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

Change for Kazakstan?

The authorities may not be able to ignore mass rallies which greeted presidential vote.
By Natalia Lee, Timur Toktonaliev
  • President of Kazakstan Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev. (Photo: President's Press Service)
    President of Kazakstan Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev. (Photo: President's Press Service)
  • Amirzhan Kossanov, a candidate of the national patriotic movement Ult Tagdyry [People’s Fate]. (Photo: qosanov2019.kz)
    Amirzhan Kossanov, a candidate of the national patriotic movement Ult Tagdyry [People’s Fate]. (Photo: qosanov2019.kz)

The victory of incumbent Kazak president Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, hand-picked successor of his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, in this week’s elections came as no surprise.

More unexpected, however, were the mass protests on election day, with hundreds of arrests made by the authorities including journalists.

(See also What Next After Nazarbayev?).

As the nation went to the polls on June 9, mass rallies were held in Almaty and Nur-Sultan calling for a boycott of the election. According to officials, nearly 500 protesters were detained in both cities.

 “When clashes started, I tried to free a girl who was taken away by a police officer, and then three or four police officers attacked me, twisted my arms back and forced me into a [police car],” said one young man who asked to remain anonymous. “Other people and I managed to get out from it, but we were caught again.”

He said that all of them had subsequently been charged with participation in an unsanctioned rally.

“Almost all of those detained were just like me, ordinary citizens who disagree with the current authorities,” he continued. “We spent more than 12 hours there, talked and discussed the street rallies, we were questioned in turns, and our mobile phones were carefully checked.”

International observers voiced concern over the way the authorities had handled the protests.

George Tsereteli, leader of the OSCE mission, noted that the election “took place in a political environment dominated by the ruling party, and that limited critical voices.

“While there was potential for Kazakhstan’s early presidential election to become a force for political change, a lack of regard for fundamental rights, including detentions of peaceful protestors, and widespread voting irregularities on election day, showed scant respect for democratic standards,” he said in a statement.

The Central Election Commission (CEC) registered 16 reports of infractions, including voter impersonation, while the OSCE noted that officials had instructed public sector employees and students to campaign and vote for the current president.

“Such activities blurred the line between party and state and raised concerns about voters’ ability to cast their vote freely,” the statement read.

However, Tokayev declared himself satisfied by the electoral process in a speech delivered at his election headquarters after exit polls clearly showed he had won.

 “I am glad the election campaign was civilised and calm…This suggests that the level of political culture in Kazakhstan has seriously increased,” he said.

Nonetheless, turnout in these elections were lower than in previous years. In the previous vote, turnout was a record 95.22 per cent and Nazarbayev won 97.75 per cent of the vote. This time, the turn-out was 77.4 per cent, with nearly 71 per cent of voters supporting the incumbent.

Although the assumption is that Nazarbayev’s surprise resignation in March does not signal his complete departure from power, some analysts said that his successor still had to prove his worth in the eyes of the people. Nazarbayev, 78, had led the country since the fall of the Soviet Union.

“Tokayev and Nazarbayev are absolutely different figures, and Tokayev surely cannot have the same level of support and trust as Nazarbayev used to have,” said political analyst Talgat Kaliev. “He has a rather different historic mission, different political weight, different level of recognisability.”

Speaking to journalists, Tokayev did appear to signal willingness to listen to critics.

“I am planning to establish a special committee on social conflicts to give an opportunity to all the young people, who… represent a creative movement, to become a part of the committee and could express their views,” he said.

This apparent openness may be spurred by the share of the vote won by opposition leader Amirzhan Kossanov who came in second place with 16.23 per cent.

Nur-Sultan-based analyst Anuar Temirov said that support for Kossanov could be interpreted as a protest vote.

“Those voters who disagree with the current political status quo have deemed Amirzhan Kossanov, a candidate of the national patriotic movement Ult Tagdyry [People’s Fate], as a candidate ‘against everyone’ and voted not so much for him, as against the system,” he said.

Almaty resident Tamilia Anchutkina said that this was exactly why she had voted for the opposition candidate.

“I voted for Kossanov just to be against Tokayev… This election is a kind of workout, a shakedown to start changing the living standards in our country,” she said.

Askar Mukashev, an independent analyst based in Nur-Sultan, said that the election had served as a dry run for the opposition ahead of parliamentary polls due in 2021, although the last two such votes have been snap elections.

“The opposition’s main target was not to win the election or counter those in power of Kazakhstan,” he continued. “The primary reason was to secure a presence and seats in the national parliament.”

In any case, he continued, the lack of coordination within the opposition had made it impossible for Kossanov to win more votes.

Kaliev said that widening his support base was key to the opposition figure’s future success.

“I hope Kossanov will manage to institutionalise this process, consolidate a mass of disappointed people, create a high-quality party, enter parliament and become an influential political forces,” he said.

A historic opportunity had been created by Nazarbayev’s resignation, he continued.

“Today’s president doesn’t have such power as Nazarbayev, in terms of both constitution and influence,” Kaliev said. “We’ve had constitutional reform in the last two years which has conferred powers both upon the parliament and upon the government. However, neither the government, nor the parliament managed to assume these powers to the utmost, as Nazarbayev dominated them too much.”

Natalia Lee and Timur Toktonaliev are IWPR editors in Bishkek. IWPR-trained journalists in Almaty and Nur-Sultan also contributed to this report.

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.