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How Elections Work in Kazakhstan

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Recently the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev was elected for the fourth term, with a record-breaking 95.5% of the vote. He has now ruled as President since 1990 and will continue in office until 2016 when the next election is scheduled to be held. So he is fast coming up on 26 years in power, not counting his time as head of the Kazakh SSR in the Soviet period.

When the world thinks of developing countries, and particularly those in the post-Soviet space, the assumption is that the elections are rigged. And there is plenty of reason to be suspicious of Nazarbayev’s past results. In 1999, he ran unopposed. In 2005, the OSCE heavily criticized the presidential election as unfree and unfair with accusations of media bias, problems registering opposition candidates, lack of transparency of election laws, voter intimidation and ballot stuffing. The current election was seen as better, but still there were signs of ballot stuffing and voters being pressured to vote for Nazarbayev.

Several times, he has even avoided an election all together. In 1995, a referendum of the people voted to extend his first term by 5 years, until the year 2000. Incidentally, 95.5% of voters voted for it, the same number that just re-elected him this week. And more recently, a proposal for a referendum sponsored by government employees and supported by Nazarbayev’s party almost passed to extend his term until 2020.

And a constitutional amendment last year gave the President the status of Leader of the Nation, which, among other things, makes it a crime to insult him, deface his image or misrepresent his biography. This makes it hard to campaign effectively against him. There have also been several cases of journalists who criticize the Administration mysteriously dying or disappearing, most recently the publisher of Respublika.

Clearly any election result will be rigged and stolen. Or will it?

A recent post by William Dobson in the Washington Post blog, Post Partisan, asks the question why do even popular leaders steal elections?. And Nazarbayev is genuinely popular. An independent Gallup poll puts him at 90% popularity. If you ask any citizen of Kazakhstan if they support him or not, they will almost invariably say, “yes”. And in fact as the first President of Kazakhstan, he successfully led a peaceful and mostly orderly transition from a post-Soviet country in crisis to a middle income developing country, and a regional power. Flat screen TVs, hyper-modern apartment buildings, designer fashions and sushi are all available in the cities of Kazakhstan and the wages are much higher than in many other post-Soviet nations. While the rural parts of Kazakhstan are still very poor, the standard of living on average has grown since the post-Soviet days.

As the administration likes to brag, Kazakhstan is a peaceful and stable multi-ethnic state. Unlike neighbors Tajikistan, Russia and even Kyrgyzstan, there have been no serious ethnic conflicts in Kazakshtan, where over 100 different ethnicities live side-by-side.

Kazakhstan has also gained quite a bit of international prestige recently, hosting a recent OSCE summit and this year heading the OIC. This is a point of pride for the average Kazakh citizen, who often feels their country is ignored by the greater world powers.

Add with the lack of a strong and organized opposition candidate, Nazarbayev’s victory is not so surprising. Whence, then the accusations of irregularities in the elections?

Dobson has a good answer for this, one that I think has to be understood by analysts and governments wishing to engage with Kazakhstan. Referencing a discussion he had with an advisor to Putin, Dobson writes:

In other words, lower-level officials engage in election fraud because they are afraid of looking bad against their peers. Whether it is boosting their own numbers or delivering votes for their leader, officials in an authoritarian system have high incentives to tamper with the ballots. We may think that there is no open competition in an authoritarian regime, but we would be wrong. It is just that the competition is between officials competing for favor, not between the dictator and his supposed opponents.

This is an important point. In a country where the President (or his appointees) appoints the Prime Minister, local province governors (akims), heads of national universities, members of Parliament (directly and via Nurotan), as well as Ministers and heads of national companies (via the Prime Minister), currying favor with the big man is important. Giving expensive gifts to your boss is a tradition that stems back not only to ancient Kazakh civilization but also more recent Soviet politics as well. And what better gift to give the man who has everything than a 99% vote and a mandate to rule? What better way to put your job at risk, the logic goes, than to deliver a mediocre result?

And this principle extends to the press and even ordinary citizens. Even before the Leader of the Nation law, very few journalists would dare criticize the powers-that-be out of fear of getting into trouble. In fact, news on the President rarely goes beyond publishing official press releases. Asking a taxi driver about Nazarbayev will tend to result in a declaration of support, but if you ask about details you will get silence. And university students sign up for the Nurotan party believing it will advance their future careers.

In short, there probably were irregularities in the recent presidential election in Kazakhstan. And Nazarbayev would still have won easily without them.

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