Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan will both have elections on January 10. In Kazakhstan, people will (ostensibly) choose representatives to the lower chamber of parliament in Kazakhstan, while voters in Kyrgyzstan will elect a new president and pick sides in a referendum on the country’s form of government.
The results of elections on both sides of the Tian Shan mountains feel like foregone conclusions, however.
There’s little doubt that the ruling Nur Otan party will sweep the Mazhilis polls. Indeed, from 2007 to 2011, Nur Otan – headed by First President and Father of the Nation Nursultan Nazarbayev – was the only party in parliament. Four other (pro-government) parties are running candidates, but it seems unlikely they will be able to consolidate power in a way that parliament is anything but a rubber stamp for the executive.
While Kyrgyzstan enjoys a more open and dynamic political environment than its northern neighbor, it seems unlikely that there will be any big surprises in the presidential election. Sadyr Japarov – who was serving a prison sentence for kidnapping and an attempted coup until October 5, when he was broken out of prison and made the stunning ascent to prime minister and then acting president within a fortnight – is the clear frontrunner. Japarov technically stepped down from his official duties to run for president, but he maintains a strong informal grip on authority. What’s more, Japarov – who, in an entirely random process, got the top spot on the ballot among all 18 candidates – has far outspent his competitors and was able to use a tour across the country while he was serving as acting president to gather up support. Japarov’s popularity combined with the lack of a central opposition figure mean it’s extremely likely that he will secure the majority needed to avoid a runoff presidential election.
If elections don’t fulfill their staple purpose as reflecting the will of the people, what are they good for? Even in authoritarian and uncompetitive contexts, where we might find fraudulent efforts to get certain results or hide unflattering patterns of support, elections and the way officials approach them are a learning opportunity.
Japarov is far outspending his candidates: Since the official campaign period started on December 15, he’s spent almost 44 million Kyrgyz soms (about $628,000), seven times as much as the next biggest spender (Babyrjan Tolbaev, who’s put out 6 million soms, $85,000). Authorities are already investigating Japarov for using “administrative resources,” or drawing unfairly on connections with the government for monetary or social advantages in elections. His supporters are harassing civil society actors, political figures, and competitors in the election online.
Given that no other candidate is a serious threat to Japarov in this election, why campaign this way? In the weeks leading up to the election, the way Japarov spends money could offer important clues to his financial and political support network – which remain an irksome puzzle for observers.
In Kazakhstan, the regime is working to make elections even less transparent than usual. During the 2019 presidential election, influencers with massive social media followings worked as observers and went live to show foul play at polling sites. It seems the government doesn’t want a repeat of that, and on December 4, 2020, the Central Election Commission passed a resolution that bans election observers from doing live streams at polling sites.
For an election where the conclusion is foregone, and in a context where many have argued that social media is not a powerful tool for collective action, this move by the regime is puzzling. But when taking seriously the internet’s mobilizing potential, these efforts to control the narrative on how the election is run more clearly reflect worries about simmering resentment and a crack in Nur Otan’s image of infallibility.
Important elections in Central Asia are three weeks out. While the results themselves aren’t all that revealing, there is plenty to be learned about politics and politicians’ priorities by watching against the grain.