Belarus and in Kyrgyzstan were much favorable than in Kazakhstan. It is very unlikely that people will go out to the streets on these cold days and for the authorities, it is obviously the best time to conduct the elections.

In case of Kazakhstan, we have a limited space for sociological and research institutions to conduct any exit polls and research that would be widespread throughout the country. The polls’ results that we have right now are questionable and they put the Nur Otan in a very favorable position giving them more than 70% of the support. However, according to the data from the Central Asian Barometer, the Nur Otan party has only 30% of support as of now. By comparing this with the 74% support that the party had in 2017 we see the drastic drop of votes for this party.

Comparing Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, we can say that the political situation in these two countries is very different. Kyrgyzstan has a very vibrant civil society, as many NGOs as in all Central Asian countries combined, and it already has experience of revolution in 2010 and 2015. However, in Kazakhstan people do not really see that their actions or protests could lead to significant changes in the political landscape. Moreover, Kyrgyzstan is more dependent on the international aid, so the international organizations and western normative power have more influence on the politics of Kyrgyzstan and obviously, it is not the same in Kazakhstan”.

Concluding his speech Daniyar Kussainov said that he expects to see another “boring elections” and the only thing that would be interesting to observe is the length of the power distribution.

The speaker’s speeches were followed by a Q&A session where participants addressed their questions to the international experts. The final remarks were delivered by Abakhon Sultonazarov IWPR Central Asia regional director, who closed the event by thanking the chair for facilitating the discussion and the speakers for their presentations.

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