Fissures Develop in Kazakh Politics

by Nathan Hamm on 10/21/2004

EurasiaNet reports that frustration over the government’s rigging of this year’s parliamentary election has led to dissent from the leader of the ruling party, even though they benefited from government tampering with the electoral process.

A dispute over Kazakhstan’s parliament election results is opening up cracks in the country’s political foundation. The renegade leader of the ruling Otan Party, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, touched off the crisis by characterizing the vote as a “farce,” and issuing a direct challenge to President Nursultan Nazarbayev “to find the elections illegitimate.” So far, the president has not responded.

The two-round vote – held in late September and early October, and widely condemned as rigged — handed Otan 42 of 77 seats in parliament. Nazarbayev at first appeared ready to shrug off the criticism coming from international organizations and disgruntled opposition politicians, who asserted that widespread irregularities marred the election. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But on October 14, Tuyakbai, the deputy chairman of Otan and speaker of the outgoing parliament, shocked the political establishment with an open letter published in the Vremya newspaper that complained about “massive violations of voters’ rights.”

Tuyakbai asserted that media bias in favor of Otan during the campaign was “only the tip of the iceberg” of electoral violations. He insisted the government engaged in a far-reaching campaign to prevent a free-and-fair election. “The entire 2004 [parliamentary] election process occurred in an atmosphere of continuous pressure by local executive bodies on the will of voters.”

Kazakhstan watchers think this might be a sign that Tuyakbai had already fallen out of the president’s favor or that infighting in the ruling establishment is coming into the open.*

In the absence of an immediate presidential response, policy-makers and pundits have debated the motive for Tuyakbai’s actions. Some observers believe that Tuyakbai had already fallen out of favor with Nazarbayev, and was slated to be replaced as parliament speaker. Thus, he aired his election complaints to ingratiate himself with opposition parties, thereby keeping his political prospects open. Opposition parties, including Ak Zhol and Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK), praised Tuyakbai’s comments, prompting speculation in some quarters that Tuyakbai might be angling to become the opposition’s candidate in the next presidential election in 2006.

Other experts say Tuyakbai’s recent comments may be linked to intense political infighting within the ruling establishment. They note that several top members of the political hierarchy — including Tuyakbai and presidential chief-of-staff Imangali Tasmagambetov – harbor not-so-secret ambitions of becoming Kazakhstan’s next president. Tasmagambetov reportedly blocked several Tuyakbai allies from gaining seats in parliament, leaving Tuyakbai in somewhat isolated, they add. Tuyakbai’s comments could thus be an attempt to rescue himself after being outmaneuvered by Tasmagambetov. The Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency quoted political scientist Dosym Satpayev as saying; “If, all of a sudden, a top Kazakhstani official starts criticizing either the elections or the political system, it is a first sign of internal conflict within the elite.”

Another interesting possibility is that Nazarbayev is letting the controversy play out to determine public sentiment before his response. It might be the strangest form of democracy I’ve ever seen, but Nazarbayev has done this before.

Throughout the media law debate, Nazarbayev remained in the background, affording him an opportunity to gauge public and international reaction. The bill, though widely assailed for placing restraints on free speech, eventually secured parliament’s approval. However, Nazarbayev ended up vetoing the legislation after apparently calculating that the cost, in terms of tarnished international prestige, was too high.

Under the media-law scenario, Nazarbayev would accept Tuyakbai’s appeal, annul the election results, and call for a fresh vote. Nazarbayev would thus avoid being tarnished by the vote-rigging controversy, while at the same time being able to claim that a system of checks and balances is developing in Kazakhstan.

Whatever is actually going on, the opposition has been energized by Tuyakbai’s attacks on the elections.

*Analysts have been saying similar things about Azerbaijan ever since Aliyev the younger came to power and I’ve never seen much develop of it. So, take it for what it’s worth.

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Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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