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

Central Asia: Feb/Mar '11

IWPR event leads to development of internet map of abuses of electoral procedure reported by members of the public.
By Aitolkyn Kourmanova

An IWPR event in Kazakstan has highlighted fears that the authorities corralled public-sector workers into voting for President Nursultan Nazarbaev ahead of last month’s election.

The March 16 round-table debate in Almaty prompted an innovative election monitoring initiative run by the Kazak service of RFE/RL, in which abuses of electoral procedure were reported by members of public and collated in visual form.

Past elections in Kazakstan, where President Nazarbaev has been in charge since independence and his Nur Otan party is the only one now in parliament, have been repeatedly criticised by watchdog groups for falling short of international standards for fair and free ballots.

One of the abuses commonly cited is the practice of coercing public-sector workers, students and members of the security services personnel into voting for pro-regime candidates.

As preparations for the April 3 presidential ballot unfolded, human rights groups, media and members of Kazakstan’s opposition raised the alarm about the lack of external scrutiny over campaigning within institutions under state control including the civil service, the army, police, universities and hospitals.

RFE/RL journalist Sultankhan Akkululy said the IWPR event and the mapping project that followed shed light on an issue that much of the conventional media had been ignoring. The round table – broadcast in live video – generated lots of immediate feedback.

The election abuse mapping exercise resulted in an internet map showing dots scattered across the country indicating where violations had been reported by eyewitnesses.

Akkuly said the map showed how new technologies could be used to give people a direct input into scrutinising the conduct of elections. He noted that it would also be applicable to the parliamentary election which is supposed to take place in 2012 but may well be brought forward to this year.

Hailing the outcome of the debate, prison rights activist Vadim Kuramshin said, “I believe many rights organisations will conclude that there’s a need to discuss voters’ rights in an open and honest manner, particularly ahead of the parliamentary election as well as in future polls.”

Jarkynay Alieva, who is at university in Almaty, said she had witnessed cases where fellow-students had been instructed who they should vote for.

“It’s clear this is how students are coerced into voting not just at our university, but also elsewhere,” she said.

While students often said how unhappy they were about the practice, Alieva said, they were not moved to speak out about it vocally.

“I believe many students feel indifferent about elections. They think that irrespective of who they vote for, the end result will be the one desired by the authorities,” she said. “Some are too fearful to complain to human rights organisations, while others see it as pointless.”

Alieva said she had learned that there were ways of defending one’s rights, after all.

“We discovered that there are organisations that monitor and record irregularities, and that we can go to them if we witness a violation of voters’ rights,” she said.

Margarita Uskembaeva, head of the Institute for Equal Rights and Equal Opportunities, said the IWPR event highlighted a widespread problem in Kazakstan.

“The IWPR round-table was very interesting indeed. It was the first time as a rights defender that I’ve taken part in a courageous debate on a pressing issue. Frankly speaking, this kind of public discussion was long overdue,” she said.

Aitolkyn Kourmanova is IWPR country director in Kazakstan.

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