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Mainstream, Vol XLIX No 17, April 16, 2011

Kazakhstan Presidential Election Shows How To Legalise An Authoritarian Regime

Thursday 21 April 2011



by R.G. Gidadhubli

During the last few months popular uprisings have swept several countries in the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia. For instance, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Kyrgyzstan etc. have witnessed mass unrest and violent protests against authoritarian regimes. The Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, who was ruling for decades, was forced to relinquish power. The fate of the Libyan President Gaddafi is hanging in balance. In the Kyrgyz Republic the former autocratic President, Kurmanbek Bakiev, had to leave and the incumbent, Roza Otunbaeva, has made history as the first woman President of an Islamic country and is in the process of making significant reforms despite formidable challenges she is facing in this tiny Central Asian State (CAS).

In this contemporary political history of Asia, a different scenario can be witnessed in Kazakhstan, which has concluded its presidential election on April 3, 2011. The outcome of the election, in which the incumbent President, Nursultan Nazarbaev, was declared elected, was a foregone conclusion. This is evident from the fact that, as per Kazakh reports, he got 95 per cent of the votes cast when the turnout of voters was about 85 per cent. More than nine million people were registered to vote in the Central Asian nation of more than 16 million people. Nazarbaev was supported by the Nur Otan Party which is the largest in the country. It is worth noting that after the break-up of the former Soviet Union, 70-year-old Nazarbaev has been in power as the President of the sovereign and independent Kazakhstan during the last two decades.

There were three other candidates. Zhambyl Akhmetbekov, the nominee of the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan, whose campaign was nationalisation of the resource extraction industry and, if elected, he promised to remove state control over prices and support medium-sized businesses. Mels Eleusizov was another candidate and he is the Chairman of the Ecological Union who wants to improve the ecological condition in the country. The third candidate was Gani Kasymov of the Party of Patriots and his stated aim is primarily to improve the political and state structure. According to Kazakh official data, in the initial stage there were 22 candidates interested in the election but most were disqualified. As opined by some critics, even these three were not serious contenders and they were nominal in the campaign. Thus it is being argued that this election was well managed by Nazarbaev to remain in power. There is a basis for such a contention considering the sequence of events prior to the election. At the same time it is worthwhile to know how Nazarbaev has managed very shrewdly to comply with the legalistic requirements to show his objectivity in retaining his power under the prevailing complicated international environ-ment for authoritarian rulers. It is worthwhile to understand some issues concerning this election.

First, officially this election was scheduled to be held only at the end of 2012 which meant it has been preponed by nearly two years. Hence there is criticism for this preponment by several contestants on the ground that the time was too short for the campaign and that this was deliberately done on the directive of the President. Moreover, candidates who contested the election also complained about lack of funds for the campaign and that funds provided by the state for the campaign were too meagre. On his part, Nazarbaev made a bold statement that he would not campaign. But the fact remains that being in power for two decades he did not need any campaign, nor did he need any funding for his campaign by the state since the entire state machinery was at his command.

Secondly, unlike in the previous elections in the country, in the 2011 election there were additional clauses for contesting candidates. For instance, a mandatory clause has been added that the presidential candidate had to undergo a Kazakh language proficiency examination. In fact this clause seems to have eliminated several potential candidates. In this multiethnic and multilingual state, Kazakhstan has a large population of Russian ethnicity accounting for about thirty per cent of the population. During the Soviet era, the Russian language was more in demand and in all the CAS even the Central Asian ethnic elites, who had high ambition and who aspired to be leaders, went to the Russian language schools. Hence they were more proficient in the Russian language than in their own native languages. Even now Russian is the recognised official language in this country and more than 80 per cent of the population can speak the Russian language. While many contestants were eliminated by this condition imposed rather suddenly, in fairness the Russian ethnic people appreciate the need for the President of the country to be conversant with the Kazakh language. Rustem Lebekov, the Director of the Eurasian Centre for Political Studies in Almaty stated “… a person who wants to become the President of Kazakhstan has to know Kazakh. It’s a reasonably fair [requirement] because we are talking of Kazakhstan here, and Kazakhs are the dominant ethnic group here.”

Thirdly, there is considerable opposition by many parties such as Azat, Ak Jol etc. and the leaders of these parties openly declared that they would not participate in the election. What is more, some parties, including the Alg Party, Communist Party, and the civil society groups called on voters to boycott the election. In the third week of March 2011, as reported by Faragis Najibullah, strong protest demonstrations were held in several regions including Almaty which is the biggest city of Kazakhstan, and these showed that there was no total support for holding this election.

