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Parliamentary campaign in Kazakhstan: start without start

«The next parliamentary elections are not inferior to the presidential in importance and significance. However, politically, the upcoming campaign will be much more complicated and intense. This is due to major changes in the power-society line», – said political observer Baurzhan Tolegenov, in an article written specifically for CABAR.asia.

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Parliamentary elections will allow authorities to distribute licenses for political activities in post-Nazarbayev Kazakhstan. Photo: ca-portal.org

The political process in Kazakhstan has accelerated in anticipation of parliamentary elections. Despite the fact that the nominal period of their holding is 2021. At least this period is fixed in the electoral calendar. The authority, represented by Nursultan Nazarbayev, positioned as the leader of the nation – Elbasy, confirmed the constitutional terms of the electoral campaign. Nevertheless, here we must bear in mind that for the last 28 years, out of seven parliamentary campaigns, five were unscheduled. Even if the elections take place on time, then the remaining distance in any case is short. Therefore, political forces began active preparations for the upcoming “elections”. An early warm-up relates to the political significance of the upcoming campaign, which will become another “puzzle” in post-Nazarbayev Kazakhstan.

The transition of power: Act Two

Regardless of the timing, the next parliamentary elections will be held in the new political environment. Since March 2019, when Nursultan Nazarbayev voluntarily resigned, the political system has entered a phase of active transformation. In addition, this is not a one-act action, but a long distance with several control points, the passage of which should lead to a restart of the entire decision-making system, as well as its legitimization.

In June, through the election of a new head of state, the authorities conducted the first transfer – the institution of the presidency. Together with the parliamentary elections, the second phase of transit starts. What is its importance? Taking a controlling stake in parliament and thus preserving the legislative initiative, the power will “get” the government (according to the constitutional reform-2017, the Cabinet of Ministers is formed and controlled by the parliament).

In addition, parliamentary elections will allow the authorities to reformat the party field, to audit political forces, namely, to distribute licenses for political activities in post-Nazarbayev Kazakhstan.

Thus, the parliamentary elections are not inferior to the presidential in importance and significance. However, politically, the upcoming campaign will be much more complicated and intense. This is due to major changes in power-society line.

Return from self-emigration

Entering the transit track exacerbated the socio-political situation. The trigger was the presidential election, which recorded the reluctance of society to maintain the status-qwo, which offered to prolong the power. Several important trends are legalized on the agenda.

First, a public request for political reform, a revision of the social contract, and increased access to power. Secondly, social fatigue from the ruling elite, which, together with a transitional state, began to narrow into a corporatist community.

Both trends are based on the starting return of the society from internal emigration. This, for example, is mirrored in lowering the threshold of criticism of power and the desacralization of stability as a value. To assess these processes, one can refer to official data on the rallies,[1] which took place in the first five days after the presidential election: about three thousand people were detained, 677 were brought to administrative arrest, 305 to administrative fines.

Old does not suit, new is not available

The protest activity of spring-summer did not lead to the consolidation of agents of change and their organizational design. However, this does not mean that the protest potential was nullified, it has gone into the gray zone. In addition, this latency is one of the characteristics of the upcoming campaign, making it dependent on force majeure. Public inquiries have no way out through the party field as well. After many years of manipulation, the party field is stripped to a sterile sheen.

After many years of manipulation, the party field is stripped to a sterile sheen.

The old opposition is declassified. The trigger was the participation in the 2019 presidential campaign of Amirzhan Kosanov, who, positioned as an opposition candidate, legitimized the elections and canalized the protest vote. This move undermined public confidence in the old school and led to the emergence of a new line of political positioning, when the connection with the old generation of the opposition is denied, and they themselves appear to be part of Nazarbayev Kazakhstan.

Amid the toxicity of the old opposition, the government’s asset was nullified. To date, the activities of six parties are licensed: “Nur Otan” (party in power), “Ak Zhol”, CPPK, “Auyl”, NSDP, “Birlik” (the first three are parliamentary). This design of six counterparties allowed the authorities to provide electoral legitimacy, but in the conditions of transfer, it acts as a liability. At the moment, the only opposition party in the legal field is the NSDP and it seems that after a series of changes in the party leadership, the internal state of the party is close to comatose.

As a result, the electorate is disorganized. This is expressed in 39% of voters who are ready to come to the polls but have not decided which party they will vote for. This is sociological data as of[2] January 2019, and by the parliamentary elections, the figures will certainly grow. Moreover, two lines of participation of political forces in the upcoming campaign have already been outlined.

The first one is out of system. As in case of the 2019 presidential campaign, the call to boycott the elections will be actively promoted. 

The second one is pragmatic. The conjuncture of the electoral campaign will be used by political forces to build up political baggage both for the future and for joining the power structures. However, the example of Amirzhan Kosanov, for whom participation in the 2019 presidential campaign was the beginning of the end of his political career and opposition reputation, will be a deterrent. In general, the “Kosanov effect” will increase the dependence of politicians on public expectations, reducing their manageability. 

One way or another, the election turnout will be one of the main topics on the agenda of the upcoming parliamentary campaign for the authorities.

