There were no surprises during Kazakhstan’s presidential election Sunday. Even the OSCE, which did have critical things to say, could do nothing but agree that the election was orderly and “effectively administered.” Nursultan Nazarbayev secured what the Astana Times called “a landslide majority of 97.7 percent.” The BBC and the New York Times parroted the language, calling his victory “crushing.”
A member of the Central Election Commission, according to Tengrinews said “for the first time in the history of the Independent Kazakhstan, voters have showcased such a strong public stance and political will in support of the country’s development.”
But this isn’t the first time that Nazarbayev has experienced such an electoral victory. In 2011’s early election Nazarbayev won with, apparently, 95 percent of the vote. In 2005, only 91 percent carried him to victory. In 1999 he earned 81 percent and he ran uncontested in his first election after the Soviet Union’s 1991 dissolution. The Kazakh constitution limits presidents to two consecutive terms, except the First President, Nazarbayev, who can have unlimited terms.
Can we call an election in which the incumbent’s two opponents are pro-government, and hardly campaigned, an actual contest? The OSCE’s election monitoring mission commented in their preliminary report that “while the existence of three candidates constituted an appearance of political variety, it did not provide voters with a genuine choice between political alternatives.”
Some, such as The Guardian’s Shaun Walker, have noted that the 97 percent victory for Nazarbayev is actually believable–he was, in practicality, the only option–but the 95 percent voter turnout number is highly suspect. The OSCE observed “serious procedural errors and irregularities” on election day, as well as “indications of ballot box stuffing.” Reports vary, with some noting long lines and others seeing a “trickle” of people. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty noted that the predetermined nature of the election and bad weather in parts of the country would logically dictate a lower turnout.
Aijan Sharshenova, writing for Registan.net three days before the election, commented on the cognitive dissonance inherent in Central Asian elections:
I tried understanding the logic and mechanics of sugar-coating an undemocratic event with sprinkles of democratic process and the popular support glazing. The logic is quite evident and straightforward: exposing a blatant dictatorship is a sign of ill manners nowadays. Democratic façade is a must-have for any earnest state, and one of the easiest ways to build this façade is to hold regular elections and invite external observers, who will confirm to the wider world that the elections were fair and legitimate.
And she was right. While the OSCE was critical of the election in its preliminary report, saying:
The incumbent and his political party dominate politics and there is lack of credible opposition in the country, with several prominent critics of the government either imprisoned or living in exile. The current consolidation of political power challenges the development of political pluralism…
Other election monitors were not so critical. There is a clear divide between western and Russian observers in this regard. Monitors from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a grouping of former Soviet states, praised the election. CIS Executive Secretary Sergei Lebedev, whose previous position was a director of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, commented that the CIS monitors “did not observe serious violations that could impact the outcome.”
Dmitry Mezentsev, another Russian politician, currently heading the Shanghai Cooperation Organization said the election was “transparent, free, and democratic.”
Last week I asked, why is Kazakhstan having an election at all? And indeed it was more of a staged play confirming Nazarbayev’s place as Kazakhstan’s one true ruler than a genuine contest between individuals or parties with different policy initiatives in the offering. Kazakhstan has indeed experienced fantastic growth under Nazarbayev – a product of the state’s energy wealth. But with the drop in global oil prices last year and Russia’s continued economic troubles, the future is far from certain.