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Cool Response to Constitutional Changes in Kazakstan

The president and his party stand to gain most from the proposed amendments.
By Abdujalil Abdurasulov
Proposed constitutional changes hailed by the Kazak leadership as democratic reforms are actually aimed at ensuring President Nursultan Nazarbaev holds on to power even after he leaves office, say analysts interviewed by IWPR.

On the surface, the amendments suggested by Nazarbaev appear to advance political reforms in the country, one stipulation imposed by the OSCE if Kazakstan is to achieve its goal of chairing the organisation in 2009.

But rather than relax restrictive laws on formation of political parties and freedom of assembly, critics say that Nazarbaev has opted for changes that would strengthen his own Nur Otan party, and thereby consolidate his own position.

He wants to increase to 50 per cent the proportion of parliamentary seats elected by proportional representation using party lists. Currently, 67 of the 77 members of parliament are elected in first-past-the-post constituencies.

Under the new system, the majority party would have the right to pick a government – a shift from the current arrangement where the president appoints the prime minister, and then both decide on the cabinet together.

Nazarbaev is also suggesting that parliament should have control over the government budget, and nominate members to the Constitutional Council and the Central Electoral Commission.

The president has described the changes – which are now being examined by a working group with a view to finalising the amendments before they are put to the vote – as a reflection of “strategic priorities in the current phase of political modernisation”.

His critics are unconvinced, pointing out that the amendments are unlikely to create more democracy.

Political scientist Sergey Duvanov says Nur Otan – the largest and strongest party – will be the only one to benefit from a greater allocation of seats in parliament. As Otan, the party won 60 per cent of the vote in the last parliamentary election, and is now even stronger after it absorbed three smaller pro-Nazarbaev parties – Asar, the Agrarians and the Civic Party – changing its name in the process.

Andrey Chebotarev, director of the Alternative research centre, is certain that Nazarbaev’s plan is designed to strengthen Nur Otan.

He says the new constitutional arrangements would facilitate a Kazakstan version of regime change – allowing Nazarbaev to move a new position when he leaves office in 2013, and to enjoy most, if not all the influence he had as president.

“When the president’s term is over, such a mixed parliamentary-presidential system could come in very handy. The president could either be speaker of parliament or head of the dominant party. And so he would continue to rule the country.”

He explained Nazarbaev’s apparent reluctance to step away from politics altogether, saying, “Given our political culture, every leader expects to be persecuted by his successor. It’s a legacy of the Soviet period.”

Erkin Tykunov from the Central Asian Foundation for Democratic Development argues that the proposals are in fact a response to the OSCE’s concerns about whether Kazakstan is ready to take over the chairmanship of the regional grouping in 2009.

OSCE foreign ministers last year postponed the decision on Kazakstan’s bid, questioning its democratic credentials and pointing out that political reforms launched in 1991 are still incomplete. They plan to review the decision when they next meet in December.

“The reason for initiating this campaign to amend the constitution is the December OSCE summit in Madrid,” said Tykunov.

Whatever happens, Nazarbaev has made clear that he has no plans to give up too many of his presidential powers just yet. In a February 19 speech, he said the presidential system will be upheld, and the constitutional changes should not make the institution of the presidency any weaker.

Igor Rogov, the Constitutional Council chairman who has been appointed as the deputy head of the working group looking at the proposed changes, believes retaining the presidential system while simultaneously maximising the powers of parliament will speed up democratisation in Kazakstan.

Duvanov remains sceptical that the two concepts can sit side by side.

“The president has stated explicitly that the strong presidential system will remain,” he said. “If you ask who rules the state, how that happens, and which direction it takes, you arrive at the same person as before. Nothing will change.”

The working group is due to report in three or four months, after which the changes will be put to a vote – either in parliament or in a nationwide referendum.

Abdujalil Abdurasulov is an independent journalist based in Almaty.

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