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Kazakstan to Enshrine Political Pluralism in Law

New bill envisages multiparty legislature, though critics say the authorities will seek to handpick parliamentary “opponents”.
By Yulia Milenkaya
Draft legislation setting out a framework for parliamentary democracy in Kazakstan amounts to little more than window-dressing, say critics of the government.

The think-tank behind the bill, meanwhile, insists it is part of a reform programme that has been in the works for some time.

Work on the law has been led by the Institute for Parliamentarianism, a think-tank attached to the ruling Nur Otan party. This suggests a high level of official interest in directing the process to define the terms under which other parties are allowed into the political mainstream.

Nur Otan is currently the only party with seats in parliament, as the other six which stood in the 1997 ballot failed to pass the threshold seven per cent of the vote that would make them eligible.

Analysts see the move as part of Kazakstan’s desire to produce a better set of democratic credentials when its turn comes to chair of the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe, OSCE, next year.

Other changes to legislation on elections, political parties and media proposed by government last November were viewed at the time as a direct response to criticism from some OSCE members which had opposed the Kazak bid for the chairmanship.

The latest bill is being seen as the next logical step in this process.

“Everything that’s being done in the political arena in Kazakstan, including the drafting of new legislation, amounts to specific steps towards Kazakstan’s OSCE chairmanship,” said Almaty-based political analyst Oleg Sidorov,

An anonymous source close to the Kazak government told IWPR that the changes were bound up with the OSCE chairmanship.

“The leadership realises we need to spruce ourselves up a little so as not to look like out-and-out barbarians,” said the source.

Officially, however, the position is that these changes have been planned over several years as part of wider political reforms

“Discussions about the need for it have been going on since as long ago as 2007, when Nur Otan assumed power,” Janargul Kusmangalieva, deputy director of the Institute for Parliamentarianism, told IWPR. “If we’re talking about our country going down the path of democracy, then of course a future parliament is going to be a multiparty one.”

Dosym Satpaev, director of the Risk Assessment Group, a think-tank in Kazakstan, notes that the bill follows neatly on from another change earlier this year designed to ensure that at least two parties will always be represented in the legislature.

Under amendments approved by Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev in February, even if only one party 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. (For a report on this, see Early Polls Looking Likely in Kazakstan, RCA No. 567, 24-Feb-09.)

“I think that this is simply a gradual step towards the two-party parliament the president was speaking about,” said Satpaev.

Motives aside, analysts are now wondering how the authorities will achieve a parliament that at least looks more pluralist.

Sidorov believes the change, possibly in the form of an early election, could come sooner rather than later, although he admits that “it is extremely difficult to make any kind of predictions about this. Astana will dictate the rules and present us with a fait accompli.”

Satpaev thinks that since an election would merely result in the election of government-selected candidates, the authorities might cut corners.

Holding a formal election, he said, would require a lot of funding, at a time when the government is short of money because of the ongoing financial crisis. Instead of changing the lower house or Majilis, the authorities could co-opt representatives of other parties into the Senate, the upper house, seven of whose 47 members are appointed by the president.

Satpaev discounts the inclusion of opposition groups, saying the question is whether any pro-government parties that are assigned seats will be existing ones or created especially for the purpose.

In any case, he said, “The second party in parliament will play only a formal role and will have absolutely no influence over the inner workings of parliament, let alone on increasing its ability to oversee the executive.”

Although Nur Otan is notionally the ruling party with a massive membership, and has been involved in a number of initiatives such as the present bill and an anti-corruption campaign, analysts say it wields little real power since all decisions of substance are taken by President Nazarbaev and his immediate circle.

According to political analyst Andrei Chebotarev, “If you look at the political groups in Kazakstan, Nur Otan party from its lofty position deals with day-to-day issues that do not have much bearing on serious political decision-making.” (For more on Nur Otan, see Party Goes On and On in Kazakstan, RCA No. 578, 22-May-09.)

At the same time, he said, the opposition was in poor shape. The Fair Kazakstan coalition set up this year united the National Social Democratic Party, the Communist Party of Kazakstan and the Alga People’s Party, but other players like the Azat Democratic Party, Ak Jol and the Auyl Social Democrats have remained outside it.

Yulia Milenkaya and Daulet Kanagatuly are IWPR-trained journalists in Kazakstan.

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