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Kazakhstan: Fair Elections are Impossible Without Reforms of the Electoral System

«Under favorable political circumstances, a correctly chosen electoral system, through the representation of the opposition and the emergence of genuine competition, can contribute to the gradual democratization of the regime», – political analyst Dimash Alzhanov, notes in his article written specifically for CABAR.asia.

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The use of one particular electoral system in different countries may have different effects. Photo: parlam.kz

Authoritarian context of elections 

Since independence in Kazakhstan, rare elections have been held in a competitive environment and in accordance with democratic standards. Without serious checks and balances, the Kazakh authorities easily changed the electoral system and introduced various legislative restrictions, including on party activities, in order to guarantee their political dominance. Studies show that this practice is, to one degree or another, characteristic of many authoritarian regimes.[1] Since, by adapting the electoral rules to your needs, one can directly limit the access of political opponents in parliament. It also helps to significantly reduce political competition, keep the opposition in a weak state and influence the outcome of the elections.

For example, after a split in the elites and the creation of the opposition movement “Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan” (DCK) in 2001, the authorities reacted by adopting a new law “On Political Parties” in 2002 (currently in action). The task of the law was to prevent the organized opposition from entering the legal field. The law introduced severe restrictions on the creation and registration of political parties. Thus, in fact, hindering the emergence and strengthening of opposition associations, capable of challenging power in a legal field. The regime managed to co-opt some of the DCK rivals into a more loyal to regime party, the Ak Zhol, which was registered as a technical opponent in 2004. A year later, the party was split again. The fate of the opposition Communist Party which at that time began to occupy the niche of the only real opposition force. Thus, the political spectrum on the part of political forces opposing the authorities was significantly fragmented and weakened.

During the 2004 parliamentary elections, for the first time, there was a tendency for the emergence of one dominant party in power. Prior to this, although formally, the government had always worked through a series of parties loyal to the president. In such a scheme, all loyal parties were integrated into a single pro-government block, without obvious differences. In a situation of complete political vacuum, the party of the former president’s daughter, “Asar”, began to actively promote itself as the first pro-presidential party. Following the results of the 2004 elections, the party won four seats in the Majilis (lower house of the parliament of Kazakhstan). The presence of a parliamentary party with huge media resources in the face of his daughter (and hence the son-in-law, with whom certain frictions have already been outlined) began to introduce imbalance in the authoritarian structure of power and intra-elite relations around the president. Feeling the threat Nazarbayev decided to combine a potential competitor and other pro-government parties into one big party. So in 2006, the presidential party Otan, having absorbed the other three (Asar, Civil and Agrarian ~ Асар, Гражданскую и Аграрную), became the dominant party and was renamed to Nur Otan.[2] From this moment, the regime abandoned the idea of ​​controlled multi-party system in favor of a more closed system with one large batch and several technical ones.

Under the newly constructed party field with the dominant party in power, the electoral system was also changed. A proportional election system (PS) with party lists and a single national district was introduced in 2007, replacing the mixed one. The PS fully corresponded to the interests of the regime, as it allowed only registered / allowed political parties to participate in parliamentary elections, control over which could be conducted from one center – Akorda. Self-nomination of independent candidates was canceled, and the admission of oppponents to the elections was controlled by the authorities through a very complicated procedure of party registration. As a result, elections, as a possible way to mobilize citizens to challenge the authorities, have become less dangerous for the regime, and their results became more predictable.

It is significant that the results of the 2007 parliamentary elections were one of the most depressing in all modern history. Parliament came out as a one-party. Nur Otan received 88.41% of the vote (98 seats). A similar result was technically possible due to the use of PS elections. The dumping of ballots in some regions to compensate for the low turnout in others affected the total turnout exceeding 100% in some areas.[3] For the next elections to the Majilis (2012, 2016), moderate opposition represented by the “National Social Democratic Party” (OSDP) and “Azat” were completely marginalized, and the elections themselves were without a hint of competition.[4] This ensured the total dominance of the presidential party “Nur Otan” in parliament. Against this background, in 2018 the “successful” use of PS was extended to local elections.

