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

Kazak Election Law Fails to Impress

New legislation looks good on paper but opponents say will do nothing to make elections fairer.
By Roman Sadanov

A proposed election reform hailed by the government as a step forward for democracy in Kazakhstan will do nothing to check the mechanisms by which political opposition is suppressed, critics say.


The law was approved by parliament on February 20 but still has to be passed in a final reading in March, and then sent to President Nursultan Nazarbaev for his assent. But since deputies approved most of the key points of the original draft and made only limited amendments, it seems likely the legislation will be introduced in something like its present form in time for a general election later this year.


The government says the changes in the law – which centre on placing control of the election process in the hands of local authority councils rather than provincial governors – are intended to decentralise the system and make it work more democratically.


Zagipa Balieva, head of the Central Electoral Commission, CEC, the body which oversees elections at all levels in Kazakstan, said the new law, “corresponds to all democratic principles and will allow for fair and transparent elections”.


When the law was first made public in draft form in July last year, Balieva stressed that it had been prepared in close coordination with advisers from the OSCE.


International observers have been highly critical of the current system which allows government-appointed regional governors to control the election commissions.


The new law would mean that the local commissions – which work to the CEC – will instead be picked by elected local councils or maslikhats at provincial and district level, from a mix of people put forward by local government and political parties.


Other changes would relax a ban on candidates with a record of past offences in the area known as “administrative law”. This could potentially benefit opposition activists who have been found guilty of civil-law infringements – common enough when police move in to break up public demonstration which have not received prior permission - that might otherwise have disbarred them. A criminal record still rules out standing for office.


Another move that could reduce the potential for ballot-rigging is the rule that completed electoral rolls must be submitted to the election commissions at least 20 days before election day and can only be changed if a voter's name is misspelled.


But critics of the law say the changes are largely cosmetic and will do nothing to improve opposition candidates’chances of election.


They say that while the maslikhats may be elected bodies rather than appointed like the governors, they are still under a considerable degree of control from the authorities – not least because last year’s local elections were allegedly flawed.


Political parties now have the right to take part in election commissions – but few will be able to take advantage of it since it extends only to those standing for election. That rules out one of the main opposition groups, the Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, DCK, which has not been allowed to register and is thus not eligible to operate as a political party.


At Kazakstan’s last parliamentary election, held in 1999, the Communist Party took three out of the four seats won by the opposition. The fourth was won by the Republican People’s Party; the DCK had not been set up at the time.


The Communists are now the only opposition group officially recognised as a party, following new rules introduced in 2002 requiring parties to have a minimum of 50,000 members.


They now fear that even they will be deprived of their technical right to be represented on commissions. “Members of our party are unlikely to become members of the election commissions,” said Communist Party leader Serikbolsyn Abdildin. “That door is open only to the pro-government parties.”


Relaxing the rules to allow candidates to stand if they have been convicted of minor offences may also be less than it seems. This was one area where the law was changed under pressure from parliamentary deputies hoping to reduce the scope for government interference in the election process. In recent years, the government has been accused of sidelining political leaders opposed to it by instigating prosecutions on apparently separate matters.


The compromise that was agreed still rules out those convicted under criminal law – and critics say that gives the government the leeway it needs to dispose of troublesome politicians. “Our authoritarian regime is such that it can turn anyone from a political prisoner into a criminal one,” Dos Kushim, who heads the Republican Network of Independent Monitors, told IWPR.


Kushim said the ban violates both international standards and Kazakstan’s own law. “The constitution mentions only two categories of people who do not have the right to be candidates – prisoners and the mentally ill – so by introducing this new restriction in the election law we are violating the constitution,” he said.


“Nelson Mandela spent 25 years in jail and he was [viewed] as a recidivist of the first order. Czech president Vaclav Havel also spent time in prison. It must be up to the people – no one else – to decide who is to be a deputy or a president.”


One point on which the government seems to have been forced to back down was its proposal to bring in electronic voting, already introduced in neighbouring Russia.


“Computerisation is necessary so that our voters, candidates and observers can receive updated information,” CEC chief Balieva said when the idea was put forward. “It is virtually impossible to hack into the system.”


But during the debate, deputies raised concerns that the system could be manipulated. An electronic voting system is already used within the Kazak parliament, and there is a well-documented history of irregularities where the results sometimes list deputies who were not present at the vote.


“Even in Europe, where they have the means to introduce it, they are still using paper ballots,” commented Kushim. “If hackers can crack even the Pentagon codes, this system will be easy prey.”


Some see the law as simply sealing off any remaining chance for holding a fair election.


“They are not leaving a single space for the opposition,” said Abdildin. “The pro-government parties are already busy dividing up the seats in the parliament.”


Roman Sadanov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Astana.


More IWPR's Global Voices