Fourthly, there is another possible strong reason for the preponement of the election. During the last few months a referendum was being held in the country for extending the term of the presidency of Nazarbaev up to 2020. It was reported that about five million people had signed in favour of this referendum. But even as the referendum was in progress, there was criticism of this by some Opposition political parties in the country and by political analysts in the West. According to Kazakh reports, the proposed referendum was rejected by the Constitutional Council. It is important to note that, as reported in the press, Nazarbaev himself rejected the referendum and a snap poll was announced in February 2011. While by doing so Nazarbaev might have contained criticism at home and abroad, the point to note is that the referendum would not have been held for months throughout the country without Nazarbaev’s implicit consent. But some analysts question whether Nazarbayev was influenced by the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt. In fact Hosni Mubarak was re-elected on several occasions in the past though referendums and suddenly found he was no longer a legitimate ruler. He has been forced to quit power and is currently hospitalised in Jordan. It is opined that Nazarbaev was probably influenced by these events and he was shrewd enough to reject the referendum in time. The Western countries, including the USA, seem to have supported his decision of rejection of the referendum since it would have been a “setback for democracy”. Nazarbaev has valued his Western connections and proposes to consolidate them during his tenure.

NOTWITHSTANDING what is stated above, the Kazakh Government on its part said efforts would be made to ensure that the election would be free and fair. To prove that argument, hundreds of observers were invited from several countries and international organisations, including the CIS, OSCE, SCO and so on. But there were mixed reactions. According to some observers, the election was fair. For instance, the chief of the election monitoring mission of the CIS, Sergei Lebedev, told a briefing in Astana that the April 3 election was democratic. A similar view was expressed by the representative of the Organisation of Islamic Countries. On the other hand, Tonino Picula, representing the OSCE, stated that there were ‘serious irregularities’ and shortcomings in the legal framework of conducting the election and he was not convinced about the claim of 90 per cent turnout at the polling stations as claimed by the government. It appears that there were cases of some persons casting votes several times. It has been observed that there is need for improvement in the conduct of elections in Kazakhstan. Notwithstanding some instances of protests and violence, there was overwhelming support by the people of Kazakhstan for Nazarbaev to be re-elected as the President of the country.

Incidentally, as opined by a correspondent, none of the three other candidates has openly campaigned against the authoritarian Nazarbaev, who has ruled Kazakhstan for more than 20 years. What might be surprising and funny for a Western political analyst is that one of the contestants, environmentalist Mels Eleusizov, while exiting a polling station, told the waiting journalists that he had cast his own vote for Nazarbaev. This indicated that he was not serious about contesting the election. In fact the Kazakh think-tank, ‘Alternativa’, had observed, there was no strong Opposition candidate in this election. This could be partly true the reason being that there are many political parties in this country. Moreover, there was not much difference between the manifesto of Nazarbev and those of the other candidates who also proposed rational use of state control and private sector in economic development.

In fairness to the leadership of Nazarbaev it may be stated that during the last two decades, the Kazakh head of state has skillfully managed to sustain close political ties with the neighbouring countries of Central Asia as also with major world powers including the USA, and the neighbouring states of Russia and China. Much to the discomfort of both Russia and the USA, big deals have been made by Nazarbaev with the Chinese President in February 2011. China has emerged as a major partner of Kazakhstan as an importer of oil and gas, uranium (55 thousand tonnes to be supplied) and other mineral resources. China has over 1000 joint ventures in Kazakhstan and Nazarbaev during his visit to Beijing in February 2011 had offered one million hectares of land to China on 99 years of lease. In turn, without interfering in Kazakhstan’s internal affairs, China has been consistently offering huge credits to Kazakhstan to overcome its economic problems, infrastruc-ture development etc. India and Kazakhstan also have cordial relations. Another evidence of his credible leadership has been that Kazakhstan had the unique distinction among all the CIS states of being the rotating chairman of the Organisation of Security and Cooperation of Europe (OSCE) which concluded in 2010. The country is also an active member of regional organisations including CSTO, SCO apart from having membership in the World Bank, IMF etc. Thanks to huge exports of oil and natural gas at the prevailing high international prices, the country has recorded about six-to-eight per cent average annual growth rates over the past decade and now boasts a per capita gross domestic product of more than $ 9000—a twelve-fold increase compared to 1994 and four times that of Egypt at present. The living standards in Kazakhstan are the envy of some of its neighbours. Hence any leader who delivers these results is going to be popular. Equally important was that the incumbent President Nazarbayev’s platform was based on the “Country’s Development Programme 2020” and his State of the Nation address of January 28, 2011. He stated that his priorities are continuous political stability, sustainable economic growth, innovative industrial development and support for small and medium businesses. These had considerable appeal for the large educated sections of the population.

While analysing the perspective of Kazakhstan, the issue of Nazarbaev’s successor is raised by some commentators. But it needs to be stated that in Kazakhstan, which has a majority of educated population and is a relatively peaceful and economically fast developing country, the issue of succession need not be a critical factor. The fact remains that as of now Nazarbaev has a good chance that he might not face serious challenges during his presidency.

Dr R.G. Gidadhubli is a Professor and the former Director, Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai.

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