The election in Kazakhstan was dismissed by critics as a sham. Richard Weitz reports from the country that it’s not that simple.
I was one of a number of monitors invited to observe Kazakhstan’s April 3 presidential election, which was won easily by the incumbent, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Like other monitors, I met with the leaders of Kazakhstan’s major political parties, discussed the ballot with officials, visited polling stations, and talked with dozens of voters. I also exchanged views with monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which fielded the largest mission, as well as with other observer teams, foreign diplomats, and the media.
Nazarbayev triumphed easily, securing 95.5 percent of the vote. But although some critics have dismissed the results out of hand, the reality on the ground is that many officials did actually try to conduct a fair poll. At the precincts I visited in Almaty, for example, rules regarding the secrecy of the ballot and the exclusion of electioneering or other inappropriate behaviour in voting areas were followed scrupulously.
The local election boards seemed to take a responsible attitude to problems, redirecting voters who went to the wrong polling place, while denying them the right to vote if they forgot their papers. Others were correctly added to the lists when they came with the right documents (propiska). I saw a lot of these additions at the first place I visited—a polling place at the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty, where some students had only recently moved into the dormitory. For the first time, the electoral boards took care to verify the voters' lists by sending teams to people's homes during the two months between the announcement of the special election in early February and voting day.
One of my colleagues saw several instances in which voters who hadn’t previously been registered didn’t know they needed to bring their residency permit to register at the polling station (their general identification documents weren’t enough). The lesson here is that important changes in voting procedures need to be better publicized to avoid complicating the lives of eager voters. People lacking such residency permits are often deemed ineligible to vote—a situation one representative at a local nongovernmental organization in Astana said applied to thousands of people in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city.
There was some overcrowding at polling stations, especially in the morning, just after the precincts opened. For example, it looked like most of the students I saw at the Kazakh National University in Almaty had tried to vote as soon as the polls opened. That made the situation needlessly chaotic and potentially dangerous. This problem could be dealt with by better crowd control training for election commissioners. In addition, the rule about having seven election board commissioners for each precinct regardless of the number of voters should clearly be dropped. For the largest precincts (those with say 3,000 potential voters) there should be more local electoral board members. They could also do things like call on the police to establish a perimeter to control the number of people allowed into the building.