Kazakh opposition leaders burned copies of election results today, as around 100 voters held a peaceful protest in Almaty, the country’s largest city, to dispute the results of a weekend poll. While the authorities claimed the snap election was the first step towards pluralist politics, independent observers dismissed the process as badly flawed and confirmation that the Central Asian post-Soviet republic “has only the barest fig leaf of a democratic system.”
The poll confirmed President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s grip on power , as the ruling Nur Otan party won 81 percent of the vote. Two nominally opposition parties entered the legislature: the pro-business Ak Zhol took 7.5 percent and the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan 7.2 percent, said the Central Election Commission.
Nur Otan (“Ray of light of the fatherland”) was named in honor of Nazarbayev after he merged his Otan (“Fatherland”) party with his daughter Dariga’s Asar party in a move seen as consolidating the president’s power.
The “necessary conditions for the conduct of genuinely pluralistic elections, which are a prerequisite for functioning democratic institutions, were not provided for by the authorities,” said observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, citing government bans on opposition parties and candidates from contesting the election and media self-censorship.
Miklos Haraszti, the head of the OSCE’s long-term election-observation mission, criticized the “tightly controlled campaign environment in which the electoral rights of the citizens were seriously limited.”
“There was limited public debate and the media, the mass media operates in an environment characterized by self-censorship and in which there is no room for editorial independence in the broadcast media,” he said.
The “results of the election, including the presence of two parties apart from the state party, can be described as an orchestrated election,” Haraszti said, noting that the purported turnout of 75 percent should be listed in the Guinness book of records.
“Almost all of the voters participated in elections,” he said. “Almost everyone voted the same way.”
A video posted by Radio Liberty (above) showed ballot box stuffing by a woman who cast multiple ballots, claiming that elderly voters with poor eyesight asked her to vote on their behalf.
“Whether the small step toward pluralism, reflected by allowing new parties into Parliament, will suffice to diminish rising discontent remains to be seen,” one account suggests:
Kazakhstan is one of four Central Asian nations led by largely unreformed, Soviet-style potentates who appear increasingly anachronistic after the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. Central Asia has been largely exempt from the protests elsewhere in the Muslim world, though the police shot into a crowd of protesting oil workers last month, killing at least 16 people.
But the election confirmed that the authorities claim to be pursuing a strategy of incremental democratization was bogus, said opposition groups.
“We won’t play by the rules set by the authorities anymore and will talk to them differently now,” Zharmakhan Tuyakbay, chairman of the National Social Democratic Party, said at the rally today. The Social Democrats – widely considered the only real opposition party contesting the polls – took 1.6 percent, according to the Central Election Commission.
Activists and analysts alike say that the poll was part of a PR offensive by a regime trying to improve its international image a month after security forces killed striking oil workers in the western town of Zhanaozen.
“Nazarbayev needed to make political changes, because his health is failing and if oil prices fall there will be serious financial problems,” says Pyotr Svoik, a leader of the Azat Party.
“The one-party parliament was always an embarrassment, and the oil strike and its aftermath was an awful, unexpected event for the authorities. They made sure these elections would produce a better-looking parliament, but kept most genuine opposition parties from participating or winning enough votes to get into the parliament,” he said.
“Now there will be protests against electoral fraud, as there were in Russia last month though probably on a smaller scale. Nazarbayev is feeling alarmed, and he has good reasons to.”
The autocratic regime deserves credit for attracting over US$130 billion in foreign investment to exploit Kazakhstan’s vast but elusive oil reserves “while keeping the Russians out,” says Washington-based economist Anders Aslund, But the country “fares very poorly on all social indicators,” while “miserable corporate governance” leaves corruption and cronyism unchecked.
The regime is following in Russia’s footsteps, analysts suggest, by establishing the illusion of pluralism in an ersatz managed democracy.
“The multiparty nature of Parliament will be decorative, as it is in Russia,” said Vladimir I. Kozlov, the chairman of the main liberal opposition party, Alga, which was denied registration for years. “The other parties just create the illusion of differing opinions, not in fact having any influence on the dominant party or the president.”
Unlike in Russia, Kazakhstan’s opposition is unlikely to mount a serious challenge to the regime any time soon, some observers claim.
“I’d be more afraid for Putin’s fate today than that of Nazarbayev,” said political analyst Aidos Sarym. “Kazakhstan’s opposition doesn’t possess the symbolic capital that could be transformed into mass social protests.”
But other analysts believe that the socio-economic grievances that emerged in the Zhanoazen dispute could yet foment political unrest and force the regime into a political dilemma.
“We can expect future unrest in the oil-rich western provinces, and in some big factories, if economic difficulties lead to a reduction in state budgets for workers in these industries,” says Andrei Grozin, Moscow-based central Asia director at the official Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
“Kazakhstan cannot muster enough police force to keep order in the tough manner it did in Zhanoazen if unrest spreads,” he believes. “There is a real danger that strikes will spread in the spring, and authorities will be faced with the tough choice between buying the workers off or ordering in the Army.”
The regime even recruited former British premier Tony Blair to advise on economic reform and help give a PR makeover to the regime, reportedly as part of Nazarbayev’s personal campaign to secure a Nobel peace prize.
“The political system is largely the creation of one man [Nazarbayev], who first assumed power as Kazakhstan’s Communist Party leader in 1989,” according to Freedom House, the US-based rights and democracy monitor.