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.
That didn’t deter Nazarbayev’s public enthusiasm for the results, however. He called the election “unprecedented in terms of transparency, openness and honesty,” and said: “The party always keeps its finger on the pulse of our people’s life…Kazakhstanis have again given the party carte blanche; they have voted for our unity, for stability in our country, for future development, for the implementation of the programs I have proposed.”
And he suggested that the results vindicated the government’s actions in Zhanaozen. “Someone wanted to take advantage of, politically use and speculate about the events in Zhanaozen. However, the people of Zhanaozen have themselves proved this, and almost 70 percent of them gave their votes to Nur Otan. This is their response to all of them,” he said.
This sort of charade served a purpose for most of Kazakhstan’s 20 years of post-Soviet independence: it helped contribute to Kazakhstan’s relatively positive image in the United States and Europe. Kazakhstan won the right to chair the OSCE in 2010, in spite of many member states’ skepticism about Kazakhstan’s suitability to lead a group focused on democracy, because Kazakhstan’s government promised to implement genuine political reforms. While few were impressed by the reforms that Kazakhstan actually undertook, many observers took Nazarbayev at his word that he intended to implement serious reforms when the country was ready.
That acceptance by the West, in turn, helped boost Nazarbayev’s credibility at home. His stature as a world leader is part of his carefully crafted image – that of a bold leader who knows what is right for the country. He often invoked the notion of “Asian values,” and explicitly cited Singapore as a model. Implied in that narrative is that the country’s feckless opposition would only bring uncertainty and instability and spoil Kazakhstan’s development. For that reason, most Kazakhstani citizens were willing to shrug off the lack of options in their country’s political realm.
But that may be changing, and Zhanaozen has exposed the fragility of the government’s control. There’s little chance of widespread protests in the near term, and even less chance of the overthrow of the government, despite some commentators’ desire to peg the events in Zhanaozen as the beginning of a “Kazakh Spring.”
The correct analogue for Kazakhstan isn’t the Middle East, but Russia, where protests have also punctured the myth of Vladimir Putin’s omnipotence. Though the protests in Kazakhstan have been far smaller than those in Russia, Nazarbayev’s control of the country was also much greater than Putin’s over Russia. In both cases, though, what’s likely to result is not a change of government, but a recognition by the current authorities that they can no longer rule merely by diktat, but must take into consideration more public input. If they don’t, there will be more protests. And people may not put up with rigged elections much longer.