Political scientist Aruzhan Meirkhanova in her article for CABAR.asia writes, that regime’s “decorative democracy” and pressure on civil society might lead to a range of consequences in the long-run.
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Elections in modern autocracies alongside other democratic institutions are usually used by the authorities to imitate the free and fair electoral process. Such “Potemkin elections” are designed to deceive the international audience into believing that the democratic procedures are observed. Recent events in the post-Soviet space, including those in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, revealed that electoral manipulations and falsifications might pave the way to significant political crises.
In the country long-sought-after as the isle of stability in Central Asia, few expect to-be-held elections to bring radical changes to the substance of the country’s rubber-stamp legislature and its lower chamber – Mazhilis. The authorities have carefully prepared for the upcoming parliamentary vote to secure a predictable and “convenient” electoral outcome. However, the regime’s “decorative democracy” and pressure on civil society might lead to a range of consequences in the long-run.
Convenient electoral battlefield
In the world, where holding elections has become a new norm, authoritarian regimes have little leeway in eschewing formal democratic procedures. Still, adaptive autocrats have employed a range of tools to rig elections while securing office. In the most effective of these autocracies, electoral manipulation occurs even before the voters approach the ballot box. This logic might partially explain the authorities’ strategic undertaking of the restrictive measures in the pre-election period.
First, Nur-Sultan has securitized the electoral battlefield, ensuring that only the pro-regime parties enter the “race.” Although the threshold for the registration of political parties was reduced from 40 to 20 thousand signatures at the current president’s initiative, registering a political party remains more difficult in Kazakhstan than in the other CIS member-states. For instance, in Russia- with a population exceeding 146 million people – only 500 people’s signatures are necessary to create and register a party. In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, an initiative group of only ten people suffices for the creation of a party. It is worth noting, however, that the low registration thresholds may lead to the creation of too many parties, which may not necessarily be effective. Yet, Kazakhstani activists still consider that the barrier in the form of 20,000 signatures and the requirement for a thousand delegates to attend a party’s founding congress are challenging to overcome, especially amidst the pandemic.  Given these barriers and the absence of the possibility to register electronically, it is hardly surprising that such movements as Respublika, HAQ, and the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan have been unable to register their parties and participate in the upcoming electoral “race.” 
Meanwhile, those parties that succeeded in registering for the elections can hardly claim to represent the genuine opposition. Both pro-business Aq Jol and the socialist People’s Party of Kazakhstan (formerly known as Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan) represent the “sanctioned opposition” within the existing parliament, and few expect that they will change their current trajectory on the eve of the elections. Another registered party Adal is allegedly tied to the National Chamber of Entrepreneurs “Atameken” and the first president’s son-in-law Timur Kulibayev — although the party’s chairman Serik Sultangali keeps denying the links to a well-known businessman. Meanwhile, Adal’s representatives openly claim to compete with Aq Jol and Auyl, rather than with the ruling party. Finally, Auyl, the party, representing farmers and rural people, is led by Ali Bektayev, who eulogized Elbasy in the past. Thus, one may argue that these parties hardly rival Nur Otan but rather create an illusion of the multi-party system in the country.
Another way in which the authorities sustain the favorable electoral field is by regulating the realm of pre-election polling: according to the law, the election-related public polls can only be conducted by legal entities with a 5-year experience in the field, which have priory notified the Central Election Committee about their survey, providing all the necessary information. The law also prohibits publishing the polls’ results five days before and during the election day, and any entity found in breach of the law risks facing administrative responsibility. These restrictions considerably limit the space for alternative polls and narrow the field for public discourse. With only the sanctioned entities permitted to conduct polling, sociologist Serik Beissembayev warns, authoritarian regimes risk losing sight of the real picture on the ground. Such a risk notwithstanding, sanctioned polls serve an important purpose of legitimizing the pro-regime results while making it rather challenging to contest the electoral outcome.
