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TV Debates Enliven Election Contest

Even though the presidential Nur Otan party has the most influence over the media in the current election campaign in Kazakstan, NBCentralAsia observers say that television debates between different parties are helping the electorate to vote with their eyes open.

On August 10, the National Social Democratic Party complained that a pre-recorded television debate with Nur Otan the day before involved “gross violations of ground rules that had been agreed in advance, and the video tapes were heavily edited and censored”.

Several debates between party leaders have been aired on television as part of the campaign for the August 18 election to the lower house of parliament or Majilis.

The early election was called in the wake of constitutional amendments adopted in May, which change the electoral system so that legislators are elected by proportional representation from party lists, instead of from single-seat constituencies. Parliament has also been granted more power and the number of seats in the Majilis increased from 77 to 107.

President Nursultan Nazarbaev dissolved the Majilis in June after being asked to do so by the parliamentary majority. The next election was scheduled for 2009, but deputies said they did not want to hold up implementing the constitutional reform until then.

Seven parties are now taking part in the election. Campaigning officially began on July 18 and ends at midnight on August 16.

Nur Otan is expected to win a majority of seats, while the battle for second and third place will be fought between the opposition National Social Democrats, which merged with the Nagyz Ak Jol party ahead of the campaign, the Patriots of Kazakstan Party, Ak Jol, the Communist People’s Party of Kazakstan, Ruhaniat and the Auyl Social-Democratic Party of Kazakstan.

NBCentralAsia analysts say that even though political parties have not been given fair access to the media, the TV debates will still help voters make more informed decisions, especially because parties had so little time to prepare for the snap election.

NBCentralAsia political analyst Petr Svoik says that although there has clearly been political interference in the televised debates, they have still been useful. “I believe the TV debates have had a very significant effect on the election campaign,” he said. “Despite all the tricks the authorities have employed to prevent these debates being objective, they have still helped parties to represent themselves as they really are.”

Political analyst Eduard Poletaev accepts that all seven parties have had a chance to promoted their policies on television, with the caveat that bigger ones like Nur Otan and the National Social Democrats enjoyed greater access to the media. But he says that because not many people watched the TV programmes and the campaign itself has been so short, many voters have been left none the wiser.

“In this short period of time, not all the voters have had time to learn about the parties’ election programmes and find out how one differs from another,” he said. “Nor are the TV channels these debates were aired on very popular in Kazakstan.”

(News Briefing Central Asia draws comment and analysis from a broad range of political observers across the region.)