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

"Meaningless" Kazak Elections

President’s party is claiming victory in controversial ballot ignored by nearly half of the population.
By Eduard Poletaev

The victory of Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev’s Otan party in parliamentary elections marred by allegations of irregularities has come as little surprise to observers at home and abroad.


The September 19 ballot, in which 12 parties fielding 552 candidates contested 77 seats in the Kazak parliament’s lower house, has been declared “unfair” by monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, and other nations.


It was also marred by a low turnout, believed to be linked to voter fatigue possibly caused by blanket media coverage promoting Otan (Homeland) and its rival Asar (Peace to All) - which is headed by the president’s daughter Dariga Nazarbaeva, who controls the bulk of the republic’s media.


The Open Society Institute in Kazakstan claims that in Almaty - the largest and most politically active city in the republic - voter turnout was as low as 29 per cent.


Analysts believe that voter fatigue is partly to blame, but also point to an alleged dirty tricks campaign in the run-up to the ballot, coupled with allegedly biased media coverage. The latter led to an angry protest in Almaty on September 8, in which many people were arrested.


Other residents shrug their shoulders when asked why they chose to stay away from the polling stations.


Housewife Irina Sveshnikova told IWPR that the weather was good on election day, so she chose to gather grapes at her dacha instead. “The grapes go rotten if you don’t gather them, but if I choose to vote nothing will change,” she said. “Who will or will not get into parliament was decided a long time ago, with no help from me.”


While the official results will not be confirmed until September 25, information from the republic’s Central Electoral Commission indictates that the pro-regime Otan party has won with a comfortable majority, while Asar is believed to have been pushed into third place.


“The Otan party already has the majority, with more than half of the total number of deputies,” deputy party head Amangeldy Ermegiyaev announced at a press conference held two days after the election. “Our victory at these elections was predicted.”


Kazak deputies are returned using a mixed system. Of the 77 seats available, 67 are elected on a constituency basis and ten through a proportional or “party list” system.


While no concrete information is yet available on the former, preliminary data on the latter suggests that Otan gained more than 43 per cent of the vote, with Asar around 20 per cent. The moderate opposition group Ak Jol (Bright Path) gained a little over 16 per cent, with the civic movement AIST just creeping above the seven per cent threshold with 8.4 per cent.


The radical coalition Opposition People’s Union of Communists and Democratic Choice of Kazakstan fell surprisingly short, with only 6.2 per cent of the vote.


As a result, many well-known opposition figures who ran on party lists, such as Communist party leader Serikbolsyn Abdildin, did not get into parliament.


The opposition had warned that the election process threatened to turn into a farce, and warned of serious acts of provocation against opposition candidates and “gross falsification” of the eventual results.


The new system of counting votes in this election using an electronic ballot had also caused controversy. Opposition figures claimed that the system was vulnerable to malicious interference from computer hackers and threatened to boycott the poll if it was implemented - but eventually chose to take part.


International observers from other Commonwealth of Independent States, CIS, countries declared the Kazak ballot to be legal and legitimate, but this was disputed by the OSCE, which had deployed more than 300 observers from 33 countries.


“The parliamentary elections that were held on September 19 did not match the standards of the OSCE and Council of Europe,” it noted in a statement.


Ikhor Ostash, vice president of the OSCE parliamentary assembly and special coordinator of the observers, told IWPR that he was “disappointed” that recent reform of the electoral legislation had not led to more free and fair elections in Kazakstan.


“However, we note several improvements in comparison with previous elections, and we are prepared to continue work with state bodies responsible for elections, to improve both legislation and the process itself,” he added.


Ambassador Robert L Barry, the head of a monitoring team sent by the US bureau for democratic institutions and human rights, noted, “Our observers reported interference and discrepancies on election day.” He pointed to “a lack of transparency in the work of the Central Electoral Commission throughout” the ballot.


The general prosecutor’s office of Kazakstan has also confirmed that it is examining more than 750 appeals by citizens about alleged violations of electoral legislation, and five criminal cases have already been opened.


IWPR understands that the largest number of complaints to date have come from the opposition parties. Ak Jol has submitted 108 appeals, and the Communist/DCK coalition 83.


Kazak information minister Altynbek Sarsenbaev – who was selected for parliament on the Ak Jol party list – submitted his resignation in protest at the authorities’ alleged interference in the ballot.


Sarsenbaev, an opposition deputy, had been appointed to this post following harsh criticism by the OSCE in the wake of the 1999 elections, which were also subject to allegations of unfairness, media bias and voter irregularity.


In his resignation statement, an obviously disillusioned Sarsenbaev said, “The programme of political reforms turned out to be an empty declaration, and the elections were not fair, honest or free … [instead] they were held with numerous violations of the constitution and the country’s legislation.


“Because of this, I consider it impossible for me to be in the government and be a part of an executive power which actively interfered in the election the campaign.”


An Ak Jol spokesperson also claimed that mass violation of the rights of candidates and citizens alike had taken place, alleging that many would-be voters were prevented from casting their ballot on polling day.


The party believes that it actually gained more than 30 per cent of the vote, with co-chair Oraz Jandosov claiming, “[The authorities] are trying to steal this victory from us. There are clear falsifications of the election results.”


The Communist/DCK coalition also believes that the numerous violations rendered the election result meaningless, and has called on the country’s supreme court to examine the situation and press criminal charges against “those responsible for conducting dishonest elections”.


Eduard Poletaev is IWPR’s project manager in Almaty.

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