Early Polls Looking Likely in Kazakstan

The authorities are saying nothing, but there are mounting reasons why they might opt for a parliamentary election sooner rather than later.

Early Polls Looking Likely in Kazakstan

The authorities are saying nothing, but there are mounting reasons why they might opt for a parliamentary election sooner rather than later.

Thursday, 26 February, 2009
There is renewed speculation that an early election may be called in Kazakstan after the law was changed to create more scope for a multi-party parliament.

However, none of the political analysts questioned by IWPR believed that Nur Otan, the presidential party which is currently the only one represented in parliament, would be joined by a combative opposition group as a result of the changes.

President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed off on amendments to the electoral legislation on February 9, meaning that at least two parties will always be present in parliament. Even if only one gathers the required seven per cent of the vote, the runner-up will also be awarded seats under a complicated formula based on proportional representation.

The last election held in August 2007 created a one-party parliament, since only the president’s Nur Otan surpassed the barrier. The other six parties which fielded candidates were left out in the cold.

The election cast a shadow over Kazakstan’s democratic credentials at a time when the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, was considering its application to chair the organisation. The bid was finally approved later that year, and the Kazaks will take over the helm of the OSCE in 2010.

The next parliamentary ballot is not due until 2012, but analysts say there are good reasons why the authorities might opt for an early election. For one thing, they might want to get it over and done with before their big OSCE year, and for another, this would preempt any deterioration in the already difficult economic situation and prevent the opposition from capitalising on it.

Finally, they might want to avoid holding the election at the same time as the presidential ballot, also due in 2012.

The authorities are maintaining a stony silence on the early election issue, although speculation has been rife since last year.

However, the president’s adviser on political affairs Yermukhamet Yertysbaev, recently let slip that the issue was at least on the agenda.

“The most convenient moment for an election is now,” he said at an event organised by the AITpark debating club on February 17, noting that it would be better if Kazakstan had a multi-party system by the time it took over the OSCE chair.

Yertysbaev made it clear he was speaking only in a personal capacity, and said that in any case, no decision had been taken. “It isn’t me who decides these matters,” he added.

An anonymous source in government told IWPR that the current thinking is that an early election would help assuage concerns in the international community about Kazakstan’s record on democracy.

“Everyone understands that the election has to be conducted soon, because Kazakstan cannot be chair of the OSCE with a one-party parliament, and that time is approaching fast,” he said.

He indicated that the authorities were already meeting their political PR advisers to identify the best date for an election.

Most of the analysts interviewed agreed that a 2009 date was likely.

Eduard Poletaev, chief editor of Mir Yevrazii, a monthly political magazine, said that while the authorities and Nur Otan might appear to be in an unassailable position, they felt uncomfortable about moving towards to the OSCE chairmanship with the political set-up as it was now.

Petr Svoik, a leading member of the opposition party Azat, said the political situation was extremely fluid so “anything is possible”, but that the tenser things became, the more likely it was that the authorities would go for an early election.

The Kazak economy has suffered a reverse after the oil-fuelled boom of recent years. The international financial crisis has left its banks over-extended and reluctant to issue new domestic loans, which in turn has curbed investment and led to job losses.

Andrei Chebotarev of the Alternativa Centre for Political Research, believes there are “plenty of reasons” to hold a ballot ahead of time.

In an interview for a Moscow-based think tank on January 13, he warned of a groundswell of protest by groups such as workers made unemployed by the closure of factories, people struggling to repay their mortgages, and residents of buildings threatened with demolition by property developers.

“So far all of them have been trying to defend their own social and economic rights, but at any moment, a section of this protest movement could switch to making political demands, and take more decisive action to further these,” said Chebotarev.

In that light, he said, it made sense for the authorities to go for a ballot sooner rather than later.

Supposing an early election does take place and at least one other party joins Nur Otan in the legislature, will it make for a more democratic system? According to most of the analysts to whom IWPR spoke, that is unlikely.

Svoik said it was doubtful that any of the existing opposition parties would make it into parliament, as the electoral bodies that count the vote are susceptible to government pressure.

Political scientist Amirjan Kosanov predicted that Nur Otan would continue to dominate.

“Unfortunately, there’s no real consolidation or unity among our [opposition] democratic forces,” he said. “While the opposition is distracted [by internecine strife] from its main objective, I think the authorities are working on a project to create a second pro-regime party.”

This “pseudo-democratic project”, he added, was designed to “persuade both the public in Kazakstan and the international community that an alternative to Nur Otan has appeared”.

Chebotarev agreed, telling IWPR that “Nur Otan will always be in the majority, although it might no longer be the sole actor in parliament”.

“There won’t be major changes,” he said of the election. “Maybe [changes] to the make-up of parliament, but nothing serious. The OSCE issue might have some liberalising effect, but that’s an unknown at the moment.”

Anton Dosybiev and Marik Koshabaev are IWPR-trained journalists in Almaty.
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