WHAT’S HAPPENING? On January 19, Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced snap elections to the Majilis (the lower house of parliament),
On January 19, Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced snap elections to the Majilis (the lower house of parliament), which are set to take place on March 19.
– The ruling Amanat party and President Tokayev will likely continue to make major moves against ex-president Nursultan Nazarbaev’s legacy in the country in the leadup to key elections and votes
– A free and fair election process and significant legislative impact for opposition parties in the lower house of parliament will likely be constrained by regulatory hurdles, long-standing systemic factors, apparent registration bias, and coalition-building challenges
– A new, more pluralistic parliament is unlikely to meaningfully or effectively oppose the policy of the current president and ruling party
REFORM, RULES AND REBRANDING RULERS
March’s snap elections will be the first in decades to feature a mixed system that involves single-member constituencies and proportional representation and will also feature elections to regional assemblies. Single-member constituencies theoretically make it simpler for opposition politicians to take part in these elections, as they theoretically allow non-establishment movements to circumvent the uncertain and burdensome party registration process. Tokayev promised sweeping reforms following the passage of his proposed constitutional referendum in June, including ensuring the legislature better reflects the public’s will.
This new round also follows early indirect elections to the senate in January that led to a turnover of half of the legislators in the upper house. Constitutional amendments had reduced the quota of senators that the Kazakhstani president can appoint from 15 to 10. With parliament dismissed until the elections, the new senate is now in charge of all legislative functions.
Tokayev and his administration are also still contending with public dissatisfaction around their handling of bloody unrest in January 2022 that resulted in ex-President Nursultan Nazarbaev being removed from various public roles. Once Nazarbaev’s handpicked successor, Tokayev has attempted to distance himself from the former leader since the so-called January events and members of Nazarbaev’s family have resigned or been ousted from various positions of power. The leadership of the ruling party in parliament, Nur Otan, passed from Nazarbaev to Tokayev in January 2022, and the party was rebranded as Amanat on March 1. Tokayev subsequently passed the party leadership to a political ally in April 2022. Amanat currently holds 76 seats in the parliament, with Ak Zhol and the People’s Party of Kazakhstan holding 10 and 12, respectively.
On February 1st, the Amanat party announced that authorities had confiscated a total of 299,000 hectares of land from the ex-president’s brother’s company after the party helped to identify these tracts as illegally obtained. This is another instance in an apparent pattern of major moves to counter the privileged position of the Nazarbaev family in the leadup to important votes.
Indeed, iust one day before the snap elections to the senate in January, the ex-president’s family was stripped of its legal immunity and financial confidentiality with the annulment of the constitutional law on the First President. Two months before his reelection in the November 2022 presidential race, Tokayev approved the renaming of the country’s capital to Astana from Nur-Sultan.Tokayev himself had named the city in honor of Nazarbaev three years prior. Actions and messaging that push the Nazarbaev legacy out of public life in Kazakhstan without directly affecting the ex-president himself will likely remain a campaign tactic for Tokayev and the party that he once led in the foreseeable future.
REGISTRATION AND REPRESENTATION
With only 29 of the 98 seats in the Majilis up for election via the single-member mechanism, party registration remains the only route toward exercising any significant power over legislation. 125 would-be single-member candidates have so far been denied registration, largely due to incomplete paperwork. Only 76 registered single-member constituency Majilis candidates represent a party or movement, with the remaining 82.5% self-nominated. This leaves their ability to coordinate on policy with opposition parties, should they be elected, highly uncertain. Although registering a party now only requires 5,000 rather than 20,000 members, both mechanisms have significant and often arbitrary roadblocks in place that allow authorities to deny registration, such as a candidate miscalculating their taxes by two cents.
Indeed, Alga Kazakhstan and Namys ‒ parties with members that describe themselves as critical of the government ‒ were rejected by the Justice Ministry for allegedly not complying with requirements. The green Baitak party and the Respublica party were able to register, although the latter’s party list underwent additional review, The Central Election Commission also granted several other alternative parties registration in quick succession in February: the business-focused Ak Zhol, the agrarian and rural issues Auyl party, and the socialist-leaning People’s Party and National Social Democratic Party (OSDP).
However, Baitak’s leader is a former executive at a state-owned enterprise and a recent journalistic investigation found evidence of close ties between the Respublica party and the Tokayev administration. Although Auyl and OSDP both had party representatives in the 2022 presidential race, Ak Zhol and the People’s Party chose to back Tokayev rather than put forward their own candidates. According to Central Asian Foundation for the Development of Democracy head Tolganai Umbetaliyeva, these latter two parties have continually paid homage to the president and his policies and OSDP is no longer perceived as actively oppositional.
The possibility that some of these parties may reverse course in favor of Nazarbaev supporters or push other domestic oppositional motions in the parliament once they receive their mandate cannot be ruled out. However, their approval likely indicates that the current administration will continue to grant registration to parties that are not perceived as an active threat to its policies. Desire for a continued mandate and registration in the next elections may also curb any meaningful action against Tokayev’s main domestic policy priorities.
Although the Central Election Commission has also accredited several additional international election monitors, the registration process for those independent monitors has become stricter and includes more legal hurdles following amendments to the law “On Elections.” The recent senate and presidential elections that have taken place since Tokayev’s promised reforms in June have still not been considered free and fair by international observers. The upcoming snap elections will almost certainly continue to see violations in ballot counting as well. In light of these factors, the Majilis will likely continue to legislate in line with the president and the ruling party in the medium term, despite a greater representation of non-Amanat candidates.
A NEW MAJILIS AND MOSCOW
Kazakhstan’s uneasy balance of high-level policy and negative sentiment around Russia since the start of the war in Ukraine is also unlikely to change significantly, no matter the outcome of the snap elections in March. With Auyl largely focused on agrarian issues and professing a platform of agricultural self-sufficiency, it is unlikely to oppose recent government efforts to ban the export of root vegetables after dwindling supplies attributed in part to shortages in Russia. The single issue-focused Baitak party’s overall platform remains indeterminate as the elections approach, but could in theory push back on energy issues such as Kazakhstan’s recently signed roadmap entertaining the possibility of importing gas from Russia as part of curbing carbon emissions. However, it would likely have difficulty building coalition support behind such a position, especially as its leadership has emphasized the party’s direct opposition to fellow party Ak Zhol’s essential policy platform.
In a crucial development, Ak Zhol Majilis representative Azamat Abildaev was expelled from the party and parliament after expressing support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine and making negative statements in relation to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. After this move, the party reiterated its support for the independence and territorial integrity of both Kazakhstan and other friendly countries, which is in line with the positions expressed by government ministers under Tokayev since the start of full-scale war in Ukraine. Given the perceived “toothless” nature of OSDP, Respublica’s ties to the administration, and the apparent legislative record of Majilis minority mainstays Ak Zhol and the People’s Party, a new, more pluralistic parliament will almost certainly not change the course of Kazakhstan’s bilateral policy toward Russia or of policy writ large. Kazakhstan will likely continue to maintain relations within Russia-led economic and military multilateral bodies such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) while introducing more boundaries on such engagement and bolstering its economic and military self-sufficiency.
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