Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan: New Election Reforms Just 'Democratic Gloss'

Analysis: The big winner of last week's elections in Kazakhstan was never in doubt - the president’s party Nur Otan. But due to a recent change in the law, for the first time the parliament is required to have at least one other party represented

A poster of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev (Dustin Hammond)
A poster of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev (Dustin Hammond)
Elena Chernenko

Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev has been in power since 1991. In fact, he is the only president the country has every known. Though genuinely well-liked by many in the country, some see him as a benevolent dictator, at best - and perhaps less benevolent since the crackdown on demonstrating miners in December.

But when Nazarbayev decided, in 2010 to revise the election laws to ensure that parliament always had at least two parties, many Western observers took it as a signal of increasing democracy. In the Mazhilis, the lower house of the Kazakh parliament, there had always been just one political force: Nur Otan, Nazarbayev's party, which won a record 88% of the vote in the 2007 elections.

Such a complete monopoly was a frequent source of criticism from the Kazakh opposition as well as the West. Nazarbayev changed the election laws to create a provision that in parliamentary elections the party with the second largest number of votes, regardless of whether or not they have achieved the threshold of 7% generally required for parliamentary representation, be installed in the parliament. This new rule was scheduled to be implemented for the first time in August, 2012, but in November early elections were called. Experts consider the early election an attempt to accelerate the reform process.

But after parliamentary elections last Sunday, the first since the change in Kazakhstan's electoral law, not everyone is convinced that a new, more democratic era is at hand.

There were seven parties that took part in Sunday's elections, and the participation, according to preliminary reports, was over 70%. According to a twitter post from the Kazakh foreign minister, Altai Abibullaev, even the seven Kazakh citizens rescued from the Costa Concordia cruise ship took part in the election.

Careful after Moscow protests

Though definitive results are still not in, reports from international observers were available Sunday - and no open violations were reported. As Ermuhkamet Yertyisbaev, one of the president's advisers, said: "After the demonstration on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow, Nursultan Nazarbayev gave everybody very strict directions not to interfere with the voting or the vote counting."

According to Yertyisbaev, the most likely runner-up in the parliamentary vote will be the business-friendly party Ak Jol. In the 2007 elections, the party clocked in with 3% of the vote, primarily from university professors and other intellectuals. But in June 2011, party leadership changed, with the new leader coming from the national Chamber of Commerce.

Ak Jol's rebranding, Yeryisbaev says, is worthwhile if the liberal party is prepared to work hand-in-hand with the ruling party. "We are interested in a worthy partner for Nur Otan, that will build its activities based on a constructive partnership and dialogue with the ruling party," he explained. "Building a parliament on irreconcilable positions is senseless - there won't be a constructive partnership, there will just be a debate club, that will be perfectly ineffective in all respects."

According to Yergisbaev, Kazakhstan needs a party to represent the interests of business leaders. "The appearance of an entrepreneurial class is one of the great achievements of the past 20 years of independence. But civil servants lord over them, even though business people are the key to the development of our country," Yergisbaev said.

Many experts already are referring to Ak Jol as the presidential party's little sister. "The ruling party would not have allowed a genuine opposition party into parliament," according to Kazakh political scientist Docim Satpaev. "Ak Jol is absolutely loyal to the president. It's like his second leg in parliament. The appearance of a new party in parliament gives the political system a democratic gloss."

According to Satpaev, in reality the ruling party's position has only become stronger. "We are talking about changes in form. But Nur Otan and Ak Jol are artificial parties. Real, honest parliamentary elections have yet to take place in Kazakhstan."

Read the original article in Russian

Photo - Dustin Hammond

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