The campaign for the next parliamentary elections started in Kazakhstan with disappointment for those who wished for a more competitive political context in the country, as opposition parties fell out of the race.
The election commission only registered the Nur Otan ruling party and four other government-friendly parties to run for seats in the Majilis, the country’s parliament on January 10. Notably, the chairman of the Central Election Commission, Berik Imashev, is related to the family of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, as his daughter is married to Nazarbayev’s grandson, Nurali Aliyev.
Aliyev’s mother, Dariga Nazarbayeva, has been in the political spotlight for two decades. Observers thought she had fallen out of grace when she left her post as speaker of the senate in May 2020, but she has now returned to the Nur Otan party lists and she will run for a seat in the Majilis.
For the first time, candidates in the Nur Otan lists were chosen through “primaries,” a selection process that involved 10,000 potential candidates in a three-month campaign. For comparison, the campaign period for the actual election is just one month.
The four other parties admitted to the election are Ak Zhol, Adal, Auyl, and the People’s Party, formerly known as the Communist People’s Party until a congress in November decided to drop the communist moniker, cutting ties with its Soviet heritage.
Several parties were either excluded by the Commission or dropped out of the race.
OSDP, the All-National Social Democratic Party, said it would boycott the elections after an awkward back-and-forth with Mukhtar Ablyazov. The France-based opposition leader called the members of his illegal movement, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, and all other discontents with the current regime to give a protest vote in favor of OSDP, “to shrink the consensus toward the Nur Otan party,” he argued. This led OSDP, which was never able to obtain seats in the parliament, to drop out of the race, as it did not want to become an instrument of Ablyazov’s campaign against Nazarbayev. Ablyazov, in turn, said that OSDP leaders bowed to Nazarbayev’s request to stay out of the election.
After OSDP announced its boycott, Ablyazov switched target and turned toward a pro-government party, Ak Zhol: “If we consciously vote only for the Ak Zhol party, Nazarbayev can forget about his quiet, secretive falsification [of the election]” he said to his followers in one of his daily Facebook posts.
Given Kazakhstan’s history of opaque elections, it will be difficult for the opposition, real or instrumental, to become visible.
In mid-2020, the Majilis approved a bill that would have, on paper, given more freedom to opposition political parties, a move that quickly became meaningless, as organizations such as the newly-created Democratic Party could not register and called for a boycott of the elections.
Elections have become a contested issue between the established elite, the opposition, and civil rights groups, especially since Nazarbayev left the presidency in March 2019 and Kassym-Jomart Tokayev seamlessly took over after an election marred by controversies in June 2019.
It was therefore unwelcome that the Commission barred NGOs from participating in the monitoring of the vote – unless they were officially created for that purpose.
While there remain several competing forces at play, with different members of the elite trying to carve space for themselves in the political arena and to stay close to both Nazarbayev and Tokayev, the forthcoming elections might not flesh out any of these internal struggles. The legislative branch in Kazakhstan is bound to remain a rubber stamp institution for at least another term.