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

Kazakstan: High Hopes for New Party

Democratic Choice of Kazakstan is galvanised for action – but will it even be allowed to participate in elections?
By Rozani Ismailova

Kazakstan’s leading opposition group says it is well on the way to becoming an effective political fighting machine ahead of a general election this autumn.

But despite its ambitious plans, it’s not clear whether the Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, DCK, will even be allowed to field candidates in the election, scheduled for October.

The DCK held a congress on February 21 to formally set itself up as a political party. Prior to that, it was in legal terms a “movement”, which meant it could not take part in elections. Spokesman Vladimir Kozlov told IWPR that the main reason for becoming a party was to be able to exert more influence on the current authorities.

The congress voted to elect Galymzhan Zhakiyanov as party chairman, but since he is currently in jail, the acting leader will be Asylbek Kojakhmetov, a seasoned opposition activist.

The DCK was founded in 2001 by Zhakiyanov, who had previously been a regional governor, and former energy minister Mukhtar Ablyazov. The movement’s call for economic and political reform in Kazakstan, and especially its attack on cronyism within the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, and the backing it had from parts of the business sector, made it a more formidable adversary of the government than previous opposition groups.

Within months of setting up the DCK, both Zhakiyanov and Ablyazov had been tried on corruption charges and given lengthy prison sentences. International human rights groups condemned the court cases as politically motivated.

Kojakhmetov told IWPR that the top priority for the new party is to prepare for the general election.

He admits that the DCK may face obstructions in getting formal registration from the government – a precondition for putting candidates forward for election – but he remains undeterred.

If the authorities try to block registration, they will be in breach of every democratic principle, Kojakhmetov insists, although he accepts that such a move would be nothing new for Kazakstan. “They were doing it even before they adopted a law on political parties [in 2002] so as to be able to manipulate the registration process and get rid of their opponents,” he said.

Most outside observers agree that formally becoming a political party makes a lot of sense for the DCK. Andrei Chebotarev, an analyst with Transparency International in Kazakstan, thinks it is time for the party to consolidate its power base and take stock of the real level of solid support it can count on. The law requires any political party to have 50,000 members.

When it was first set up, the DCK was envisaged as a grouping broad enough to embrace a diversity of opposition forces, including Azamat, the Republican People’s Party, RPPK, of former prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, and figures from the government and commerce.

But as spokesman Kozlov said, much has changed in the last two years. Some DCK members have split to form the Ak Jol party, while Azamat and the RPPK are no longer recognised as parties following the change in the law. These changes have created both the space and the need for a consolidated opposition party. Currently, the only substantial political party opposed to Nazarbaev is the Communist Party.

The DCK may now be altering the way it operates to suit the changing times.

Dosym Satpaev, head of the Agency for Political Risk Assessment in Almaty, sees signs that the DCK is more open to working with political groups close to Nazarbaev, where there is some common ground.

“Some people believe that the DCK could serve as a bridge, engaging in dialogue with the authorities and working together with some pro-presidential parties,” said Satpaev.

Piotr Svoik, a leading figure in the DCK, agrees, noting for example that the Asar party led by the president’s daughter Dariga Nazarbaeva, has supported some changes to election legislation currently going through parliament – and electoral reform is top of the DCK’s agenda. And another pro-government party, Otan, is supportive of the DCK’s aim of strengthening the powers of parliament.

Another possible indicator of change is the arrival of 46-year-old Kojakhmetov – at one time a leading RPPK member – as party chief. Cheboratev believes leading a party will be a challenge for him.

But Rozlana Taukina, head of the Journalists in Trouble group, thinks Kojakhmetov has the right skills for the job, “He has good organisational skills plus management experience. He came from the business sector, founded a school of management and business, and is very pragmatic.”

Rozani Ismailova is an IWPR contributor in Almaty. Aleksei Gorodetsky is the pseudonym of a journalist in Almaty.

More IWPR's Global Voices