Elections in Kazakhstan yield results as predicted

The Nur Otan ruling party swept the parliamentary elections, underscoring the continued hold on power of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Expert comment Published 20 January 2021 Updated 7 July 2021 3 minute READ

The highly-controlled elections to Kazakhstan’s lower house of parliament (Majlis) have produced a distribution of seats almost identical to the previous parliament, with ruling party Nur Otan — still under the chairmanship of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev — remaining firmly in charge.

The elections were the first since 80-year-old Nazarbayev yielded his position after nearly 30 years in power to his own hand-picked successor Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev. The leadership’s need for control and wariness of electoral protests is unsurprising in light of the unusual spate of anti-government rallies that took place when Nazarbayev passed the presidential reins in 2019, and the recent post-election demonstrations in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, and Russia.

In addition, a fear that the share of the vote received by Nur Otan could dip below the standard 70-plus per cent, which would indicate a drop in the government’s approval ratings, also motivated the leadership to leave no stone unturned in its control of all aspects of the Majlis elections and the outcome.

Aside from holding the elections in freezing winter temperatures during a global pandemic, there were reports in the run-up of attempts to limit access to some popular social media websites, to increase governmental access to personal data of internet users, and to drastically tighten procedures for polls observation.

The chief instrument of control was the clear refusal by the authorities to allow a single genuine opposition party to contest the elections. Despite at least nine attempts since the 2016 parliamentary elections, no new parties have been registered, firmly shutting the opposition out of the political arena.

The Ablyazov factor

Despite the predictable results, the election itself still had its moments of drama. In an attempt to replicate the ‘Smart Voting’ strategy of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, the outlawed Democratic Choice Party of Kazakhstan — led by fugitive banker and sworn enemy of the regime Mukhtar Ablyazov — called on its supporters to vote for the nominal opposition All-National Social Democratic Party (OSDP) to take away votes from Nur Otan.

But OSDP then announced it would boycott the elections, presumably under pressure from the authorities. In a tactical switch, Ablyazov encouraged supporters to cast their ballots for systemic opposition party Ak Zhol, which prompted that party to declare a temporary freeze on the acceptance of new members.

According to reports from human rights activists, more than 360 protestors were detained in a number of cities on election day itself as various unregistered opposition parties adopted different forms of protest. Representatives of the Oyan Kazakhstan (Wake Up Kazakhstan) youth movement and the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan — led by prominent activist Zhanbolay Mamay — demonstrated in Almaty Square calling for a boycott of the elections, prompting riot police to ‘kettle’ them for more than eight hours.

Other parties called for the spoiling of ballots by folding them in a special fashion, following the style of protestors in Belarus and, in a step reminiscent of recent events in the United States, Ablyazov encouraged his supporters to ‘enter Akorda’ — the presidential administration building in Nur-Sultan — and ‘smash the regime’.

Inspired by counterparts in Belarus, in the run-up period groups of Kazakhstani activists worked with the founder of the online Belarusian electoral fraud-tracking programme Golos to create their own similar website as well as to launch a project for a systematic election observation programme.

In the end independent exit polls were banned, while the vast majority of independent observers were prevented from monitoring the elections by obstacles such as tax investigations and a last-minute COVID-19 testing stipulation.

Nur Otan secured 76 of the 98 directly-elected seats in the 107-seat Majlis, leaving just 12 seats for Ak Zhol and ten for the People’s Party, both of which support the ruling party’s agenda.

The remaining nine seats are appointed by the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, an advisory body which, like Nur Otan, is controlled by Nazarbayev, while the other two pro-government parties that took part — Adal and Auyl — did not gain enough votes to pass the seven per cent threshold for seat allocation.

The facelift given to Nur Otan through the holding of primaries and the renewal of the party list did not change the levels of apathy among voters. Turnout was officially reported at 63 per cent, although independent observers placed the figure well below 30 per cent.

Nazarbayev, whose official title is First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan—Elbasy (Leader of the Nation), is able to place his indelible imprint on the shape and work of the new parliament through his control of Nur Otan and its central quota list.

After he put forward Nurlan Nigmatullin as the only nominee for the post of Majlis speaker, party deputies readily gave their assent the following day at the new parliament’s opening session with Nazarbayev’s influence omnipresent throughout.

Although Tokayev presided over the session and formally nominated the incumbent Askar Mamin for prime minister, it was Nazarbayev who had urged Nur Otan deputies — who head up five of the seven parliamentary committees — to continue to support Mamin as head of government.

Return of the ‘First Daughter’

One newly-elected Nur Otan deputy is Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter Dariga, returned to parliament much like the proverbial bad penny following her unexpected and swift removal as Senate speaker — a role second in line to the president — in May 2020.

Reasons for her departure remain shrouded in mystery, with some arguing she was removed by Tokayev because of intra-elite power struggles while others assert she left voluntarily to limit the international media scrutiny of the Nazarbayev family’s wealth and property holdings abroad.

Whatever the reason, as a trusted figure of particular importance to Nazarbayev during the transition period, Dariga’s return to the Majlis — where she cannot be removed by a simple stroke of Tokayev’s pen — can be interpreted as a behind-the-scenes demand by Elbasy.

Nazarbayev can be expected to continue to place members of his close circle into positions of power until his inevitable departure from the political scene, leaving the country’s political system stuck for now in a state of suspension.

Although authorities are currently able to successfully neutralize protest, opposition to the status quo continues to grow — particularly among a younger generation that is more globalized in its outlook, increasingly tri-lingual and more internet-savvy than its rulers.