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

More Selection Than Election in Kazak Devolution

Local government heads to be chosen by councils dominated by ruling party.
By Gaziza Baituova

Local government reforms giving communities across Kazakstan more power over who leads them and how budgets are spent are only a half-measure, critics say, pointing out that the changes do not mean that mayors will be elected with a popular mandate.

The reform was included in a package of measures which became law after President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed off on them on June 13.

Local government chiefs at district level and the mayors of smaller towns and villages will now be indirectly elected by councils, rather than being appointed from above as used to be the case. They will also gain more control over how local revenues are raised and where budget spending goes.

The decentralisation programme will take place in two phases, the first ending in 2015 and the second in 2020.

When deputy regional development minister Kairbek Uskenbaev first presented the legislation to parliament in April, he said it would make mayors more responsible for raising living standards and protecting people’s interests, and give their constituents more of a voice in informing spending decisions through participatory gatherings.

Zamir Karajanov, a political analyst in Almaty, told IWPR that the reform was a step in the right direction.

“The experience of other countries shows that self-government is more effective than centralised administration,” he said.

But although he sees the new election process as an improvement, Karajanov does not believe it goes far enough.

“In Kazakstan, only the president and local council members are directly elected,” he said.

Provincial governors are still appointed by the president. The lower house of parliament is elected, but voters do not get to choose individual candidates as proportional representation means that seats are filled by from lists presented by the winning parties.

“In that sense, nothing has changed. The rural district heads will be elected by members of the council,” Karajanov said.

He was sceptical that giving local authorities more of a say on budgetary matters would make a greater difference.

“The most important thing is not the money, but how effectively it is managed and whether it’s used to tackle social and economic problems in these districts,” he said. “Kazakstan has a lot of problems in that regard.”

Zauresh Battalova, head of the Foundation for Parliamentary Development, said the new system was unlikely to offer greater choice. First, the local councils that will pick mayors are dominated by the ruling Nur Otan party, and second, they will only make their selection from candidates proposed by the next tier up of local government heads.

“What competition can one expect if no other political parties or public associations take part in the election?” she asked. “I doubt the mayors elected by the councils are going to represent the interests of all members of society.”

Andrei Grishin, who works for the Kazakstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, pointed to the frequent allegations of vote-rigging during local council elections.

“As a result, there are no local councillors who will disagree even slightly with official policies or express an independent view,” he said. “So in my opinion, self-government the Kazakstan way effectively amounts to appointing the mayors, only formally made to look like they’re being elected by the councillors.”

Tolgonai Umbetalieva, director of the Central Asia Foundation for Democracy, suspects that the reform has less to do with democracy than with distancing central government from economic problems at local level.

“The authorities have an interest in becoming less responsible for what happens at local level, and thus reducing the public criticism and dissatisfaction that are directed towards them,” she said.

At the same time, Umbetalieva noted that central government remained instinctively wary of any form of devolution, as shown by past attempts at local government reform in which legislation had been drafted and then scrapped.

“I think the main obstacle has been that the leadership wants to maintain its control of regional elites, fearing that if it doesn’t, there will be more people making bids for power,” she said.

By contrast, Nurlan Yerimbetov, head of the Civic Alliance, an umbrella group of NGOs, defended the legislation, and rejected allegations that the local councils charged with selecting mayors were less than democratic.

“They may be members of the same party [Nur Otan], but they’ve been elected by responsible people,” he said. “The district councillors are in the main independent from the provincial governors. They’re people of firm resolve and they aren’t always acquiescent to the authorities.”

Gaziza Baituova is an IWPR contributor in Kazakstan.