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

Comment: Kazak Election - Reading Between the Lines

Focus on predictable success of presidential party has distracted attention away from positive aspects of election results.
By Dosym Satpaev

By focussing on the predictable success of the president’s party in the September 19 parliamentary elections in Kazakstan, observers have ignored the significance of gains made by less mainstream contenders.

Preliminary election results announced by head of the Central Electoral Commission Zagipa Balieva on September 23 showed the presidential Otan party gaining a large majority of seats in parliament.

But few observers have noted the gains made by the Asar party – headed by the president’s daughter Dariga Nazarbaeva – and the opposition Ak Jol party, which both secured seats in parliament for the first time.

Since Nazarbaeva is likely to want to take an independent line in parliament, these developments could mark a significant shift in the Kazak political scene.

Kazak parliamentary elections are divided into two votes – one national, one local.

The Otan party won 60.62 per cent of votes in the national party-based ballot, giving its representatives seven of the seats in the lower house of parliament reserved for deputies elected in this way.

Another three of these seats will be shared between the Ak Jol, which gained 12.04 per cent of the vote, Asar with 11.3 per cent, and the pro-presidential Agrarian-Industrial Union of Workers, AIST, bloc with 7.07 per cent. The remaining parties failed to clear the 7 per cent barrier necessary to gain a seat in parliament.

The second ballot in the Kazak parliamentary election system allots seats to individual candidates from each of the country’s 67 constituencies.

Voting has so far been carried out in 45 districts, 27 of which elected candidates affiliated with Otan. Candidates from the AIST bloc won in nine districts, Asar ones won in two districts and independents took the final seven seats.

Voting on individual candidates in the remaining 22 districts is due to take place on October 3. But the situation as it stands at the moment leaves Otan holding 34 seats in the lower house of parliament, the AIST bloc with ten, Asar three, Ak Jol one s and independents seven.

Reactions to the elections were split. Observers from CIS states were largely satisfied with the process, saying voting was carried out with no major irregularities. The US government and OSCE disagreed, arguing that Kazakstan had failed to act in accordance with standards that it has in the past agreed to meet. And opposition politicians went as far as to reject the results completely, saying they would push for new elections.

Of course the result will be a boost for Nazarbaev. Otan’s landslide victory will be seen as a symbol of the legitimacy of the current administration, which was apparently shown to have the support of the majority of Kazak citizens.

But the second place gained by Ak Jol marred Otan’s success somewhat. It seems that many Kazak voters have come to agree with the Ak Jol leadership that the stability advertised by the Otan party in its election campaign – “Vote for Otan - vote for stability!” – could in fact lead to stagnation.

For Ak Jol, as for Asar, the recent elections were necessary as an opportunity for political self-assertion, primarily in the eyes of the regime, being the first time that either party has secured seats in parliament.

The president does not see any serious danger from having Ak Jol in parliament. Not yet, at least. But their moderate position may change if they feel the regime is beginning to treat them badly. If this happens, they will be able to use the same extreme rhetoric that the DCK and Communists bloc has used in the past as a means of applying political pressure.

Of course it remains to be seen how Ak Jol will behave now that it has gained a presence in parliament. But one would hope that if the party lives up to its obligation to follow through with the promises it made to voters, parliamentary debate might at least now be more lively than it has been in the past.

The success of Asar could also prove to be a significant result.

If not for Asar, Ak Jol would be second in parliament – and the presidential administration knows this. Under the circumstances, the president might be tempted to view Asar as a counterweight to Ak Jol’s new political standing.

But it seems likely that Dariga Nazarbaeva will be keen to keep up her pre-election efforts to maintain her status as an independent politician, and avoid being thought of as just the president’s daughter.

If this is the case, it is possible that her party will not keep up a unified front in parliament with Otan, especially since the parties tend to regard each other as rivals for influence over Nazarbaev. This rivalry is likely to be given a second wind as the 2006 presidential elections approach.

The success of Otan and Asar came as no surprise, given the huge resources at their disposal. Besides powerful financial backing, Otan was also able to rely on the support of the incumbent administration throughout the election campaign.

And as well as equally impressive financial resources, Asar – with the president’s media tycoon daughter at its head – made full use of its influence over the Kazak broadcasters.

The pro-presidential parties also benefited from the fact that most individual candidates running for parliament in the regions knew their victory would to a large degree depend on the support of local and regional governors, whose sympathies are divided between Otan and Asar and the AIST bloc.

As a result, it was always likely that the majority of individuals running for parliament would be supporters of the president. Given the usual level of loyalty to the head of state amongst regional candidates, it is even possible that some deputies who gained seats as independents might subsequently announce their decision to join one of the pro-presidential parties.

But the success of Asar in particular was marred by mistakes it made during campaigning, the biggest of which was to begin its election campaign before everyone else so that voters had grown tired of it by the time elections came around.

Ak Jol acted more sensibly in this respect, waiting until just a month before the ballot before hammering clear, understandable and very attractive initiatives into the heads of voters.

Most important of these were an emphasis on fighting corruption and an insistence that the state’s oil revenue should be shared with ordinary citizens, a platform similar to that propounded by the bloc made up of the DCK and the Communists.

But the latter parties focused too much on traditional criticism of the country’s leadership. They supposed that such attacks alone would attract a large percentage of voters. But they failed to appreciate that many Kazak citizens do not want drastic changes, preferring evolutionary development and political and economic reforms.

Tactics picked up from Russian politics also had a role to play in the election results, particularly in the hands of Otan and Asar and particularly in relation to the DCK and Communist bloc.

The defeat of this bloc was a pity, since however unhappy the authorities feel about the radical nature of their political demands, success for them would have completed the spectrum of political views present in parliament and made it a truly representative body of power.

But the bloc’s defeat came as little surprise to anyone. For the president, having people in parliament who would once more have raised thorny issues such as the “Kazakgate” scandal would have been a major disappointment.

According to preliminary figures, the DCK and Communist bloc gained 6.2 per cent of the vote, leaving it just a few fractions off the seven per cent threshold necessary for a seat in parliament. Obstacles faced by the bloc during the election campaign ensured that it failed to meet this figure.

Besides the inclusion of Serikbolsyn Abdildin, Tolen Tokhtasynov, Guljan Ergalieva and others on the list of politically unreliable figures, the bloc also had to compete with clone parties – the Democratic Party of Kazakstan and the Communist People’s Party of Kazakstan – designed to draw away its target voters.

It must not be forgotten that for many participants the parliamentary elections will have served as a general rehearsal for the presidential poll in 2006.

Given the chance to gauge public opinion, the administration will of course have been pleased with the majority result achieved by Otan.

But it should be remembered that Ak Jol has now seen that it is also capable of taking part in elections and winning, a realisation that is bound to prove a significant stimulus to further political activity.

And it remains to be seen whether Asar might still turn out to be less of a lap-dog than the president had hoped.

Dosym Satpaev is the director of the non-governmental organisation Assessment of Risks Group, ARG.