Kazakstan: Same President, New Reforms?

The incumbent has promised change, but prospects for a more democratic system are not promising.

Kazakstan: Same President, New Reforms?

The incumbent has promised change, but prospects for a more democratic system are not promising.

Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev votes in the the snap presidential election on November 20, 2022.
Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev votes in the the snap presidential election on November 20, 2022. © Official website of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Akorda.kz
Tuesday, 22 November, 2022

Kazakstan’s president Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev has secured a second term, extending his rule over Central Asian nation by seven more years despite rising concerns that he will not implement the reforms he has promised.

Observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the snap presidential vote on November 20 “lacked competitiveness” and underlined the need for further legal reforms to ensure genuine pluralism.

“The incumbent stood as the joint candidate of all parliamentary parties and, in effect, was not meaningfully challenged in a low-key campaign,” the mission said in a statement, adding that “the ability of citizens to participate fully in political life remains significantly constrained, including by limitations on fundamental freedoms”

Kazakstan's foreign ministry criticised the assessment as “lacking objectivity.”

The EU sent a similar message, stating that it would continue to work with Kazakstan and back important reforms to enable "a fully transparent and competitive political environment”.

The snap vote and Tokayev’s win wrap up a tumultuous year. In January, Kazak citizens took to the street chanting Shal, ket!” (Old man, go away!) in a clear message for ex-president Nursultan Nazarbayev. For them Nazarbayev, who ruled the country from independence in 1991 until his formal resignation in March 2019, was no longer elbasy - leader of the nation.

People wanted a new deal and Tokayev, who replaced Nazarbayev in 2019, promised them one. Political reforms were announced in March and a referendum held in June to amend the constitution - although the head of state had vowed not to change it - to guarantee a redistribution of power and a stronger parliament.

Visible changes have yet to materialise, starting from moving on from the Nazarbayev era.  The highly symbolic law awarding him the status of elbasy remains part of the constitution.

“Probably, that’s why we still can feel the [his] influence,” former member of parliament Ualikhan Kaisarov told IWPR. “If they remove the status of elbasy, we can expect some changes, but if they fail to, everything would remain as it is.”

On September 14, the constitutional council endorsed Tokayev’s initiative to increase the presidential term from five to seven years and limit it to one term. He then announced a snap presidential election.

“[I] can see that the wave of expectation and hope turns into disappointment and apathy because we can see imitation instead of changes, preservation of the centralised government instead of redistribution of power,” Serik Beisembaev, head of the PaperLab think tank, said at a meeting in Astana on October 28. “Instead of new parties we see the same, and instead of a fair election we see a presidential vote for a seven-year term and with the current [president].”


The election campaign was indeed listless. Kazaks were little aware of Tokayev’s rivals – public figure Karakat Abden, entrepreneur Zhiguli Dairabaev, human rights activist Saltanat Tursynbekova, economist-researcher Meiram Kazhyken, and chair of the capital branch of the Nationwide Social Democratic Party Nurlan Auesbaev.

Requirements for candidates, unchanged since Nazarbayev’s time, such as the mandatory five-year experience in civil service, significantly limited access to the race.

“The opposition failed to nominate one candidate and it lost heavily in this regard. After the nomination, it became clear for the public that there were no worthy candidates, and Tokayev was in the most comfortable position,” Kaisarov said.

Independent observers reported attempts to hamper their work as well as fraud at the ballot box.

On November 7, the Erkindik Kanaty (Wings of Freedom) foundation reported a mass attack on their database with personal data of observers, suggesting there was a coordinated campaign in order to discredit the group and distract it from observing the vote.

On election day, the foundation, alongside other independent observers’ groups, reported violations at precincts and obstruction to their work. They denounced ballot box stuffing and pressure from election commissions.  

Independent observers, a recent phenomenon in Kazakstan, were first admitted in the 2019 vote that resulted in Tokayev’s appointment. Citizens organised a protest vote indicating independent politician and journalist Amirzhan Kosanov as an alternative to Tokayev.

“In 2019, for the first time in the history of Kazakstan, the candidate of the government [Tokayev] won just over 70 per cent of the votes; the elbasy had always won with a much larger margin,” Roman Reimer, co-founder of Erkindik Kanaty, told IWPR.Authorities learned the lesson and realised that observers were a threat to them. Since 2021, the state follows the path of creation of their ‘own civil society’ and, moreover, constantly produces legal acts that restrict observers’ work.”

He added that the government had trained civil society representatives who “work at the station not as observers, but as the right hand of the chair [in] some kind of merge between election commission members and observers”.

“I doubt he will leave office quietly."

Street protests took place on election day, with the police arresting supporters of the Oyan, Qazaqstan (Wake up, Kazakstan) movement as they held demonstrations with slogans like “Will we live [long enough] to see fair elections?”

In Almaty, Kazakstan’s largest city, Democratic Party of Kazakhstan (DPK) activists were briefly detained after they staged protests against snap presidential election.

On November 17, authorities reported threats from a criminal group who had planned “mass disorders, attacks on administrative buildings of state and law enforcement bodies” on November 20. Kazakstan’s national security committee stated that seven people were arrested. Their motives were not reported.

The January turmoil stemmed from years of call for democratic transformations. Despite the promised new deal, experts do not see a clear change of path, rather a confirmation of past practises.

“Kazakstan has long needed a political system with new political rules, new political players and new political institutions based on checks and balances,” political analyst Dosym Satpaev wrote in a social media post on November 21. “It will liquidate the vicious system when everything depends on one person, and those close to him.”

If reforms were not delivered, he noted, unrest could break out again, adding, “Without strong political institutions, after Tokayev leaves, intra-elite groups would again fight for power.”

Others warned that there were no guarantees Tokayev would actually step down once his term comes to an end.

“I doubt he will leave office quietly after seven years,” Kaisarov said. “There will always be sycophants who would start telling him to complete the work he started as no one else could do it, and he has no alternative.”

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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