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Is Kazakhstan Inching Toward a Multiparty Democracy?

The early elections to the Mazhilis, the lower house of Kazakhstan’s parliament, and the maslikhats, local governments, held on March 19, marked another important step in reforming the Kazakhstani political system following the political unrest of January 2022. The reforms announced by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev pursue two main goals (Akorda.kz, March 16, 2022). The first is to transition the country toward a more pluralistic, inclusive and representative political system. The second is to better involve the younger generation in the political process, expecting them to bring new ideas to solve the backlog of socioeconomic problems inherited from the Nursultan Nazarbayev presidency. The Mazhilis elections completed the first cycle of these political reforms following the constitutional referendum and presidential elections in 2022, as well as the senate elections in early 2023.

The most recent elections were held according to the new electoral system. The former electoral system was based exclusively on party lists, as proportional representation was scrapped in favor of a mixed-party list and single-member system. The new electoral system provides for 70 percent of Mazhilis deputies (69 out of 98) to be elected based on party-list proportional representation and 30 percent (29 deputies) from single-member districts (Tengrinews, February 9). The last time Kazakhstan held elections based on this mixed system was in 2004. Another key novelty introduced before the elections was the requirement that at least 30 percent of the party-list candidates include women, young people and the disabled (Kz.kursiv.media, July 6, 2020). Finally, the option of voting “against all” was introduced.

Seven political parties and 609 self-nominated candidates (525 independent, five from nongovernmental organizations and 79 members of political parties) ran in the elections (Tengrinews, February 9). Independents who ran as self-nominated candidates represented a wide cross-section of Kazakhstani society: entrepreneurs, teachers, pensioners and the unemployed, among others. Most lacked fundraising, campaign experience, name recognition, as well as financial and human resources, relying instead on the support of friends and families and personal funds (YouTube, February 23). Notwithstanding these obstacles, over 600 people decided to run in the elections, of whom 435 were registered.

The three political parties that were represented in the previous Mazhilis—Amanat (formerly Nur Otan), the ruling party; Aq Zhol; and the People’s Party of Kazakhstan (former communists)—had an advantage over the other four parties given their experience with conducting electoral campaigns. For their part, the Auyl (agrarian) and Nationwide Social Democratic parties were not newcomers to Kazakhstani politics, but they have been perpetually kept from representation in the Mazhilis. Two new political parties—the Respublika (entrepreneurs favoring a social market economy) and Baytaq (green) parties—were registered shortly before the elections and had no prior experience with campaigning. However, as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observer mission noted, not all political parties were allowed to participate (Osce.org, March 20). Specifically, the opposition Democratic Party was once again refused registration.

Years of political disenfranchisement under the former president have made the Kazakhstani electorate skeptical of parliamentary elections. An opinion poll conducted by Demoscope, a public opinion company located in Switzerland, six days before the election revealed some seemingly contradictory attitudes and expectations of the electorate (Demos.kz, March 13). Thus, 54.6 percent of respondents agreed that the election was a step toward democratization in Kazakhstan, 49.9 percent agreed that the opposition parties had been allowed to participate and 52.1 percent expressed their trust in the election’s outcome.

Yet, at the same time, 55.9 percent believed that the results were predetermined and that not much depended on the electorate. In a telling result, while 62.5 and 64.1 percent, respectively, stated that none of the political parties nor candidates represented their interests, 62.5 percent admitted that they knew nothing about the new electoral system. The latter finding is rather surprising given that the three most trusted sources of information on the election were billboards and other street advertisements (38.7 percent), social media (31.5 percent) and the Internet (26.8 percent)—that is, sources independent of the government that discussed the new rules and were used mostly by the new political parties and independent candidates (Demos.kz, March 13).

The poll also revealed that 59.6 percent of the electorate planned to vote, which came close to the preliminary turnout result of 54.1 percent as published by the Central Election Commission (Tengrinews, March 20). Overall, Amanat received over 53 percent of the vote translating to 62 seats in parliament (which was lower than in 2021, when it received 71 percent and 76 seats). The ruling party was followed by Auyl with around 11 percent, Respublika with 8.9 percent, Aq Zhol with 8 percent, the People’s Party of Kazakhstan with over 6 percent, the Nationwide Social Democratic Party with just over 5 percent and the Baytaq Party with over 3 percent.

The elections in single-member districts yielded a number of encouraging results. Yermurat Bapi, former leader of the Nationwide Social Democratic Party, an established opposition party, was elected in Almaty district no. 3. In Astana district no. 2, Daulet Mukaev, a prominent lawyer, beat out Azamathan Amirtaev, leader of the Baytaq Party (Tengrinews, March 20). The latter result is particularly important in terms of building public trust in electoral outcomes, as it supported the results of an independent pre-election poll (Turantimes, March 14).

Yet, several irregularities during the election were reported: the most common being ballot stuffing and the “carousel” (i.e., the same person votes in multiple electoral precincts)—both of which have been long-standing practices in Kazakhstan (Ratel.kz, March 19). Some violations were immediately addressed, resulting in the removal of various election committee chairs (Ulusmedia.kz, March 19). Overall, the General Prosecutor’s Office received 66 complaints about electoral law violations and opened 25 criminal cases as a result (Forbes.kz, March 21). For its part, the OSCE Election Observation Mission “assessed counting negatively in 58 of the 128 polling stations observed due to significant procedural errors and omissions and disregard of reconciliation procedures” (Osce.org, March 20).

Meanwhile, the OSCE circulated the statement that “Kazakhstan has the full support of the European Union in the implementation of the ongoing changes, and we stress the importance of further political and socioeconomic reforms” (Eeas.europa.eu, March 30). This statement reflects the interest of the collective West in maintaining and developing close relations with Kazakhstan amid the heightened geopolitical rivalry with Russia and China over Central Asia.

For their part, Russia and China sent observers via Commonwealth of Independent States (Russia) and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China and Russia) missions. Predictably, they did not find any irregularities (Inform.kz, March 19, 20).

Despite the shortcomings, the early parliamentary elections represent an important step in the political modernization of Kazakhstan. For the first time since independence, six political parties will be represented in the Mazhilis. In single-member districts, 435 candidates competed for 29 seats. That, by itself, is a sign of emerging political competition. Another hopeful sign is that, despite the Demoscope poll of over 60 percent stating that none of the political parties or single-district candidates represented their interests, which might have led to a significant “against all” vote, only 4.5 percent of the electorate voted that way (Forbes.kz, March 20).

However, the lack of public knowledge about changes in the electoral system, which opened competition for independent politicians, as well as uncertainty about whether change is possible in Kazakhstan explain why voter turnout was lower than in 2021 (54.1 versus 63.2 percent). In Almaty, for example, despite a heated contest in the three single-member districts, only 25 percent of voters turned up at the polls. That presents the Tokayev administration, the various political parties, independent politicians and Kazakhstani society itself with a challenge: to break the mold of political disenfranchisement and self-disenfranchisement and engage citizens in building more trust and participation in the new system.

Source: Jamestown