Mass Protests Against Misrule as Kazakh President Calls Elections for January 15 Reveals Pre-Vote Statement of Independent International Observer Mission
On November 16, 2011, President Nursultan Nazarbayev dissolved Kazakhstan’s national legislature and established January 15, 2012 as the date for pre-term parliamentary elections. The decision to hold the elections early reflects a desire to renew the government’s authority to adopt decisive measures to overcome the economic challenges facing Kazakhstan, but they also provide an opportunity for the government to reaffirm its rejection of stagnation, authoritarianism, and other negative scenarios for the future.
As a major oil and gas producer and regional economic leader, Kazakhstan’s stability, economic development, and democratic progress are essential for Western interests in Central Asia. Sustained comprehensive political, economic, and cultural cooperation with Western countries has contributed to Kazakhstan’s independence, economic growth, and political development and has been critical for balancing external interests in the region. While reducing its military presence in Central Asia, the United States and Europe should continue to pursue their interests in regional security, energy development, the rule of law, and representative governance in Kazakhstan and the wider region.
These parliamentary elections will be taking place amid unexpected complications in the internal political situation and changing regional environment. The country has experienced an unusual wave of violence with possible or partly political motivations in 2011. Several shooting and bomb-blast incidents have shocked Kazakhstan since May, while a labor dispute escalated to deadly clashes between protesters and the police in Mangistau region, one of the country’s oil provinces, in December. The two types of violence are unrelated, but undoubtedly contributed to undermining the sense of security and stability of most Kazakhstani citizens and raised alert among foreign investors.
We note that the government has pledged to resolve the situation in Zhanaozen by providing media access to site, pledging transparent official enquiry, and the commitment of enhanced resources for election day. Our team is sending representatives to the western region to confirm that local officials fulfill these commitments of the central government to improving the situation in the region as well as to monitor the elections there and meet with local officials and business leaders. In any case, these events mean that the electoral environment before the January 15 parliamentary elections is very different from that of the April 2011 presidential elections.
According to the Central Election Commission (CEC), President Nazarbayev received 95.5 percent of the votes, cast by almost 90 percent of the electorate, in those presidential elections. Most observers and analysts believe Nazarbayev won the election by a large margin, but consider the declared victory margin and especially the turnout figure implausibly high. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which had the largest of the international observer missions, cited several improvements over previous elections, but cautioned that “needed reforms for holding genuine democratic elections still have to materialize as this election revealed shortcomings similar to those in previous elections.”
OSCE election monitors also faulted Kazakhstan’s 2007 parliamentary elections for failing to meet international standards for a genuinely free and fair vote. The monitors complained about overly restrictive legal provisions such as the use of a high threshold for representation in the parliament, rules allowing parties to select after the ballot which of their candidates will become members of the legislature, and excessive restrictions on the Kazakhstanis’ rights to seek public office. The relatively high threshold of 7 percent for any political party to gain parliamentary representation resulted in a one-party Majilis consisting of deputies from the President’s Party of Nur Otan. This outcome reinforced OSCE’s concerns about the Kazakhstani government’s commitment to meeting international election standards.
Kazakhstan’s government has promised to do better on the January 15 parliamentary elections. Responding to OSCE criticism, Kazakhstan amended the constitutional law on elections to guarantee seats to the party that finishes second, even if it does not reach the 7 percent threshold set for entrance into the Majilis.
However, the authorities may need to lower the threshold itself to make parliamentary representation more inclusive, particularly since social demands for a wider distribution of the country’s wealth are increasing and are likely to lead to political demands for representation of various interest groups in the national legislature. The Kazakhstani authorities should also change the registration procedures to make it easier for parties to merge or form electoral blocs.
The opposition faces various other legal and administrative constraints, but their main problem is their inability to unite behind a smaller number of candidates. Kazakhstan’s political opposition is still weak and divided. The country’s political parties are either parties of power or parties of personalities: what Kazakhstan needs is parties of principle—those that offer the voters clearly differing platforms and that represent specific socio-economic or geographic regional interests.
Of course, the real test will be the actual conduct of the January 15 election. While the formal rules for elections have improved, they remain to be tested in an actual election. The gap between the letter of the law and its actual implementation needs to be narrowed. In particular, this requires an end to inappropriate meddling in the electoral process by local administrators. Also, incumbents enjoy natural advantages in administrative resources that the electoral process should not reinforce. Instead, the goal should be to assure that all candidates and parties are able to play on a level playing field.
The counting and tabulation of the results need to be made more transparent. The election authorities should post on the Internet the vote totals for each precinct as soon as they close the voting process. This would allow the observers to be present at the count, to check the totals against their own records (monitors receive a checklist that has questions related to turnout, vote totals, and numerous other issues), and to point out any discrepancies. It would also permit everyone to check the counting and quickly make evident anomalies. This arrangement would discourage powerful individuals in a locality from attempting to influence the results.
Some credible, neutral, and trustworthy institutions need to provide opportunities for nationally or regionally televised public debates among candidates. In the case of parliamentary elections, the participants can be political party or the candidates themselves. In addition to covering any debates, the media needs to be allowed to provide analytical coverage of elections.
The January 15 elections might be the last elections before another generation of leaders, emerges to carry the country forward. A multi-party democratic system with checks and balances between the president and parliament, politicians loyal to the constitution rather than to a single person, the rule of law, and free and fair elections: there is no greater assurance of a country’s stability and security than these pillars of democracy.
Ms. Margarita Assenova
Dr. Ariel Cohen
Dr. Sergei Gretsky
Central Asia and the Caucasus Journal
Mr. Alexander Rahr
German Council on Foreign Relations
Mr. Vladimir Socor
Ambassador Douglas Townsend
International Tax and Investment Center
Former Australian Ambassador to the Republic of Kazakhstan
Dr. Richard Weitz
Center for Political-Military Analysis
Mr. Daniel A. Witt
International Tax and Investment Center
*Organizations are listed for identification purposes only. The views expressed are those of the individuals, and not necessarily their organizations. All observers will be accredited by the Central Election Committee of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
SOURCE International Tax and Investment Center