Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan followed what has become a pattern in that country: the ruling party won an overwhelming majority, and international observers condemned the vote as falling short of democratic standards.
But this election was the first to take place in a Kazakhstan where the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has looked vulnerable, his claim to a mandate from the people in doubt. Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he has deftly led the country’s economic transformation. In the last 12 years the country’s per-capita income has quadrupled, and now is comparable to that of Turkey.
Many have been left behind in Kazakhstan’s rise, however, and over the last several months workers from a state oil and gas company have been on strike in the western city of Zhanaozen. Less than a month before the elections, police opened fire on protesters, killing at least 17 people. Amateur video of the event showed police shooting at fleeing protesters and beating those they caught.
The protests haven’t spread to other parts of the country, but they nevertheless have been an unprecedented challenge to the government’s authority. And the response from the authorities, uncharacteristically, has been panic: After the government initially called the protesters “hooligans,” Nazarbayev subsequently said their demands were legitimate. He has also fired key figures, including his son-in-law and head of the state investment fund Timur Kulibayev, thought to be a candidate to succeed Nazarbayev.
And while the government’s mantra in the wake of the violence has been “transparency,” the authorities’ efforts at openness have been, if anything, transparently contrived, like press conferences where no questions were allowed and a government-sponsored tour of Zhanaozen by government-friendly bloggers.
It was in this tense atmosphere that the most recent elections took place. (Zhanaozen itself is still under a state of emergency, and election officials initially called off the vote there before being overruled by Nazarbayev.) Nazarbayev had vowed that these would be Kazakhstan’s first truly free elections, and changed the laws to ensure that at least one opposition party would make it into the parliament (previously, Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party held 100 percent of the seats).
In the end, two nominally opposition parties will be represented in the parliament, but both are in fact loyal to Nur Otan; the leaders of one genuine opposition party were disqualified shortly before the vote. Nur Otan’s share of the vote dropped from the last parliamentary elections in 2007, from 88 percent to 80 percent. Yet the monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said it “did not meet fundamental principles of democratic elections,” noting cases of fraud and an unfair media environment, among other faults.
“If Kazakhstan is serious about their stated goals of increasing the number of parties in parliament, then the country should have allowed more genuine opposition parties to participate in this election,” said João Soares, the head of the mission.