There is a sense of excitement about the presidential election — the first without longtime President Nursultan Nazarbayev. But the opposition fears nothing will change just yet. Emily Sherwin reports from Kazakhstan.
Asya Tulesova is leaning over what looks like a big box in the middle of Almaty, Kazakhstan's biggest city. She is exchanging the filter tape in an air quality monitor, slowing and carefully rolling the tape up and looking at gray measurement indicators as she goes. Tulesova is a well-known eco-activist in the Central Asian country, but she has also become one of the faces of its opposition movement.
"Any attempts to express your opinion are repressed in Kazakhstan, through arrests and fines. And many activists are being sent to serve in the army," Tulesova says, pointing out that one activist was recently arrested for holding a blank placard. She explains that the ecology movement is one of the only remaining ways for activists to defend people's rights in the country, along with artistic projects and social media campaigns. "There aren't many political freedoms in Kazakhstan."
Tulesova knows that all too well. In late April, she and one other activist were detained for 15 days for holding up a banner during a marathon in Almaty. Their sign read "You can't run from the truth" and featured hashtags calling for free and fair elections. The authorities labeled it an unauthorized protest. In a rare show of public discontent, just days later, hundreds of people came out into the streets of Kazakhstan's cities loudly voicing their opposition to "dictatorship" and support for a free ballot.
Early elections will be taking place in Kazakhstan on June 9, after Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down as president in March. Nazarbayev served as president for nearly 30 years, and hand-picked his close ally Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to take over as interim president. Tokayev called for snap elections, which he promised would be "fair and transparent." Tokayev served as the country's prime minister and foreign minister for many years. He is now on the ballot along with six other candidates, who are not nearly as well known in the country. Tokayev is widely expected to win the election.
Passing the baton?
In Kazakhstan's cities, campaign posters plaster bus stops and billboards along the main streets. Tokayev is running on a platform of stability. His slogan, which unashamedly presents him as the natural successor to Nazarbayev, reads: "Continuity, fairness, progress."
"His campaign advertisements are everywhere," one young couple tells DW. Probably, "everyone will vote for Tokayev," the two said. "You come out of your house and his advertisements are there. Even people who didn't know who he was now know."
Despite stepping down, Nazarbayev himself is also still omnipresent in Kazakhstan. Streets around the country are named after him and the capital, Astana, was renamed Nur-Sultan in his honor. Video advertisements show the former president surrounded by his people. "Leader of the Nation" is still his official title. Regardless of the outcome of the election, Nazarbayev will remain in charge of the Security Council in the country.
According to political scientists and opposition activist Dimash Alzhanov, that means he will remain "fully in control of the situation" in the country, no matter what happens in the elections.
"The political field here has been completely sterilized. There are no independent parties, and no independent candidates are taking part in this election — they are fully under government control. These elections are more of an administrative task the government has set for itself." He argues that Kazakh authorities are trying to achieve a high turnout at the ballot box for "legitimacy."
Opposition on the ballot
None of Kazakhstan's previous elections have been recognized as free and fair by the international community. Still, there does seem to be an attempt to show voters that there is a choice. Also running for office in Sunday's election is Dania Yespayeva, Kazakhstan's first female presidential candidate and its first truly critical candidate in more than a decade.
Experienced opposition politician Amirzhan Kosanov is campaigning for political freedoms and against social inequality and corruption. He admits even he was surprised to be registered for the presidential race, explaining that "the government wants to show that it is taking some sort of steps toward political liberalization."
In his sparse campaign office in the capital, Kosanov hands out flyers to volunteers and tells DW that the campaign is a good opportunity to have a broader platform for government criticism and gauge the mood among voters. Kosanov hopes to attract the protest vote. Even if time restrictions and geography have prevented him from traveling the vast country to campaign, Kosanov says regular live social media meetings with voters have given him a sense that Kazakhs want to voice their discontent.
"I see my chances as good because people are dissatisfied. People see how in other countries, including other post-Soviet countries, one president leaves and another one comes — and there is nothing scary about that. People want that for Kazakhstan. After having one president for 30 years, people want change," he says. One poll shows Kosanov could take almost 8% of the vote, coming in second place. Tokayev is polling at nearly 73%.
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Hoping for change
Still, ahead of Kazakhstan's first vote without Nazarbayev, many people are excited at the prospect of change. "Right now is the moment to show that people can take things into their own hands," one young man in Nur-Sultan tells DW.
But many opposition activists are less optimistic and argue that everyone on the ballot is cooperating with a corrupt, government-controlled system. Some are even calling for a boycott or for ballot spoiling.
On election day, community activist Tulesova plans to monitor the ballot with young observers from the Youth Information Service of Kazakhstan. "Do I have any expectations about the elections? No. I think that our system is such that we can essentially already say who will win," she says.
Still, Tulesova argues that being politically active on election day is important. "The main thing is that we all monitor these elections," she says. "Nothing will be solved by itself unless we start uniting — and expressing our demands."
And she is not the only one pushing for unity among dissenters. In a recent social media video, Tulesova is one of many people fighting against political apathy in the country. On June 5, activists, including political analyst Dimash Alzhanov, announced they had created a new, politically independent leaderless "civic movement" called "Wake up, Kazakhstan." They say anyone can join the movement and insist it is not a party.
"We aim to create democratic institutions and allow for an open political process. We want to fight for the rights of every citizen in this country," Alzhanov explained at a recent press conference.