The background to the January 15 Kazakhstan’s parliamentary elections has been most unfavorable. The image of stability that Kazakhstan’s government had carefully cultivated over the years has been tarnished with the outbreak of violence in an oil town of Zhanaozen. In neighboring Russia, on which Kazakhstan depends both culturally and politically, dozens of thousands of people protested in December against falsifications in the Russian Duma elections held on December 4. These combined events generated warning signs that the Kazakh authorities should brace themselves for a stormy political season. However, the elections went as planned with a high turn-out (lower than in the 2011 Presidential elections but still solid 75 %) and very few instances of protest or boycott; the expected rendering of the elections as undemocratic by the OSCE and the usual accusations by the losing parties managed to gather only a few hundred protesters in the center of Almaty on January 17. The charges leveled by the OSCE were that the elections “though well administered, did not meet key democratic principles.” As the OSCE statement said, “the authorities did not provide the necessary conditions for the conduct of genuinely pluralistic elections.” The accusations of not facilitating a “genuine pluralism” and not allowing all aspiring candidates and parties to enter free competition for the parliament seats comes as no surprise. After all, in a widely-held view, the authoritarian regime in Kazakhstan has been faking democratic processes for quite a while. So, now, on top of the previous simulations, it began to fake a multi-party parliament with 83 seats in the lower chamber given to the ruling Nur Otan party, 8 seats to the “Ak Zhol” (translated as “bright path”), 7 seats to the KNPK (communist) party, and 9 seats reserved for the representatives of ethnic minorities through the Assembly of the People.
The obvious question is: why go to the trouble of faking a multi-party system if the parliament is overshadowed by the President anyway, and the most important policy decisions are made in the government and in the corridors of the Presidential Apparatus which are then just rubber-stamped in parliament? As several Kazakhstani analysts, such as Daniyar Ashimbayev and Dosym Satpayev, have noted, after many years of consolidating power in the institute of presidency, the President himself and the ruling elite now want to transform the system from the presidential to the parliamentary-presidential. Having the almost omnipotent first President in the figure of Nazarbayev is seen as an exceptional situation of the first decades of independence and it is presumed and hoped that the next President, whoever he/she is, should have far less power than President Nazarbayev had. In line with this vision for the future, the parliament has already started flexing its powers through the vote of confidence for the newly appointed “old” government of Karim Masimov. All presidential appointees have to be approved by parliament and it is possible legally (although it is difficult to imagine now) that the parliament might not always agree with the President.
The bureaucratic-procedural nature and the commitment to the letter (if not the spirit) of law of the current Kazakh presidential system should not be underestimated. The developed bureaucracy and a good grasp of bureaucratic procedure in Kazakhstan might have a positive impact for the future formalization of the presidential-parliamentarian system. Many observers from CIS countries and even OCSE observers have noted a “well-administered” conduct of the elections. For instance, in light of the plans to install video-cameras into each election booth in the coming presidential elections in Russia, Russian observers noted that the Kazakh authorities’ use of transparent polling boxes had almost the same effect of observe-ability as can be achieved by video-cameras. In Kazakhstan’s polling stations, voters first proceed to identify themselves and pick up the bulletin, then they go to the curtained voting booth where they can mark their bulletin anonymously after which they emerge from the booth and slide the bulletin in a tiny voting slot in a transparent box in front of observers and the public. Many observers of Kazakhstani elections admit that even though the voter turn-out in Kazakhstan is suspiciously high, the numbers are usually proved and well-supported with the lists of registered voters. So far, no evidence has been found to question the official figures of voter turn-out. It does indeed seem that Kazakhstani citizens do come to vote in great numbers and these numbers far exceed the number of voters in many established democracies.
So, why in an authoritarian country like Kazakhstan, do people turn up for voting in great numbers with most of them casting their votes for the ruling party? Needless to say, Nurotan is popular first and foremost because it is the party of the President. It is widely perceived as a party of the people who “know how to rule the country” and, as it stands now, not many want to change the balance of power to people who might declare themselves more democratic but are seen as disgruntled former officials and oligarchs who want to get back to “kormushka” (distribution of benefits). The broad political appeal, popularity and endurance of Nazarbayev’s regime has been a stunning success. The politics of aspirations –the alliance between the regime and aspiring middle classes lies at the core of the regime’s endurance. There also seems to be a link between the attachments to modernization (i.e. the vision that the people of Kazakhstan need to collectively improve their socio-economic conditions) and attachment to a certain degree of authoritarianism and state paternalism. The state paternalism and authoritarianism in this vision is not seen as a mechanism of repression of individual rights and autonomy but as a mechanism of enabling these rights and entitlements. In this sense, the democratic aspirations of the people unfold together with the expectations of paternalism –a wide-spread understanding that the purpose of the state is to provide for the people and find solutions to their socio-economic problems.
Pointing to this curious mixture of democratic aspirations and expectations of paternalism is, for instance, the fact that the most wide-spread form of democratic politics in Kazakhstan is writing open letters to the President. Almost all oppositional actors on Kazakhstan’s political stage have been engaged in this genre of politics and bargaining– from a self-exiled oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov who, from his golden refuge in London, has recently written an open letter (not his first) to the President saying that only he Ablyazov can turn things around at the indebted BTA bank, which he owned before it was effectively nationalized in 2008 to multiple groups of middle-class investors who privately invested with different housing projects during the construction boom and who, after the construction bust, have been demanding, through protests and appeals (including open letters) to the President and government, that the state takes it upon itself to see through to completion their unfinished or frozen housing projects. Even the recent riots in the Zhanaozen can be seen in this light as a desperate attempt to bring to the attention of the President and the government the plight and entitlement of the workers and residents in Zhanaozen to well-paid jobs in the oil industry. It is worth noting that the situation in Zhanaozen has been pacified only with the arrival of the President, amidst promises that the families of those who were killed would be paid retribution and that all the oil workers in town would be re-employed. Following the President’s directive, KazMunaiGaz national oil Company has re-employed about 1,700 workers although there are no ready jobs for them to fill and the company has yet to find ways to create new jobs through opening new productions and facilities in town.
To put it simply, Nazarbayev has usurped huge power but the majority of people in Kazakhstan continue to support him, and by association his party, precisely because they see that a concentrated power is needed to ensure order and stability and to provide solutions to the social problems of the day. The ruling elite and, perhaps, Nazarbayev himself, however, hope that this power which is now concentrated in the figure of Nazarbayev can be institutionalized and subsequently inherited not just by the next president (like as happened, for instance, in Turkmenistan) but by an institution, such as a parliament or a ruling party, which would be supported by the people in the same way that Nazarbayev himself was supported. So far, the institute of the majlis never had the same legitimacy as the President. The people have seen it for what it was – a rubber-stamping organ for the decisions of the government and the President. But a multi-party parliament with representatives of other (if not outright oppositional) parties and a new upgraded Nurotan faction, which this time around also includes well-known public figures such as, among others, the daughter of the president, Dariga Nazarbayeva and a widely published and broadcast government analyst Maulen Ashimbayev, will enliven the debate (the Majlis sessions are covered by all the major TV channels) and can bring public recognition to this underestimated and underperformed institution.
This article was first published with the Central Asia and Caucasus Analyst at http://www.cacianalyst.org/?q=node/5702