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

Nazarbaev Family in Poll Position

Father and daughter contest September parliamentary election, threatening to overwhelm the opposition.
By Eduard Poletaev

With Kazakstan’s parliamentary elections drawing closer, the president and his daughter are going to head to head in a battle for votes which is almost certain to leave opposition parties out in the cold.

When voters turn out to for the ballot on September 19, they will face a choice between two massively influential, ruling elite parties, as the latter are likely to drown out the once-vocal pro-democracy opponents of the regime.

According to Andrey Chebotaryov, from the Kazak Institute for National Research, this poll - where nine pro-presidential and three opposition parties are battling for votes - bears little resemblance to the last parliamentary elections, held in 1999.

“At the last elections, the main rivalry was between the opposition and the ruling parties, and now its within the ruling elite,” Chebotaryov told IWPR, adding that with the presidential election slated for 2006, the stakes have been raised higher still.

“The potential presidential candidates are looking to strengthen their power bases - and to do this, they or their supporters have to get into parliament,” he added.

The nature of the rivalry in these parliamentary elections is setting them apart from any other in the region.

The main battle is between Otan (Motherland), the party of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, and the Asar (All Together) movement, set up by his daughter Dariga Nazarbaeva.

Otan was founded in 1999 to support Nazarbaev’s presidential election campaign and has become the largest party in Kazakstan, holding 44 out of the parliament’s 77 seats. The party’s grip on power was consolidated in 2003 when it triumphed in the local elections, returning two thirds of all deputies.

With such support, Otan was able to dismiss any talk of forming an alliance with another party at its party congress in Astana on July 18, where it announced that it intended to present 78 candidates to contest the 77 seats.

“We decided all these issues at the congress - we are going to be independent. There cannot be any talk of the formation of a bloc or any other union,” Otan deputy head Amangeldy Ermegiyaev said later, quashing rumours that the party may form an alliance with Asar.

Local analysts believe that Asar had been willing to join forces with Otan, but later decided to go it alone rather than be in the shadow of the president’s party.

“The party is Dariga Nazarbaeva’s brainchild, and she has put considerable financial and intellectual resources into it. She did not want to turn it into a mere appendix of the Otan party,” explained Dosym Satpaev of the Almaty-based Risk Assessment Group.

“But if the president had insisted that these parties had to unite, their leadership would have done as he said.”

Asar has not been active for long, but it has quickly established itself and now boasts more than 200,000 members - an impressive total given Kazakstan’s 15 million-strong population and the fact that few political parties ever exceed the 50,000 threshold needed to contest elections.

The president’s daughter has set her sights high and hopes to secure half the seats available. Asar is presenting 56 deputies for election, and analysts say that its leader’s high profile - coupled with the enormous influence she has in the media - will ensure her a good result.

Meanwhile, Otan will rely on powerful administrative resources, which have always been at its disposal, coupled with influential state media outlets under the control of the president.

“Of the two, Asar comes closest to the classic definition of a political party,” Satpaev told IWPR. “While Otan is a party of officials and only becomes active at certain political moments, such as elections.”

Looking ahead to the ballot, Chebotarev predicted, “The Otan party will receive most of the votes because this is the president’s party. Asar will probably come second, but even if it finishes third, this will still be an achievement for a young party.”

According to observers, Nazarbaev is not much concerned by his daughter’s party. This has led many to speculate that the formation of Asar has more to do with grooming Dariga to succeed her father than providing an alternative political platform for the Kazak people.

While Dariga will run for parliament, she refuses to discuss the possibility of standing for president, stating that her father has her full support. Nazarbaev, meanwhile, confirmed on live television in May that he intends to run for a further seven-year term in the 2006 elections.

With such power and influence being wielded by the big two parties, many analysts believe that electoral prospects of the opposition are poor.

On July 21 in Almaty, the leaders of three opposition parties - Ak Jol (Bright Path), the Communist Party and the Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, DCK - announced that they were to join forces for the period of the parliamentary election campaign.

This, according to Satpaev, suggests that the current crop of opposition politicians are demonstrating greater political maturity than in past campaigns.

In 1999, the opposition centred on the former prime minister Akejan Kazhegeldin, who had fled the country after falling out of favour with Nazarbaev.

“At that time, both the president and the political elite were very worried about political organisations which supported Kazhegeldin. But today, the opposition is playing its own game independently of the former prime minister, and so they represent less of a threat to the authorities than they did back then,” said Satpaev.

But he feels, however, that the anti-Nazarbaev parties have left it too late to present a united front against him, “ They should have done it a long time ago, but the individual political ambitions of the party leaders got in the way.”

If the newly united opposition groups do succeed in returning more deputies than expected in the upcoming ballot, this too may simply play into the hands of the president.

“There is an idea that the presence of as few as two or three opposition deputies in parliament will help to legitimise it and give it the appearance of democracy,” said Amirjan Kosanov, head of the executive committee of the now-unregistered Republican People’s Party of Kazakstan, RPPK, one of many opposition groups barred from taking part in the election.

Eduard Poltaev and Inna Lyudva are IWPR Kazakstan’s project manager and assistant respectively.