The recent wave of protests in the society, which began after Nazarbayev formally resigned as president, has led to the emergence of new organizations and movements in the country. Many of them took part in observing the presidential election, and also actively protested after the announcement of their results. Numerous facts of fraud were captured and widely dispersed in social networks and the media. In response, a number of new organizations and movements have put forward an agenda for political change, including reform of the electoral system and the transition to a parliamentary republic.

Erosion of the electoral system and competition

When introducing the PS of the elections, the government referred to the “Duverger Law”, according to which the MS (of relative majority) tends to form a bipartisan system, and the PS multiparty system.[5] The sharp transition to PS was justified by the need to develop a multiparty system. As time has shown, parties that are more independent did not appear in Kazakhstan. On the contrary, the total number of parties had decreased from 10 parties (in 2007) to 6 (in 2019). The experience of other countries shows that the MS does not always lead to a system with two parties, with a few exceptions.[6] “Duverger Law” implies only a generalized probability of such a scenario.[7]

The impact of electoral systems on party systems has a lasting effect that is irrefutable. However, this effect is different in authoritarian countries. In Kazakhstan, parties are artificial formations created by the authorities from above. They do not represent society; the lists of candidates declared by them are more likely to express the interests of the regime. Moreover, there is no transparency and no clear mechanism for the parties to compile a list of candidates. In this regard, a comment from the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe is appropriate, which says, “the suitability of the electoral system is determined by whether it is fair and are the lists compiled transparently”.[8]

The situation is aggravated by the fact that, as an alternative, society cannot nominate independent candidates, since there is no place for them in the current PS. It turns out that access to parliament and maslikhats is possible only through membership in a registered political party, which runs counter to international standards for democratic elections.[9]

The PS also establishes a closer relationship between the deputies and the party, rather than voters of a particular constituency, as in the majoritarian system (MS). In the presence of an imperative mandate, as in Kazakhstan, the deputies’ dependence on the party (regime) leadership is strengthened. This negatively affects the independent activities of parliamentarians. Withdrawal or exclusion from the party automatically entails the loss of a deputy mandate.

The electoral threshold of 7% for entering the parliament is too high in Kazakhstan and clearly serves as a barrier to the opposition. Ideally, it is introduced to prevent excessive party fragmentation of the parliament – especially in parliamentary systems – where such redundancy can lead to instability of the government or paralyze regular legislative activity. For example, when twenty parties participate in the elections, it is possible and necessary to establish a minimum percentage of support for passage to parliament, since too much fragmented parliament may be less effective. Since 2007, no more than 7 parties have been participating in parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan. There are no risks of severe fragmentation. Among the OSCE countries, only Russia (7%) and Turkey (10%) have such a high threshold; the rest of the countries average 3 to 5%.[10] It is important to note that a high threshold also leads to the loss of votes cast for a party that did not reach a high threshold and eliminates the authorities’ argument about their desire to develop a multi-party system.

Moreover, the rule allowing political parties to form electoral blocs was removed by the 2007 amendments. Since it allowed the opposition to consolidate and put forward a single list of candidates to increase their chances of winning. This restriction can also negatively affect small batches (or just created ones), uniting into blocks, for which, it is the main opportunity to overcome the 7% threshold.

Another important mechanism capable of distorting or adjusting the competitive electoral environment is the procedure for financing political parties. Since 2009, Kazakhstan has provided financial support to political parties from the state budget. However, it is available only to parties that have passed to the parliament (on the basis of a “punitive system”), thereby creating an advantage for parties in power over applicants. Even taking into account the fact that the allocated funds cannot be used for the needs of the election campaign. The calculation of allocated funds is based on the formula 3% of the minimum wage for each vote that parties received in the elections.[11] For the period from 2010 to 2019, three parliamentary parties received 198,876,028 USD from the state budget (Nur Otan – 175,636,647; Ak Zhol – 11,583,997; Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan – 11,655,384). The electoral system does not provide for other indirect financing of election campaigns (for example, access to the media in the form of free air) to provide more equal opportunities for non-parliamentary parties.