Social therapy instead of crackdown     

The authorities are trying to use the electoral window to create an optimal backlog for themselves: they are conducting social therapy, “flirting” with society, trying to stop thin spots and so far, refuse from “crackdown”. At this stage, the main stake is made in order to blow off some steam in a controlled mode and create conditions for programming the electoral process. The issue of reducing filters for parties (organizational and selective) is also on the agenda. Under the expected liberalization of party building, a number of projects have already announced their intentions to become parties and take part in the upcoming elections. The following stand out among them:

  • “Democratic Party of Kazakhstan” with headliners from among the old opposition (Zhanbolat Mamai, Sergey Duvanov, Tulegen Zhukeyev). They are actively preparing for the Constituent Congress – they have formed the Initiative Group, conducted regional trips (in particular, they have visited Shymkent, Taraz, Semey, Ust-Kamenogorsk, Atyrau, Zhanaozen), during which they consolidated local activists. In addition, the Democrats have already prepared a political program, which they submitted for public discussion.    
  • The “Oyan, Kazakhstan” and “Respublika” movements, the core of which is creative youth, manifesting in the wake of the 2019 protests.  
  • The HAQ Civil Initiatives Coalition, which includes representatives of the near-power field with a certain credit of public trust. At the end of November, supporters of the HAQ movement held a Congress of Civil Initiatives under which such figures as Margulan Seisembayev, Irina Mednikova, Olzhas Khudaibergenov made a speech.

We should also mention two figures who have every chance of joining the upcoming parliamentary elections as independent projects. These are Mukhtar Taizhan and Rinat Zaitov. The first – has been building up a political asset in the field of public activity for a long time. He does this purposefully, progressively and pragmatically. The second is the famous akyn and aytsker. Until a certain time, Zaitov’s popularity did not come into contact with politics as such, but the presidential election of 2019 showed[3] that his creative activity has serious mobilization potential, which will be converted into Realpolitik. After the election, Mr. Zaitov disappeared from the public field for some time, and just recently he came out with a large interview in which he announced creation of the party.[4] In the case of inclusion in the election race, both Taizhan and Zaitov will play on the so-called national-patriotic field – one of the most electorally significant, since, as the agenda of recent years shows, the right-wing deviation resonates with society.   

However, internal competition has already begun between future participants in the parliamentary campaign. It is fueled by off-system forces in the person of Mukhtar Ablyazov, who ranks all potential participants in the power projects. Along with this search for “agents of power” there is a crushing of the protest field, its fragmentation.

At the same time, the government is trying to reload its main resource, with which it will go to the polls – the Nur Otan party. The first signal was the June appointment to the party of Bauyrzhan Baibek, the Doyen of the new generation of the Nazarbayev elite. Already at the August meeting of the party’s political council, Nursultan Nazarbayev called for intensified preparatory work for the parliamentary elections. In general, Nazarbayev pays great attention to the reanimation of the party in power. Under his leadership, several major party events took place in a short period of time. At the latter, he ordered[5] to prepare an election platform and also announced a party congress to be held in February. In order to recruit new members, the party in power conducted a pilot project for internal primaries.  

Severe weather, softer campaign  

The question of the timing of the electoral campaign is not of fundamental importance, since preparations for the elections are actively conducted by all political forces, including the opposition. But now it can be assumed that the upcoming campaign will not be organized in the warm season. If we turn to the experience of the last two parliamentary campaigns, we can pay attention that they took place in the cold period: 2016 – March 20, 2012 – January 15. Is there a regularity in this? Rather yes than no. Recall that in a large territory of Kazakhstan there is a sharply continental climate, which is characterized by large temperature amplitudes. This feature should be taken into account in the planning of Kazakhstani electoral process. At least the use of the weather factor allows minimizing conditions and opportunities for mobilizing protest groups and protest as such. For example, in the final part of the election campaign to regulate the concentration of students, as well as to consider the general emotional social background. To spend a voting day on the eve of the Nauryz holiday is fraught with a large crowd of people free from work. Therefore, in the upcoming campaign, one of the key risks of which is protest, the weather factor cannot but be considered. In this regard, it can be assumed that through the window between April and October, the elections will not be organized.

Search continues   

To sum up, it is worth noting that the political regime is in the active phase of regeneration. Control over parliament and the government will allow the authorities to complete the construction of a new legitimate decision-making system. This explains today’s active preparation of political forces for the upcoming elections, the political process is in an electoral regime. Therefore, if the elections take place early, the effect of surprise will be minimal. One way or another, the government will be forced to institutionalize a public request for change. For this to happen, there should be an actor on the party field who would be relevant to public expectations. The only question is in what way this scenario will be realized – through reloading the existing counterparties or through introducing a new party project into the game. In any case, the party field will be changed, and the upcoming campaign will be another round in the polarization and politicization of public opinion. These processes are inevitable, and thus they exacerbate the main risk of the campaign – its unpredictability and complex moderation.

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] Azattyq.org. Ministry of Internal Affairs: About four thousand people were detained at rallies in Kazakhstan. https://rus.azattyq.org/a/30005093.html

[2] Public Fund “Strategy”. To the question of “elections that will not take place”. https://ofstrategy.kz/ru/research/politic-research/item/641-k-voprosu-o-vyborakh-kotorykh-ne-budet

[3] Informburo.kz. “Who is Rinat Zaitov?” Why did people went out to the streets of Almaty on June 10. https://informburo.kz/stati/kto-takoy-rinat-zaitov-pochemu-10-iyunya-lyudi-vyshli-na-ulicy-almaty.html

[4] Holanews.kz. Rinat Zaitov: “These are the people who made from me  politician.” https://holanews.kz/view/news/44848

[5] Vlast.kz. Nazarbayev instructed to begin developing the election program of the Nur Otan party. https://vlast.kz/novosti/36175-nazarbaev-porucil-nacat-razrabotku-predvybornoj-programmy-partii-nur-otan.html

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