The presidential election season in Kazakhstan started with several puzzling events. In late 2010 –early 2011 a ‘group of private individuals’ came up with the idea to extend Nursultan Nazarbayev’s presidency until 2020 through a referendum rather than through open and competitive elections. However, in an unexpected twist the Constitutional Council declared the referendum unconstitutional despite the fact that about 5 million signatures were collected and both chambers of Kazakhstan’s legislature — the Senate and the Majilis — approved it. This decision led to an official announcement that early presidential elections will be held on April 3, 2011, though they are not due until 2012.
BACKGROUND: The Kazakhstan presidential election campaign was officially launched on March 3 after the Central Election Committee completed the registration process and named four candidates. The ballot list on April 3 will include President Nursultan Nazarbayev, representing the Nur Otan Party; Zhambyl Ahmetbekov, representing the Communist People's Party of Kazakhstan; Gani Kasymov, representing the Patriots' Party of Kazakhstan; and Mels Eleusizov, representing the Environmental Union 'Tabigat' (Nature). Many local experts believe that the outcomes of the elections are quite predictable, as polls suggest the incumbent president is well ahead of all other candidates.
Yet, these presidential elections are extremely important for the political development in Kazakhstan. It is an open secret in Astana that these elections are all about building what Kazakh expert Dosym Satbayev calls "a configuration of succession mechanism" and rules of the game for Nazarbayev's succession after his retirement. At this stage nothing indicates that President Nazarbayev will step down anytime soon. However, all members of the political establishment and especially the major competing clans would like to see clear-cut arrangements for the succession set up well in advance. An acceptable succession mechanism implies building a fairer election process (in which all political clans have equal chances) and stronger institutions, which would help avoid the “winner takes all” scenario seen in neighboring Kyrgyzstan during its revolution in 2010.
This would probably also include the search for a compromise figure that would be prepared for his or her role as a formal or informal successor in-waiting and in-training. This person would also be delegated certain powers and responsibilities to make sure that s/he would be capable of maintaining a delicate political balance between various competing political groups and would carry on Nazarbayev's legacy of economic modernization and the vision of Kazakhstan as, in Nazarbayev's words, one of "the most economically competitive countries in the world."
The history of succession in the Central Asian region has been quite instructive and not very encouraging. For example, long-serving President Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan was dishonorably chased out of office in 2005 for manipulating elections and refusing to begin the succession process. It did not help that he was considered a founding father of Kyrgyzstan, the man who led the country to independence. His successor, Kurbanbek Bakiyev, though elected in relatively open and competitive elections, was incapable of maintaining the required balance between the political clans in the country, grabbing political power and control over most of the economic resources at the expense of his competitors. Thus, he was also disreputably chased out of office by street protestors in spring 2010 and has remained a persona non grata in Kyrgyzstan, accused among other things of failing to maintain political balance in the post-Akayev environment and of bringing his country to the brink of civil war. The political elite in Kazakhstan would doubtless like to avoid this sort of scenario and would prefer to build a system that would make the political process more predictable and less open to destabilization by the actions of impatient individuals.
IMPLICATIONS: Although some observers complain that these presidential elections are too predictable — for example, Kazakh scholar Bulat Sultanov predicts that the incumbent president might get up to 70–75 percent of the votes — they are still very important for the political development of the country. First, these elections are conducted against the backdrop of revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa. These revolutions have wiped out several seemingly very strong regimes and leaders who were in power for decades. Apparently, beneath the façade of stability in these countries public grievances and anger were bubbling; though in Kazakhstan the ruling establishment claims that this scenario does not apply to their country at all and would like to use these elections to show the international community that the country is stable. Second, the elections have also become a means for cementing the legitimacy of the political leadership and political elite, and current domestic and international policies, especially in the aftermath of the 2010 OSCE chairmanship.
Third, the competitive presidential elections are also designed to ameliorate the public relations disaster of the attempt to prolong Nazarbayev's presidential term until 2020 through a referendum. Several prominent leaders threw their political capital and resources behind the referendum, intensively working on it for months and then publicly supporting it. However, they seriously miscalculated the public backlash, both domestic and international, against this unconstitutional and undemocratic action and the referendum was cancelled on February 5, 2011.
Fourth, these elections are also designed as a final showdown before the far more important and sensitive event scheduled for fall 2011, the parliamentary elections. The parliamentary elections, if conducted in an open and competitive environment, are far more unpredictable and far more significant. It seems that the configuration of political groupings along the various regional, business and clan lines will be crucial for the political environment and political discourse in this focal period. Currently, Kazakhstan's parliament is fully controlled by the ruling Nur Otan Party. Yet, even within the ruling party establishment strong disagreements exist on future policies, strategies and distribution of power.
CONCLUSIONS: The election campaign in Kazakhstan has heated up and it is essential that the elections become an open and fair communication process between the electorate and the politicians who would like to lead the nation for the next five years. Therefore the ruling establishment needs to think about the long-term consequences of the elections, and long-term strategies for making them a benchmark for political succession and future political development. The first step should be to consider strengthening the election process by making it more open, fair and competitive; thus making sure that the general population has a stake in the political process in the country and participates more widely in the elections.
The second step is to rebuild trust in the election process among citizens, especially young people. For nearly two decades the post-Soviet generation has grown up in a political environment where they do not trust in the fairness of the election process, and have become quite skeptical if not cynical. For example, during recent elections to Almaty Maslikhat (City Council) only 28 percent of the citizens came to the ballot. There is an urge to connect with this generation and to convince them that the democratic process and active political participation is the only way to move the young nation forward. This generation needs to be won back, both from various radical groups and ideologies and from political apathy.
The fourth step is to give all parties a chance to participate fairly in the political process, reviving a truly multiparty political environment. The spirit of the multiparty system was lost after previous parliamentary elections, when the Nur Otan practically established a one-party system by controlling all seats in the national parliament. In the end, it is in the interests of the political establishment to deal with differences and to address popular grievances through the democratic electoral process and democratic institutions, and not through confrontations on the streets or barricades.
AUTHORS’ BIO: Rafis Abazov, PhD, teaches at SIPA, Columbia University and Hunter College (New York). He is author of The Formation of Post-Soviet International Politics in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (1999), The Culture and Customs of the Central Asian Republics (2007) and the Palgrave Concise Historical Atlas of Central Asia (2008). He has been awarded an IREX 2010-2011 EPS fellowship (Title VIII program) for a research on the post-Soviet era intellectual discourses on political development in Kazakhstan.