One of the most obvious and unfair forms of restrictions on access to elections is the requirement to register a political party. Under the Political Party Act, in order to legally register a political party, it is necessary to collect 40,000 members (signatures) representing all regions of the country (600 each). First one needs to register the organizing committee (10 people) and only after receiving confirmation from the Ministry of Justice to hold a constituent congress for people representing two thirds of the regions. These requirements, which include, in fact, double registration, significantly limit the rights of citizens to freedom of association and are a serious barrier to participation in elections. Registration rules are applied in some democracies, but they are completely not burdensome and are stipulated by the system of state financing of political parties, which requires ascertaining the seriousness of intentions.

Currently, six political parties are officially registered in the country.[12] 1) Democratic Party of Kazakhstan “Ak Zhol”, 2) Party “Nur Otan”, 3) People’s Democratic Patriotic Party “Auyl”, 4) Political Party “Birlik”, 5) Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan (CPPK), 6) “OSDP”.

None of the above parties is in opposition to the ruling Nur Otan.

Contours of reform

The specific conditions in which the country is located are an important factor in choosing a model for the electoral system. As I noted in the first part of the article, authoritarian regimes use different systems to derive political benefits, based on the conditions in which they are located. There are many options for MS, PS and their combined types. The use of one particular electoral system in different countries may have different effects. We must understand that electoral systems can serve different political purposes, as well as correspond to the political system being built. It is important to note that the changes should not be isolated and limited only by the model of representation. The reform should guarantee the neutrality of election commissions at all levels, strengthen the role and capabilities of civic observers, ensure transparency of the voting and counting procedures, present effective and proportionate sanctions for violations. This entire package of amendments affects all legislation on elections, including the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan and directly the powers of the president.[13] It must be remembered that without a strong parliament, the party system will not develop.

Based on the dominant role of the presidential party and the artificial nature of the party system, it is advisable to introduce a fully two-round election MS. The mechanics of the two-round system require the support of the majority of constituency voters, in contrast to the pluralistic model. In addition, the MS also encourages close relations between voters and their representatives in parliament and maslikhats. Being represented in parliament is especially important for regions because of their geographical and economic differences and needs. MS can promote healthy decentralization and local political participation. Parties will receive an incentive to build ties in the regions on an ongoing basis.  

MС can promote healthy decentralization and local political participation. 

In view of the underdevelopment of parties and their dependence on the regime, financial groups or individuals, it is important to institutionalize and strengthen the direct connection of the electorate and deputies with a possible recall mechanism.

At the same time, unlike the current system, the transition to the MS will allow to exercise the right to be elected outside the party membership card. Taking into account the authoritarian heritage of Kazakhstan, it is important to encourage various methods of political participation, the ability to compete with the dominant party or with other parties through self-nomination. Moreover, the presence of single-mandate constituencies will better reflect the will of voters in individual regions. The regime will not be able to compensate for its unpopularity or vote against the party in power by dropping ballots within a single proportional constituency.

To guarantee access to participate in the elections, it is necessary to significantly liberalize the law on parties, lower registration requirements for creating political parties from 40,000 members to 40 members, or even less. Small parties should be able to register and operate in individual regions if they do not have national ambitions. In a similar vein, the procedure for registering candidates should be considered. The deposit (a small amount) and the number of signatures for the candidate should not be an excessive obstacle to his participation in the election. The procedure is designed to weed out frivolous candidates. As a rule, the deposit is returned if the candidate has collected the required minimum number of votes. The ICJ does not provide for the introduction of special quotas for women or minorities through closed lists. However, this can be offset by additional financial incentives for parties nominating women and minorities as candidates.

Small parties should be able to register and operate in individual regions if they do not have national ambitions.

