Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

Why Kazakhstan’s Parliamentary Elections Matter

While the result is not in doubt, the elections could mark the next stage in Kazakhstan’s ongoing transition of power.

By Benjamin Godwin for
Why Kazakhstan’s Parliamentary Elections Matter

Kazakhstan’s acting President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev leaves a booth at a polling station during the presidential elections in Nur-Sultan, the capital city of Kazakhstan, Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Alexei Filippov

Kazakhstan’s legislative elections, scheduled for January 10, have largely been written off by analysts as a foregone conclusion. The ruling Nur Otan party is set to maintain its dominant position in the Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament, with loyalist opposition parties potentially making symbolic gains. Genuine opposition forces have been excluded from running and activists appear to have lost the momentum found during the presidential elections of 2019, which saw a protest movement mobilize mass support. Recent protests in Almaty on December 16, 2020 saw such poor turnout that the authorities did not feel the need to break up the unsanctioned demonstrations. 

Kazakhstan’s carefully managed politics contrast dramatically with the recent instability seen across the former Soviet region, most notably mass anti-government protests following the August 2019 presidential elections in Belarus, and October parliamentary elections in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, which led to the downfall of President Sooronbay Jeenbekov. Indeed, as Kazakhstanis go to the polls on January 10, Kyrgyzstan will be holding both an extraordinary presidential election and a referendum.

While highly predictable, Kazakhstan’s legislative elections are still meaningful. The country is still in a state of flux following the resignation of First President Nursultan Nazarbayev in March 2019. The transition of power has raised questions about the direction of Kazakhstan’s national politics, the future of the Nazarbayev family and other key economic and political interests, as well as the prospects for Nazarbayev’s chosen successor, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. In this context, the elections mark another staging post in the transition process.

Most critically, the upcoming elections could trigger the appointment of a new government – the first of Tokayev’s tenure. A number of senior political figures, including Prime Minister Askar Mamin and Chairman of National Welfare Fund Samruk-Kazyna Akhmetzhan Yessimov, have been included on party lists for the elections. This suggests that they are likely to leave their roles at some point after the election, perhaps taking up seats in order to benefit from the immunity to prosecution that Mazhilis deputies receive.

Key figures on the Nur Otan candidates list:

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  • Askar Mamin, prime minister; 
  • Yerali Tugzhanov, deputy prime minister; 
  • Akhmetzhan Yessimov, chairman of National Welfare Fund Samruk-Kazyna; 
  • Yerlan Koshanov, head of the presidential administration 
  • Tamara Duysenova, aide to the president; 
  • Berik Kamaliyev, vice minister of industry and infrastructure development; 
  • Bauyrzhan Baibek, first deputy chairman of Nur Otan; 
  • Yuriy Zhulin, deputy managing director of the Nur Otan executive. 

Upon entering office, Tokayev found himself surrounded by key Nazarbayev associates and family members. The appointment of a new government and chair of Samruk-Kazyna could be another step in removing Nazarbayev holdovers. In May 2020, Nazarbayev’s ambitious eldest daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva was dismissed from her position as speaker of the Senate. While Tokayev will almost certainly seek compromise with Nazarbayev on senior appointments, there are few candidates as close to Nazarbayev as Mamin and Yessimov, a relative of Nazarbayev. 

It is also important to note the role of the Mazhilis in appointments. Since the adoption of constitutional reforms in 2017, the lower house is required to approve all cabinet appointments, including prime minister. Given that Nazarbayev controls who enters the Mazhilis via the Nur Otan party and the People’s Assembly, a consultative body which appoints nine deputies, he also can halt any appointments that he does not approve.  

The Mazhilis is a forum for elite patronage and competition. While not representative of the wider population, the Mazhilis does hold a significant informal role in Kazakhstan’s political economy. Once described to me by a businessman in Kazakhstan as an “exclusive club,” the Mazhilis is a forum for the representation of powerful economic and regional interests who lobby for state resources and favorable regulatory changes. Nazarbayev uses his powers of patronage to award representation within this body to key groups in exchange for their loyalty.

In this context, the Mazhilis could also become a new front for elite rivalries. Dariga Nazarbayeva is set to enter the Mazhilis after her attempts to build a power base in the Senate ended with her dismissal. Meanwhile, her chief rival and brother-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, has supported the Adal Party. Should Adal win seats, it would be the first time that Kulibayev has backed a political force within parliament. 

While not as dramatic as the events in Kyrgyzstan or Belarus, these rivalries have intensified dramatically since the transition of power. In a new development, elite groups have begun using international journalists and publications to dump compromising material, kompromat, on one another. Only in the last few months, there have been major exposes in the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and London Times on Nazarbayeva, Kulibayev, and Bulat Utemuratov, a major Nazarbayev financier and mining magnate. As these figures seek to secure their position ahead of the ultimate exit of Nazarbayev from the political scene, these rivalries are only set to grow and become more destabilizing. 

Benjamin Godwin is head of analysis at PRISM Political Risk Management.