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Kazakstan's Snap Election

By Saule Mukhametrakhimova

Saule Mukhametrakhimova

Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev has dissolved parliament and called a snap election for January 15. The election is supposed to replace the current one-party rule with a more pluralist legislature. IWPR Central Asia editor Saule Mukhametrakhimova discusses how genuine the talk of greater pluralism is.

Why has President Nazarbaev called this election?

Talk of an early election has been circulating since the presidential election in April, when the 70-year-old Nazarbaev was re-elected for another five years. So a snap election is not in itself a surprising move. But pulling it back so far from the scheduled date in August 2012 does suggest that the authorities want to be done with it as soon as possible.

First, getting the vote over and done with will pre-empt any unpleasant surprises – social unrest and the like – in the event of another economic crisis.

Secondly, there is a drive to show that Kazakstan is becoming more of a democracy, and to ensure that the next parliament has more than one party in it. Nazarbaev’s party Nur Otan currently holds 98 of the 107 seats in the legislature. 

Are things really changing so fast in Kazakstan that this last-minute election is seen as necessary? 

Apart from the worsening economic situation, the authorities are worried about more vocal protests, and also security concerns. Kazakstan has always had a reputation for stability, but events over the last six months suggest that may no longer be wholly true.

For example, a series of attacks attributed to Islamic militants, the most recent a shooting spree in Taraz on November 12, has sparked fear and panic.

Meanwhile, a strike by oil industry workers hit the country’s largest revenue-earning sector over several months.

Both these trends have shown the authorities that neither stability nor control of the population can be taken for granted. 

Nazarbaev talks about bringing in more parties to make a more democratic parliament. What are the chances of that?

The law was changed in 2009 to ensure that at least two parties are represented in parliament. So even if the second-placed party in an election fails to pass the seven per cent threshold for representation, it will still be awarded seats.

The electoral process in Kazakstan is tightly controlled by the authorities, so it is really a question of allowing another party to join Nur Otan in parliament. Many believe the Ak Jol party will be invited to fill that role.

Is Ak Jol an opposition party, then?

Ak Jol split off from the main opposition movement in the early 2000s, and tried to position itself as a moderate force willing to engage with the Kazak leadership.

The recent election of Azat Peruashev as head of Ak Jol marks the end of any opposition sympathies and positions the party squarely as a pro-government force.

He joined Ak Jol shortly after leaving Nur Otan, and is seen as an ally of Timur Kulibaev, a powerful figure who is President Nazarbaev’s son-in-law.

Ak Jol is thus viewed as a force that will be loyal to the president but will also mop up some votes that might otherwise go to opposition parties with an anti-Nazarbaev agenda.

Specifically, this is about Kazak-speaking voters, often those from rural areas who have moved to the cities in search of jobs. Many are disappointed with the progress since Kazakstan became independent 20 years ago. This constituency is now seen as a political engaged group who are a factor to be reckoned with.

During the recent debate about promoting the use of the Kazak language, Peruashov came out as a keen supporter, thus confirming Ak Jol’s shift to a more nationalist public stance.

Realistically, what can the true opposition parties do, since there is so little time left to prepare for this election?

Hardly any are even entitled to field candidates, as so few have been granted legal recognition. The ones that can stand are National Social Democratic Party-Azat and the Ruhaniyat, an environmentalist party that is increasingly becoming a voice of opposition.

These groups cannot possibly compete with Nur Otan’s extensive financial resources and access to media.

More radical parties like Alga are denied registration. Alga has tried to get round this by teaming up with the Communist Party of Kazakstan, but this too has been foiled. In October, a court barred the Communist Party from operating for six months. This has effectively sunk any hope that Alga could work with the Communists in the coming election.

Saule Mukhametrakhimova is IWPR Central Asia editor in London.

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