The public funding system should be completely revised. Parliamentary parties to gain financial advantage over competitors, placing them automatically in unequal conditions, should not use it. Especially when it comes to very large subsidies. State funding (direct or indirect) should correct the imbalance between large and small parties, between party and independent candidates, creating equal opportunities for competition. It is necessary to approach the issue of state financing of parties very carefully, this should not lead to institutional abuses by individual parties. It is also important that the system itself does not erode healthy competition and does not generate passive and dependent parties. 


On the issue of reforming the electoral system, one must remember that the chosen model should not be too complicated for the understanding of the electorate. The suitability of the electoral system is determined by how fair it allows society to delegate its representatives to power. The design of the electoral system is of great importance for overcoming the legacy of authoritarian regimes. In Kazakhstan, the choice in favor of the MS is the most optimal, which will allow changing the dynamics of parliamentary and local elections, giving society a chance to mobilize and promote independent candidates. The society will be able to get out of the impasse when elections, as a mechanism for a peaceful change of power, no longer work, thereby creating incentives for violent confrontation. Under favorable political circumstances, a correctly chosen electoral system can contribute to the gradual democratization of the regime through representation of the opposition and emergence of the genuine competition.


In view of the limited time before the parliamentary elections of 2021, the authorities need to start wide consultations involving all political forces, civil society and the expert community to develop a package of political reforms including the electoral system.

The draft changes to the electoral system must necessarily include the transition to a majority model of elections for all members of parliament and maslikhats.

The registration and regulation of political parties should not be restrictive. Burdensome requirements for membership, regional representation should be completely abolished.

The procedure for registering candidates should not be restrictive. The deposit should not be large, and the number of necessary signatures in support of the candidate should be equal to 1,000.

For the development of political parties and the party system, it is necessary to significantly expand the powers of parliament and maslikhats. The parliament should have full legislative power, maslikhats should become real bodies of local self-government and receive oversight functions over local executive power.

Changes should not be limited solely to the electoral system, the reform should affect all key aspects of the electoral process. It should be reformed taking into account international standards and obligations of the country.

Neutrality of election commissions at all levels must be guaranteed. The President should not appoint the leadership and members of the Central Election Commission. Authorities should be reviewed in favor of parliament.

Civil and international observers should be able to observe all stages of the electoral process to guarantee transparency and increase confidence in elections.

The system and criteria for public funding of political parties should be completely revised.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.

[1] Gandhi and Heller, Electoral System in Authoritarian States, The Oxford Handbook of electoral Systems, 2017.

[2] Bader, Hegemonic political parties in post-Soviet Eurasia: Towards party-based authoritarianism? Communist and Post-Communist Studies 44, 2011, p. 192.  

[3] OSCE / ODIHR Election Observation Mission Final Report, Presidential elections, 18 August 2007, p. 24 – 27.

[4] The activities of the Communist Party will be suspended during the 2012 elections, the party itself will be liquidated in 2015.

[5] Grofman and Lijphart, Duverger’s Law: Forty Years Later ‘, Electoral Laws and their Political Consequences. 1986, p. 70

[6] Gallagher, Mitchell, The Politics of Electoral Systems, 2007, p. 547

[7] Founding Documents of the Venice Commission on Electoral Law and Political Parties, 2016, p. 127.

[8] Compilation of Venice Commission Opinions and Reports Concerning Electoral Systems, CDL-PI (2019) 001, 2019, p. 7.

[9] OSCE 1990 Copenhagen Document, paragraph 7.5

[10] Founding Documents of the Venice Commission on Electoral Law and Political Parties, 2016, p. 135.

[11] Resolution of the Central Election Commission, “On the Approval of the Rules for Financing Political Parties” of September 3, 2009 No. 166/314. Changed twice for no apparent reason to increase the amount of government subsidies.

[12] The register of officially registered parties of the Ministry of Justice erroneously issues a list of seven political parties, in which the Azat party, which lost its status in 2009, is indicated.

[13] Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Law on Elections, Decisions of the Central Election Commission, Law on Political Parties, Law on the Procedure for Organizing and Holding Peaceful Meetings, Rallies, Processions, Pickets and Demonstrations, Criminal Code, Administrative Code, Civil Code.


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