The regime opponents’ attempts to challenge the status-quo seem hardly convincing amidst the authorities’ pre-election preparations. Mukhtar Ablyazov’s strategy of “smart voting” has had little success – as after having called his followers to support the National Social Democratic Party (NSDP), this party decided not to enter the race altogether. When Ablyazov sought to steer the electorate to join Aq Jol, its member Berik Duisenbiyev declared that the party stopped admitting new members in an attempt to distance itself from the fugitive banker. Meanwhile, another opposition leader Zhanbolat Mamay opted for the strategy of boycotting the elections. In their turn, the leaders of HAQ and Respublika movements preferred to organize election-observation platforms. Other activists have called to postpone elections, which in their opinion, hardly represent the citizens’ interests and where the “against all” option is absent from the ballot paper. Given the divergent strategies of the opposition movements, one can hardly expect the mass mobilization of the protesting electorate. It is even more difficult to assume that the existing opposition’s actions will have any meaningful impact on the election results.
Restrictions on civil society
The ballot list with only the sanctioned parties represented, the absence of effective opposition, and controlled public polls a priori create a precedent conducive to the regime’s landslide victory. Yet, this time fear seems to loom larger than usual in Nur-Sultan amidst the political turbulence in the “neighborhood” and the specter of the 2019 “Kazakh Spring” still haunting Ak Orda. This might explain why the authorities embarked upon additional restrictions against non-government organizations (NGOs) and civil society – the groups, which were particularly active during and after the presidential elections in 2019.
Most controversially, on the 4th of December, the Central Election Committee issued a decree, which makes independent election observation, to say the least, an arduous exercise. This decree allows the deployment of independent observers to the polling place only to those non-government organizations (NGOs), which have a clause envisioning electoral monitoring in their charter. Moreover, independent observers are not allowed to take pictures, audio, or video recordings without the consent of those recorded and prohibited from live-streaming the elections because the latter remains the responsibility of the media.
The recent decree is not an isolated incident. Before that, the government had already tightened its grip on NGOs. In particular, the tax authorities notified several non-profit human rights and civil society organizations about the violations in filling tax reporting forms, including the provision of false information – a term so vaguely defined, according to NGO representatives, that any clerical misprint may be interpreted as a breach of the law. The punishment for such a “misdemeanor” is severe and may involve the suspension of NGO activity for up to 3 months.
The authorities did not confine themselves to the aforementioned methods in their pre-election preparations. Given the mobilization potential of social media, the authorities conducted cyber-defense exercises in early December; and the web-users were offered to install the “security certificate” in their devices to avoid problems in accessing foreign websites, including social networks. And while the authorities justify these exercises by referring to the increased attacks on domestic cyber-space, experts doubt the safety of the certificate and suggest that the cyber-training may have been a part of the regime’s pre-election preparations. Notably, the regime’s attempts to regulate the digital space can be placed in the context of a broader negative trend in the level of internet freedom in the country.
According to the Freedom House data, internet freedom in the country is under threat. The graph (see below) reveals that the digital space in the country is subject to more stringent restrictions than in Kyrgyzstan and Belarus. Notably, however, Kazakhstanis enjoy higher levels of internet freedom than their Uzbekistani counterparts. The Freedom House’s report reveals that Kazakhstan’s digital space remains characterized by the occasional blocking of social networks, web-censorship, the functioning of pro-government bots while the legislation in the country allows for the prosecution of users for criticism on the web. Against this backdrop, the regime’s repeated attempt to implement the “security certificate” only worsen Kazakhstan’s ratings in the Global Freedom on the Net, and once again demonstrates that fears about the mobilization potential of social networks persist among the authorities.
