Kazakstan: Voting by Numbers

Computerised voting will make Kazak elections slicker – but will it make them any fairer?

Kazakstan: Voting by Numbers

Computerised voting will make Kazak elections slicker – but will it make them any fairer?

Plans to introduce a high-tech voting system ahead of this autumn’s parliamentary election in Kazakstan have been attacked by government critics, who say the technology will be used not to stop the current practice of vote-rigging, but to make it easier to conceal.


The authorities insist that using the computerised system will make it possible to root out such common practices as voting on behalf of another person, ballot-stuffing, and simple manipulation of the final figures – all of which are concerns routinely raised by external election monitors.


“We are currently preparing to introduce pilot schemes in several constituencies,” Zagipa Balieva, the head of the Central Electoral Commission, CEC, told parliament on May 26.


The CEC hopes the security and authentification measures offered by the new technology will reduce irregularities and as a result expose Kazakstan to much less criticism about its electoral system.


“The electronic system is equipped with security measures making unauthorised access to information impossible,” read a CEC press release.


According to the CEC, the sophisticated technology will allow a given voter to be identified all the way through the voting procedure, using a barcode that will prevent people registering twice. The system will also collate and aggregate returns from different constituencies much more quickly.


Balieva’s speech to parliament followed a May 21 statement issued by a group of opposition and centrist parties, who want to repeal changes to the law that paved the way for computerised voting. Politicians from Ak Jol, Auyl, the Communist Party, Democratic Choice of Kazakstan and the Patriot’s Party argue that Kazakhstan first needs to make its current election practices more transparent, and only then consider changing the technology.


Opponents of the move say they main issue is not the technology – which in any case can never be 100 per cent reliable – but the people who control it. They fear that there are no checks and balances in place, citing the latest legislation which does not allow independent observers to monitor the voting process.


“The only guarantee of fair elections is public control; that is; the presence of representatives from political parties, non-government organisations, human rights groups and international observers,” said political analyst Nurbulat Masanov. “But the authorities fear this kind of public control, and come up with various novelties such as this electronic system.”


Piotr Svoik of the Democratic Choice of Kazakstan told IWPR that without proper safeguards the system could be manipulated.


“I am not against the introduction of the electronic system but it should be accompanied by normal transparent procedures laid down in the law,” said Svoik. “Mrs Balieva says that a high level of protection against hackers has been put in place. I would agree with that. But there are ‘hackers’ who don’t need to break in; they are already there.”


Referring to officials who could access the system and tamper with the results, he added, “they will use the electronic system to produce the results they want, not the objective ones”.


According to DCK leader Asylbek Kojakhmetov, the new methods will simply allow the authorities to adjust election results more swiftly as returns come in from across the country “If something unexpected happens, for example if an opposition candidate in one constituency looks set to win, the CEC could give the local administration orders to send more of ‘their own people’ to more votes.”


The plan is to introduce computerised voting in major cities, which will account for a third of all polling stations. According to Andrei Chebotarev, coordinator of the Institute for National Studies, this is one reason for opposition parties to be particularly worried since they could normally expect to perform best in urban areas. “If there are falsifications, these parties will lose the majority of their votes,” he said


Balieva responded to the concerns raised about the lack of external monitoring by proposing that opposition parties could have their own technical experts included in the CEC.


Dosym Satpaev, director of the Risk Assessment Group, is not surprised that opposition politicians are wary of change, “In a country where the election system is just being established, and where honest, competitive and fair elections are a rare event, any new initiative is going to cause a lot of questions, and most importantly high degree of mistrust.”


Satpaev warned that the system would offer authorities a let-out if vote-rigging was discovered – they could simply blame the technology, or the people who run it.


Computer expert Alexei Ananiev said that given that power cuts are a regular occurrence in many towns, system failure is inevitable in any case.


Another computer expert who asked not to be identified said the choice of manufacturer was significant. “Have you thought about why the electronic voting system was purchased in Belarus and not in Japan or the United States? Because Belarus - like Kazakstan - is an authoritarian country, and I am sure that the designers have made the ‘right’ system for Kazakstan’s CEC.”


Eduard Poletaev is IWPR’s country director in Kazakstan. Asan Kuanov and Aynur Adilbaeva, both independent journalists based in Almaty, also contributed to this report.


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