No Room for Opposition in Kazak Local Elections

Business and opposition groups say they are hindered from seeking seats on regional councils.

No Room for Opposition in Kazak Local Elections

Business and opposition groups say they are hindered from seeking seats on regional councils.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

Opposition parties frequently accuse the Kazak government of obstructing them whenever they try to contest ballots. Now they have been joined by a powerful group of businessmen who say they are being deliberately shut out of next month’s local elections.

On September 20, Kazaks will vote for district, city and provincial councils, or “maslikhats”. Even at the highest level these elected bodies have limited powers, as the provincial governors appointed directly by President Nursultan Nazarbaev carry more weight.

But the provincial elections are also important because each council then selects two members for the Senate, the upper house of parliament.

The Independent Association of Entrepreneurs of Kazakstan, IAEK, which claims to represent tens of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses, is not affiliated to either the government or the opposition, but has emerged as a significant lobby group in its own right.

On August 6, IAEK leader Talgat Akuov sent an open letter to Nazarbaev complaining that 25 of the 31 names the association had put forward for the city council in Almaty had been turned down by election officials.

“We consider that the actions of the local election committee in Almaty violate our electoral rights,” said the letter.

Since it was set up in 2001, the IAEK has become increasingly influential in policymaking, and is invited whenever new laws on business are being discussed. It has consistently challenged government and local-level decisions which it feels will damage the interests of the business community.

The association nominated candidates only in Almaty, Kazakstan’s former capital which remains its business powerhouse. In its first ever attempt to seek formal political representation, the group managed to field more candidates than the main pro-government party. “The Otan party has put forward only 26 people, so the authorities may be scared that there are more of us,” said Akuov.

When IWPR asked Almaty’s election committee to comment on the allegations, its head Daulet Baidildinov denied the businessmen had been treated unfairly and insisted that candidates were rejected in line with strict legal procedures.

“Anyone who doesn’t agree with my decision can appeal to the regional-level election committee,” he said.

While the IAEK faced difficulties with the registration process, opposition parties say they have been subjected to pressure on a wider scale. At a press conference in the northern city of Pavlodar at the end of July, Agrarian party deputy Serikbay Alibaev alleged that city officials and other pro-government groups were plotting to block opposition candidates from running.

“There is a secret agreement [between them] to achieve their political aims at the forthcoming elections,” Alibaev said. As an example of these alleged spoiling tactics, he claimed that someone had been distributing leaflets purporting to support the opposition - an action which would be illegal because it happened before the election campaign had officially started.

The head of the Pavlodar office of the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, DCK, Gennady Bondarenko, said the leaflets were a “provocation” designed to compromise the opposition.

The deputy head of Kazakstan’s central election committee, Kuandyk Turgankulov, denied all knowledge of the case. “As for Alibaev’ statement – I don’t know him, I can’t say anything about him, and we don’t have this statement,” he said.

Some opposition supporters say they have received threats after putting their names forward for the elections. “Unidentified men called my employers and demanded that they fire me, otherwise there would be reprisals,” said Toleu-Mukhammed Mukanov, who wants to stand as an independent. “They [the employers] asked me to leave voluntarily, but I refused.”

Pavlodar is a particularly sensitive region, and the authorities have kept a close eye on politics there since former governor Galymzhan Zakhiyanov founded the DCK. Zhakiyanov was jailed last year on corruption charges, in a trial widely regarded as an attempt to punish him for his political activity.

There have also been reports that officials are squeezing the opposition in other regions. Vladimir Namovir, head of the Akmola branch of the Republican Democratic Peoples’ Party, says the authorities in the city of Kokshetau are screening candidates by demanding to see and approve their manifestos beforehand.

Political analyst Andrei Chebotaryov sees many reasons why the authorities want to control the outcome of these elections. The Kazak government wants to keep local political institutions tame and easily controllable, and to ensure that there are no surprises when regional councils come to elect the bulk of the Senate. Appointed local government executives want elected councils which will rubber-stamp their decisions without asking questions.

“The leadership wants to have loyal local administrations, maslikhats, so they can subsequently form a loyal Senate,” Chebotaryov told IWPR. “Local administration chiefs want to legitimise the decisions they pass, and the pro-presidential parties are trying to gain a majority in local legislative bodies.”

If the authorities leave any space for the opposition it will be no more than symbolic, Chebotarev believes. “One or two candidates will be allowed into each regional council, simply for appearance’s sake,” he said.

Almat Hamzin is the pseudonym for a journalist in Almaty

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