The “hearing state”: between rhetoric and reality
Ever since he had assumed the presidential office, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has attempted to strengthen his pubic legitimacy by claiming to be a reformer in charge of Kazakhstan’s gradual political liberalization. One of his main initiatives has been the creation of the National Council of Public Trust, meant to serve as a platform for state-society dialogue. Moreover, it was during Tokayev’s presidency and under his instructions that the bill on the parliamentary opposition was adopted, 30% quotas for youth and women on the party lists were introduced, defamation was decriminalized, and the protest law was reformed in a way that makes it sufficient for protest-organizers to notify the authorities ahead of the rally, rather than obtaining their permission. While the local authorities lauded the reformist impetus of Ak Orda,,  international organizations such as the World Organization Against Torture, Human Rights Watch, and Committee to Protect Journalists criticized the president’s initiatives for not leading to de facto political liberalization.
Press freedom is well indicative of the levels of democracy in a country. According to the data published by Reporters Without Borders, Kazakhstan ranks 157th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom in 2020 (see the graph below). Uzbekistan (ranked 156th) can hardly boast of the high levels of freedom of the press as well – although it is worth noting that there have been slight improvements in terms of this indicator since 2018. Belarus (153rd), where the journalists face equally stringent restrictions, ranks slightly higher than Kazakhstan in this global rating. In Kyrgyzstan (82nd), the press representatives enjoy greater freedom than their counterparts from Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan’s low ranking amidst the tightened control over the cyber-space and censorship demonstrates that the president’s reforms have had little if any effect on the level of press freedom in the country undergoing “liberalization.”
The intended beneficiaries of Tokayev’s reforms – civic activists have been highly skeptical about the country’s cosmetic democratization., Members of NGOs have complained about the disinformation campaign designed to discredit them on the eve of the parliamentary vote. Thus, the gap between the president’s rhetoric and the reality on the ground seems to have only increased the mistrust among civil society towards the authorities.
It is worth noting that president Tokayev set an ambitious goal of building a “hearing state,” based on the state-society dialogue. In practice, the president has adhered to this concept mostly regarding the apolitical yet resonant issues, such as ecology. For instance, Tokayev was quick to ban the building of the resort in Kok-Zhailau, and condemn the unlawful tree-felling in Almaty. And yet, the authorities have been relatively silent about the increased pressure on civil society in the pre-election period.
Kazakhstan’s leader portrayed himself as the reform-oriented politician at the UN General Assembly session and boasted of “unprecedented” democratic reforms in front of his counterparts from CSTO while reaffirming his desire to hold fair elections in January. However, the divergence between the president’s rhetoric and the regime’s actions has become particularly notable in the pre-election period. For the president, who often uses democratic jargon in the global fora, the international condemnation of Kazakhstan’s pre-election pressure on civil society may therefore entail considerable reputational costs.
Kazakhstan’s upcoming parliamentary vote is not the first instance when the regime will have to play democracy. While January elections hardly threaten the regime’s short-term survival, additional pressure on civil society, however, might be a risky endeavor that only widens the gap between the state and society in the long-run. The regime’s pre-election preparations may also negatively affect the international reputation of president Tokayev and might further expose the cosmetic character of his reforms. Even though Tokayev might not be “calling the shots,” it is precisely the second president who would be in charge of the state, which is about to hold elections already characterized by electoral manipulation. Ballot paper with no option to vote “against all” and containing the list of the pro-regime parties; the absence of effective opposition; restrictive measures against NGOs and independent observers in the pre-election period; the substitution of objective sociology with the one of the “chosen” and the “convenient”; the attempts to regulate the digital space under the pretexts of conducting cyber-exercises – all of these factors not only create favorable conditions for the authorities on the election day but also decrease their legitimacy in the long-run.
Amidst the growing socio-economic grievances and the declining trust in the leadership’s rhetoric, Ak Orda may consider demonstrating its adherence to the concept of the “hearing state” by reacting to the pre-election restrictions against NGOs and independent observers and by engaging in a genuine dialogue with the civil society. For now, it remains to be seen whether the independent voices in the country will be silenced altogether or whether the increased pressure on civil society might produce a counter-effect, resulting in increased civic activism.
This material has been 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 board or donor.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent those of Nazarbayev University.
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