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E-Voting Controversy in Kazakstan

As Kazak voters elect a president, opinion remains divided on the fairness of computerised polling.
By Baurzhan Tleusenov
About one in seven voters going to the polls in Sunday's presidential election in Kazakstan will be using an electronic polling system branded state-of-the art by the authorities.



However, detractors of the new system, including prominent opposition figures, suggest that all the technological wizardry merely provides more sophisticated ways to rig the election, and should therefore be decommissioned.



The Saylau computer system, which cost 24 million US dollars to develop, was first used in the 2004 parliamentary election, as Samat Uvaliev, deputy head of the information technology centre at the Central Election Commission, CEC, proudly explained.



"The idea came from the Academy of Sciences of Belarus, and all the rest was developed by technical staff here in Kazakstan," he told IWPR.



Last year's election saw 961 constituencies – about ten per cent of the nationwide total – using the computerised ballot. "This year we've modernised it a bit, introducing a swipe card for voters, and we're going to use it at 1,447 polling sites, that's 15 per cent of the total," said Uvaliev.



He added that his IT colleagues at the CEC wanted to use the system at 60 per cent of polling stations, but the OSCE recommended a more gradual introduction



The opposition is unhappy at its use in even 15 per cent of polling stations. On November 30, the campaign teams of three of President Nursultan Nazarbaev's rivals in the race – Jarmakhan Tuyakbay, Alikhan Baimenov and Erasyl Abylkasymov – issued a joint statement saying the Saylau technology should not be used in the December 4 ballot, as it made it more likely that the vote would be unfair.



They suspect that the election results can be manipulated once inside the computer.



Speaking the following day, Baimenov's campaign manager Ludmila Zhulanova also voiced concern that whereas previously voters had to show their passport or some other form of identification, this time they might only have to have a note of their ID details with them. "So if someone is not physically present, but his ID details are on hand, that would be enough to vote on behalf of that person," she said.



Zhulanova also alleged that public-sector workers were being pressured to vote electronically, even though everyone is supposed to be able to opt for the conventional paper ballot. "They are being subjected to psychological pressure and warned that someone will know exactly who they voted for," she said.



Tuyakbay, seen as Nazarbaev's most serious rival, notes the computer software's country of origin is not exactly renowned for fair and transparent elections.



"The fact that the programme was written in Belarus raises certain doubts about it," he said.



"The authorities' desire to rush the system into use is evidence that they intend to use it to amend the election results. Any system that counts the votes at the CEC rather than at the polling station itself… raises major concerns."



The authorities, and those backing the Nazarbaev campaign, dispute these allegations and say the new IT cannot be used to tamper with results.



"We used the electronic ballot system in last year's parliamentary election and many experts saw positive things in its use," said Nazarbaev campaign spokesman Arman Shuraev. "We're living in the 21st century and I think that in five year's time the electronic ballot will be universal….



"The possibility of entering additional votes is entirely ruled out. The servers are located at the CEC and election monitors can check them out – it'll be quite transparent."



Professor Nurbulat Masanov, a political analyst, believes that confidence is all-important. "If there are any doubts at all about the reliability of electronic voting, and if it could be a source of ballot rigging, it would be better not to use it," he said.



Masanov thinks the time to introduce the system will be when the Kazak state is distinct as an entity from the politicians within it.



"What we have [at the moment] is the state as a component part within one political grouping. All the election commissions are on the side of one presidential candidate, so there's no confidence in them."



Baurzhan Tleusenov is an IWPR contributor in Almaty.

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