Kazakhstan has scheduled its next parliamentary elections for January 10, 2021. A decree signed on October 21 by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev sets the date for the election of members to the lower house of the country’s parliament, known as the Majlis.
As RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service noted, since the adoption of the Kazakh Constitution in 1995, not a single election for the Majlis has been held on time. The 2021 election will be two months shy of the current body’s expiration date in March. The 2016 election was a snap election, called several months early by the parliament itself, which unanimously requested that then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev dissolve the body.
Early elections are the established norm in Kazakhstan. The most recent presidential election was held in April 2015 rather than early 2016; the election before that was held early as well, in April 2011 rather than 2012. The last two parliamentary elections (2012 and 2007) were both held early. None of these elections were judged free and fair by Western observers and while most ran smoothly, they lacked genuine opposition.
Snap and early elections are a mechanism of parliamentary systems with several uses. They are generally used either to consolidate a ruling party or coalition’s position at a time of strength, or serve as a lever by which to decide on pressing issues at times of trouble. In essence (and, importantly, in democratic systems), a snap election tosses the power of decision back to the people.
In 2016, the parliament’s petition for its own dissolution nodded to this norm. “Only unity and concerted actions will help us withstand the new economic shocks,” the petition stated. The logic behind the early election in 2016 was to reaffirm the government’s mandate in the face of what, at the time, seemed like extreme economic challenges. The same logic was used for the early presidential election the previous year. That does not appear to be the declared logic of the 2021 elections, though arguably the economic situation in Kazakhstan (and the world) is worse now than in 2016.
Much has changed since 2016, but much more remains the same. In March 2019, Nazarbayev resigned, which makes these the first parliamentary elections under Tokyev’s presidency.
But Nazrabayev remains chair of a long list of bodies and organizations, as well as remaining forevermore “First President.” Nazarbayev is chair of Kazakhstan’s National Security Council as well as the chair of the council managing the country’s National Wealth Fund — Samruk-Kazyna joining stock company. He’s also chair of the Assembly of the People, a body with delegates from regional assemblies of the people intended to represent the many ethnic groups within Kazakhstan — its members are appointed by the president.
Nazrabayev also continues to serve as chair of the ruling Nur-Otan party (of which Tokayev is also a member), which holds 84 of the 98 seats in the parliament elected from party lists. The fully body, at 107 members, includes nine elected by the Assembly of the People. In addition to Nur-Otan, the 2016 parliament included two “opposition” parties with seven seats each: the Ak Zhol Democratic Party (usually just called Ak Zhol) and the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan. Both have been called “pro-government” by observers.
Earlier in 2020, Kazakhstan adopted amendments to its law on political parties and elections alongside adopting the new law on assemblies — all fell flat before critics, who called the changes cosmetic.
With regard to parties, the amendments decreased the number of signatures required to register from 40,000 to 20,000 and established quotas for women and youth in party lists. Kazakh authorities categorized the changes as facilitating the creation of new parties — we shall see if that’s true. According to RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, there are six officially registered parties in Kazakhstan.
Attempts by some to establish new parties in recent years have been thwarted by the authorities. For example, in February 2020 activists en route to Almaty for the planned founding congress of the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan — led by Zhanbolat Mamai — were detained before boarding a train in western Kazakhstan. One of them, Talghat Ayan, told RFE/RL they were expecting 30 people to attend the founding and 10 had been pressured to change their minds about attending. Kazakh law requires 1,000 people to attend a founding congress in order to be recognized and registered, in addition to the signature quota (40,000 at the time, now 20,000). Instead of a founding congress, Mamai was detained and a few days later there was a protest, which dovetailed with another protest called for by exiled oppositionist and enemy no. 1 in Kazakhstan, Mukhtar Ablyazov.
We’ll see if any opposition forces manage to organize enough, but not threateningly so, to be registered to contest the poll now set for January 10. If the past sets any precedent, we can expect an overwhelming win for Nur-Otan.