Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Business As Usual for Kazak Elections

Upheaval in Kyrgyzstan and Belarus not expected to affect the outcome of January 10 polls.
By IWPR Central Asia

Political turbulence elsewhere in the region is unlikely to be replicated in Kazakstan’s upcoming parliamentary elections, according to analysts at an online IWPR and Chatham House panel discussion.

The experts said that upheaval in Kyrgyzstan which brought down the government following disputed October elections, as well as an ongoing uprising against the authoritarian regime in Belarus, had indeed concerned officials in Nur-Sultan.

However, the ruling Nur-Otan party, headed by former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, was still expected to win its usual victory in the January 10, 2021 polls.

This may disappoint those who had hoped that current president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who replaced Nazarbayev in 2019, would have allowed a more pluralistic political atmosphere.

But Shalkar Nurseitov, a political analyst based in Almaty, said that Tokayev’s supposed political reforms amounted merely to “cosmetic changes” to existing laws.

These changes were not necessarily more progressive, he continued, noting that an amendment to the law on peaceful assembly that only allowed sanctioned rallies had been widely criticised by human rights experts.

Nurseitov said that not only was the ruling Nur Otan party “the number one political actor in the upcoming elections,” but had also been monopolising the news cycle since the start of the pandemic.

“When the Kazak government started the first lockdown in the middle of March, Nur Otan started the #BizBirgemiz (We are Together) campaign which they framed as support from the party to impoverished people,” he said. “Nazarbayev called some oligarchs and other businesspeople in Kazakstan to join and since then this has been promoted as the main campaign in Kazakhstan to help people in the challenging time of the pandemic.”

As for the elections, only sanctioned opposition parties would be contenders, Nurseitov continued, although they contained a diversity of representation.

“I can say that the upcoming elections in Kazakstan can be called the Nazarbayev-Tokayev regime sanctioned elections, because… currently only sanctioned rallies are allowed, only sanctioned political rivals of Nur Otan are allowed to take part in the elections, and only sanctioned organisations are allowed to conduct opinion polls,” he said. “The main picture here is that Nursultan is very nervous in the upcoming elections because of the upheavals in neighbouring countries and because of the fact that last year many Kazaks went out to the streets after the presidential elections.

“However, in my opinion, this January we will not see many people going out to the streets because there is no political party trying to capitalise on the popular discontent with the government or Nur Otan, so we will not see the scenarios that we saw in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan.”

Almaty-based journalist Assem Zhapisheva divided the opposition into three main groups. There were the formal bodies such as Ak Zhol, Adal - formerly Birlik - and the Kazakstan People’s Party. Then there were groups including El Tirege, Uran and a few others which focused on social reforms and economic problems rather than political issues.

The third and smallest group Zhapisheva called “the real opposition” included Janbolat Mamayev’s Democratic party, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan and few others. Their only involvement in the elections would be organising demonstrations on January 10.

“The main question for the Kazak opposition in these elections is to gather people on the streets, because there has never been a prospect that actual opposition groups will be allowed in parliament,” Zhapisheva said.

However, Zhapisheva said that she did not expect mass protests, not least because of a lack of interest in the upcoming elections.

“For people to go to the streets and protest there should be some triggers and in the case of Kazakstan, we have two triggers that usually work,” she continued.  The first trigger occurred when Nazarbayev stepped down last spring. The second trigger might be an economic reason. Even if some protests happen, they will be connected to money and not politics.”

Political scientist Daniyar Kussainov said that despite the predicted outcome of the elections, turbulence elsewhere was affecting the government’s approach to the polls.

“What is interesting about these elections is the nervousness of the authorities because of political unrest in post-Soviet countries such as Belarus and Kyrgyzstan,” he continued. “Obviously, Belarus is neighbouring EU countries and the influence of international actors is much greater in Belarus than in Kazakstan. The fact that Kazakstan is being between Russia and China does not put it in a favourable position for the involvement of other international actors.

“Another difference between Belarus and Kazakstan is the absence of an opposition party contesting the upcoming elections in Kazakstan. In Belarus, it was clear that [presidential candidate Svietlana] Tikhanovskaya was the symbol of the opposition and we observed solidarity among the opposition forces, but we do not have a similar situation in Kazakstan.”

As for Kyrgyzstan, Kussainov continued - also due to have elections on January 10 - citizens expectations of political change were fuelled by experience of previous revolutions in 2010 and 2015, as well as a vibrant civil society.

“However, in Kazakstan people do not really see that their actions or protests could lead to significant changes in the political landscape,” he said. “Moreover, Kyrgyzstan is more dependent on international aid, so international organisations and western normative power have more influence on the politics of Kyrgyzstan. Obviously, it is not the same in Kazakstan.”

This publication was prepared under the "Giving Voice, Driving Change - from the Borderland to the Steppes Project" implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.