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Parliamentary elections of 2021 in Kazakhstan: should we expect any changes?

In Kazakhstan, the upcoming parliamentary elections are not intriguing at all, says Sergey Marinin, an independent researcher from Kazakhstan and participant of CABAR.asia School of Analytics. “In essence, terrific environment has been created for the re-election of the old party guard and the preservation of the status quo in parliament,” the expert said.

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Фото: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

The beginning of the new 2021 was marked by a minor historical event – the first regular parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan (in the past, only early elections were always held with the exception of the very first elections in 1994). However, that is where the amusing facts about the upcoming elections end.

For the entire period of Kazakhstan’s independence all parliamentary campaigns since 1999, according to the assessment of the OSCE international observation missions, had serious violations and did not meet international election standards.

The new political cycle in the mass perception is another round of senseless spending of the budget for holding the next elections because nothing fresh seems to be offered by the parties.

The only registered opposition party, National Social Democratic Party (OSDP in Russian), is boycotting the upcoming elections depriving the protest electorate of the opportunity to express their opinion.

Kazakhstanis have no hopes for changes regarding the new election cycle for several obvious reasons:

  • the party power vertical has long been formed;
  • the Nur Otan party of the first president has long been dominating the parliament;
  • the loyalist parties who have made it to the legislature are not particularly visible on the political scene of the country; 
  • the ‘spoiler parties’ are only active during the election race, but that is what they are created for.

The parliamentary elections do not arouse interest among Kazakhstanis also because in the conditions of a vague party field and the absence of intelligible players, except for representatives of the ruling party, the lack of purposeful and consistent work of parties outside the electoral cycle, it is difficult for them to navigate in ideologically diverse platforms and various loud promises that as usual, no one ever brings to life.

The general socio-political apathy is also caused by the multiple challenges of 2020. The crisis caused by the pandemic has exhausted society morally and economically. Finally, the pre-election race falls on the holiday season – the Independence Day and New Year’s festivities, so campaigning is also a problem, where voters simply will not care about it. In essence, terrific environment has been created for the re-election of the old party guard and the preservation of the status quo in parliament.

The parliamentary elections of the past years: the evolution from multi-party “chaos” to authoritarian monopoly. And why do autocracies need parties at all?

Although the history of the development of parliamentarism in Kazakhstan is not long, in terms of party building at the dawn of its independence, the republic had true freedom of speech, which was reflected in the motley party field of those years. According to the classification of L.I. Karmazina, perestroika became the starting point of a wanton flourishing of various informal and pro-party associations, linked by the common idea of ​​becoming a new alternative to the old ideology of the Communist Party.  

Periods of development of party building in Kazakhstan[1]

Until about 1993, the party field of Kazakhstan was scattered pro-party formations without regional subdivisions and a clear ideological basis. In the period from 1993 to 2001, there was a time of party pluralism in Kazakhstan,[2] where the first key milestone was 1996, when the law “On Political Parties” was adopted, and the second – when the electoral formula changed, becoming mixed and elections were held by districts and according to party lists. In general, this and subsequent periods are characterized by a tightening of electoral legislation, violation of the rights of both voters and those who are being elected.

A clear tendency towards monopolization of the party field has been identified since 2002, when, under the new law “On Political Parties,” the requirements for registration, the number of party members, and the presence of regional divisions were tightened. This led to the absorption of parties and a weakening of their influence on the political field of the country. Of the 19 parties that existed at that time, only 7 were re-registered.[3]

As a result, in the 2004 elections, the forerunner of the ubiquitous presidential party Nur Otan – Otan – became the dominant force in all respects. Further election campaigns cemented the leading positions of Nur Otan even more (in 2007 the party won all seats in parliament in general), and the created spoiler parties or permitted loyal party associations did not constitute true political competition, creating an obvious facade of party struggle for everyone.

An authoritarian regime is characterized by over-centralization of power in a certain unified structure, and it is clear that all decisions are made centrally. However, why then do we need political parties and elections for Kazakhstan? I am sure that every Kazakhstani asks this question when Day X arrives. In addition to the obvious reasons in the form of legitimation of the ruling elite and symbolism, stabilization of the ruling regime, creation of a democratic facade, mentioned earlier, political parties in an authoritarian system have practical significance.

According to the typology of R. Isaacs,[4] parties serve the economic and political interests of various elite and near-elite groups. Party functionaries articulate these interests in the so-called “leverage” model – elite groups close to the regime use party representatives to advance their own financial and political ambitions.

Another model of exploitation of the party apparatus is the “coordination” model, when the party plays the role of a mobilizing force for the population, as a mechanism for informing the population. In this model, the party also consolidates the ideas of the president and his close elites in order to pass laws in their own interests. The presidential party has precisely become this mechanism – the mouthpiece of power and the conductor of the will of the ruling class on the ground for more than 15 years.

However, in 2017, a major constitutional reform was initiated, endowing the country’s parliament with great powers and, in the future, giving the right to form the composition of the government. It is noteworthy that this reform received a positive assessment from the Venice Commission.[5] However, some formulations of the reform in terms of delegating a number of powers to parliament can be interpreted ambiguously, which is also reflected in the commission’s assessment.[6] In general, the proposed mechanisms and amendments “develop the institutions of parliamentary control, which contributes to the improvement of the democratic organization of the state.”[7] In these conditions, the alignment of forces in the party field in 2020 becomes interesting. What are the parties going to show during the new elections in 2021?

