Let us begin with some Real Talk. Normal elections do not have a 90% turnout. Similarly, candidates for president do not win 95% of the vote. It just does not happen, no matter how popular they may be. When an election posts those numbers, the hairs on the necks of everyone who monitors elections stand up, because that’s a big red flag that some serious fraud is going on.
To recap: Nursultan Nazarbayev, the forever-President of Kazakhstan, won this week’s election with 95% of the vote. That is a much greater percentage victory than the “elections” in Turkmenistan—whose forever-President, Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov, won with “only” 89% of the last vote he held. However, Turkmenistan does not have hired pundits out there trying to spin its elections as progress toward democracy. Kazakhstan, however, does. Take, for example, this press release:
The two main authors, the husband-and-wife team of Margarita Assenova and Janusz Bugajski, headed up the US-Kazakhstan Task Force at CSIS, which was funded largely through the government of Kazakhstan to promote its chairmanship of the OSCE. Unsurprisingly, the Task Force only had nice things to say about Kazakhstan’s chairmanship (much like a 95% electoral victory, this just does not happen—either a chairmanship is unremarkable, as it is most of the time, or it generates controversy). It was part of a big offensive the government of Kazakhstan went on in DC, hiring Fred Starr’s outfit at SAIS, and funding CSIS’s task force to generate positive, superficially “academic” approval of its conduct.
So already, there are a lot of telltale signs of a conflict of interest coming out of this “independent” monitoring mission to Kazakhstan. One of the team’s members, Richard Weitz, even wrote about his experiences for his World Politics Review column:
Despite noting significant irregularities, most of the international observation teams confirmed the outcome’s validity… But the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) cited some problems with the voting procedures that they had also found on previous occasions. These included restrictions on peoples’ freedom of assembly and expression; ambiguities and gaps in the election law that resulted in its inconsistent application; the fact that most election commissioners were members of the ruling Nur Otan party; and a lack of due process and transparency in responding to complaints about the election process.
Naturally, Weitz thinks this is still evidence of the election’s free-and-fair nature (something the OSCE most certainly does NOT say in their report on the election). The problem is, the list of complaints the OSCE compiled about the election directly undermine the idea of the election’s validity. And which international observation teams certified the election as “valid?” The only one I can think of is the SCO—which is hardly neutral, or in possession of a strong record of supporting the democratic process.
Here’s why I have a stick up my ass about this. It’s not that a bunch of think tankers are saying things I disagree with—that would hardly be remarkable. Rather, it is this: a group of 8 fairly senior level people does not just up and travel to Central Asia for a few weeks without substantial financial backing. Who provided it here? The government of Kazakhstan funded the “studies” that Assenova and Bugajski publish on Kazakhstan’s diplomatic and governance initiatives; similarly, Weitz has published studies on Kazakhstan through CSIS that were also funded by the government of Kazakhstan through the lobbying firm APCO Worldwide.
So when these people emerge from their monitoring missions, and brag that they spoke with the election commission chairs (who, coincidentally, also work for Nazarbayev’s party) to tell us that everyone wanted a clean, fair, free election… well, wouldn’t you be wondering who’s really behind it? To see this same group of people—who have spent much of the last three years writing pro-Nazarbayev studies that were funded by Nazarbayev—writing about how, once again, Nazarbayev has magically secured a legitimate 95.5% of his electorate’s votes simply beggars belief that they’re as “independent” as their report describes them.
At the very least, these guys could disclose the source of the funding for their trip, so we’re not left with niggling doubts about who was sponsoring them. Because right now the whole thing stinks to high heaven.
Update: Here’s a great example of Weitz’s uncredulous spinning of the election. He reports for The Diplomat—apparently on an op-ed tour to promote Nazarbayev’s devotion to democracy—that people were either turned away for not having the right documents (a good thing) or were coached through how to provide the right documents (also a good thing).
However. If that was prevalent enough for him and his colleagues to see only in Almaty, what was it like in the smaller cities, where there wouldn’t be the same concentration of observers to see it happen? I am not calling anyone out on malfeasance, except for one thing: if people in the wealthiest, most educated city in the country were (appropriately) turned away for not having the right documentation then how in the hell can you tacitly accept a 95.5% turnout?
Put simply: you can’t. Weitz is not engaged in observation, he’s engaged in promotion. They’re not the same thing, like at all.