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Kazakhstan votes

January 13, 2012

Kazakhstan is gearing up for parliamentary elections expected to end the ruling party's complete control of the legislature. However, dramatic political change in the autocratic-ruled country cannot be expected.

A Kazakh woman casts her ballot in the 2005 elections
Kazakhs will cast their ballots for 98 new MPsImage: AP

Kazakhs head to the polls on Sunday to vote for new members in the lower house of parliament, Mazhilis. President Nursultan Nazarbayev had called the elections several months ahead of the scheduled date. The polls could bring an end to the sole reign of Nazarbayev's ruling Nur Otan party in the legislature.

According to a survey by the Institute for Democracy, Nur Otan can still expect to win some 80 percent of the votes. Two parties, Ak Zhol and the Communists, are expected to win the majority of remaining votes. The pro-business Ak Zhol party is sympathetic to Nazarbayev and avoids all direct criticism of the president.

Manipulated elections?

Nursultan Nazarbayev
Nazarbayev says he wants to show that Kazakhstan is moving forward politicallyImage: dpa - Report

The lower house of the Kazakh parliament has 107 members. Of these, 98 deputies are elected by the people. The remaining nine MPs are chosen by the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, a presidentially appointed advisory body designed to represent the country's ethnic minorities.

Since Nur Otan won 88 percent of the votes in the last elections in August 2007 and none of the six opposition parties were able to surpass the seven percent entry threshold, Nazarbayev's party got all 98 seats. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) criticized that the election had not met international standards. Opposition parties, which are strongly limited in their rights, spoke of massive manipulation.

Nazarbayev, who was head of the Kazakh Communist Party in Soviet times, has pursued an authoritarian rule of the former Soviet republic since its independence in 1991. According to the constitution, a president can only serve a maximum of two consecutive terms. However, this regulation does not apply to the 71-year-old Nazarbayev, who holds the title of "First President" and can therefore run for office indefinitely.

A less-autocratic Kazakhstan?

The parliamentary elections had been originally scheduled for August 2012. But Nazarbayev called the snap elections in November 2011, after 53 MPs petitioned to have the Mazhilis parliament dissolved. The loyalist deputies justified their request with a constitutional amendment which required at least two parties to be represented in parliament.

Furthermore, the elections needed to be held before the looming economic crisis hit the oil-rich nation later in 2012, the government said. The discussions about early parliamentary elections had already begun in April 2011, shortly after the presidential elections were pulled forward, in which Nazarbayev was again re-elected. These polls were also criticized by the OSCE for irregularities.

Astana became Kazakhstan's capital in 1997Image: DW/Latschan

Observers said the amendment which guarantees the party with the second-best result to be represented in parliament even if it does not pass the seven-percent threshold can be attributed to criticism from the West. In practice, Nazarbayev only aimed to create a pseudo-democratic system that on the surface appeared to be less authoritarian, said Alexander Rahr from the German Council on Foreign Relations DGAP in Berlin.

"Such a Kazakhstan is supposed to be more acceptable and understandable for European partners," said Rahr, director of the Berthold Beitz Center for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia. The Kazakh leadership wanted to make the next parliament more colorful, he said.

Nazarbayev's position of power

Kazakh political analyst Erlan Karin said it is possible that even three parties make it into the legislature this time. But there is no doubt that Nazarbayev will continue to maintain his grip on power.

Riot police in Zhanaozen
Riot police were sent to crack down on protests in ZhanaozenImage: dapd

"Nur Otan will retain its predominant position," Karin said.

But Beate Eschment, a Central Asia analyst at the University of Bremen, said Nazarbayev does not have his country under control as much as he did in the past. This became evident in December 2011, when clashes between striking oil workers and security forces in the Caspian Sea city of Zhanaozen left 16 dead - the country's worst bloodshed since the fall of the Soviet Union.

"I do not assume that the order to violently put an end to the strikes came from the top," Eschment said. "But this doesn't mean that there weren't people in the system somewhere who issued this order. In my opinion, there are entirely new weaknesses and rifts in the Nazarbayev system."

She said Nazarbayev therefore reacted quickly. The president not only visited the region personally, he also fired top energy executives and his own son-in-law and one time possible successor. Timur Kulibayev, married to Nazarbayev's daughter Dinara, was head of the Samruk-Kazyna holding firm which has stakes in the companies whose workers were striking.

"He needed scapegoats at all costs," Eschment said.

The constitutional council had ordered that Sunday's polls should not be held in Zhanaozen due to the state of emergency imposed after the clashes. But this decision has been reversed after Nazarbayev intervened. The order had raised concerns that the residents of the region were being frozen out of the polls as punishment for protesting against the authorities.

Author: Markian Ostaptschuk / sac (Interviews: Madia Torebaeva, Mikhail Bushuev)
Editor: Rob Mudge