What’s new in this election campaign

Five parties participate in the new electoral cycle: the ruling Nur Otan, two loyalists who were already present in the outgoing composition of the lower house – Ak Zhol and the renewed Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan, now simply called the People’s Party of Kazakhstan (PPK), as well as two loyal to the authorities parties that did not enter the legislature earlier – “Auyl” and “Birlik”, now known as “Adal” (from Kazakh. “fair” or “devoted”). 

Elections are held to the lower legislative chamber – the Mazhilis, as well as to maslikhats of all levels.

The parties have already submitted their lists. It is interesting that in terms of the number of candidates presented, after the self-evident leader in the form of the ruling party, the People’s Party of Kazakhstan is in second place. With such indicators, the parties were registered by the CEC (in the order of their location in the voting form):

In total, the Mazhilis will include 98 deputies and 9 more appointees from the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan. 

What is new in this campaign:

  • The threshold for the number of party members for registering the latter has been reduced from 40 to 20 thousand,[8] including all its structural divisions (branches and representative offices) in all regions, cities of republican significance and in the capital, with at least six hundred party members in each of them. In general, this step can be assessed more likely as positive than negative, but this amendment cannot be called significant liberalization, since the existing model of party lists prevents the country’s citizens from participating as self-nominated candidates. Election legislation in this part requires significant reforms.
  • A mandatory 30% quota has been introduced for women and youth of the total number of candidates for deputy. For all its indicative progressiveness, the norm “blurs the goals of achieving equality and justice for women [and] does not comply with the UN recommendations and the UN sustainable development goals”.[9]
  • The National Social Democratic Party (NSDP), the only registered opposition party in Kazakhstan, which participated in previous elections and fail to make it to parliament, is boycotting the new elections. The protest electorate is left without representation in the main legislative body and in the field.
  • The rights of independent observers are significantly limited. Most civil society organizations will no longer be able to observe elections if there is no provision in their charter that observation is included in the orbit of their activities. The use of means of photo and video recording of violations is also prohibited or significantly restricted. Therefore, proving the facts of violations is now extremely difficult. The authorities drew conclusions based on the results of last year’s presidential elections, when social networks were flooded with videos of massive falsifications and stuffing. In 2019, this sparked a wave of peaceful rallies across the country and massive police arrests.


Under new names and slogans, replete with promises of social justice and promises of economic growth, universal prosperity, new reforms, the voter is once again sold a spectacle. However, the upcoming parliamentary elections do not carry any intrigue. The presidential party remains the absolute dominant force in the country, and due to the lack of independent observers, it is not a problem to create the final figures necessary for the authorities. The only interesting thing here will be whether the ruling party will share its interest with the PPC and whether new players will be allowed.

The political apathy of the majority of citizens of Kazakhstan, in addition to the reason for the long irremovability of power, is also caused by the refusal of the remnants of the opposition to somehow show themselves.

The inability to mobilize the protest electorate, on the one hand, and the opposition’s lack of visible activity outside the pre-election season, on the other, finally destroys its chances for further political struggle.

Finally, the post-election protest events of the last year clearly indicated a tendency – Kazakhstani society longs for change. This drive has only been intensified by the socio-economic problems caused by the pandemic.

In these conditions, it is important to bring the initiated constitutional reform to the end and even expand it, giving the parliament more powers, to redistribute them between the branches of government.

Now it is unrealistic to hope that the new Mazhilis will become a competitive body with party struggle and lively discussion on acute public issues. However, we must strive to ensure that the new parliament does not turn into a faceless technical body that acts as a printing press.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project.

[1] Karmazina L. I. “Party-political models of Kazakhstan and Russia: genesis and institutionalization”, Publishing house “Gramota”, 2009. www.gramota.net/materials/1/2009/1-2/26.html

[2] Ibid, p. 80.


[3] Ibid.

[4] Isaacs, Rico (2020) The Role of Party Interest Articulation in the Personalist-Authoritarian Regimes of the Central Asian Republics of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, Problems of Post-Communism, 67:4-5, 375-387, DOI: 10.1080/10758216.2019.1645606, P. 376.

[5] European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission)2017 Kazakhstan: Opinion on the Amendments to the Constitution Adopted by the Venice Commission at its 110th Plenary Session (Venice, 10-11March 2017), 14 March 2017, https://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-AD(2017)010-e

[6] Ibid.

[7] Khabrieva T. Ya., Andrichenko L. V. Constitutional reform in the Republic of Kazakhstan: trends and development prospects // Journal of foreign legislation and comparative jurisprudence. 2017. No. 3 (64). (date of access: 21.12.2020), p. 148.

[8] Clause 6 of Article 10 of the Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan dated July 15, 2002 No. 344-II “On Political Parties” (with amendments and additions as of May 25, 2020) https://online.zakon.kz/document/ ? doc_id = 1032141

[9] Raisova Z., “Why did Kazakhstan introduce quotas for women and youth?”, June 5, 2020, Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting < https://cabar.asia/ru/zachem-v-kazahstane-vveli-kvoty -dlya-zhenshhin-i-molodezhi > (date accessed: 21.12.2020)

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