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Kazakh Opposition Organizing Against Snap Elections

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Kazakh Opposition Organizing Against Snap Elections

Although no date has been set, Kazakhstan’s likely imminent presidential election has drawn sharp criticism from opposition figures.

Kazakh Opposition Organizing Against Snap Elections
Credit: Depositphotos

No date has been set yet for Kazakhstan’s snap presidential election, called for by President Kasysm-Jomart Tokayev last week in an address to the nation. This week, however, a gathering of opposition figures and activists in Almaty stated their opposition to the early election and intention to rally against it. At the same time, some proposed organizing to back a single candidate in parallel to active opposition to the election.

One of the opposition figures present, Rysbek Sarsenbay, said Kazakhstan was “losing the true democratic path.” He said the early elections and Tokayev’s subsequent proposal to change the presidential term to one seven-year term was a “restoration of the authoritarian regime of Nazarbayev.”

“We call on activists, opposition politicians, journalists and human rights activists to start a fight,” Sarsenbay said, according to reporting by

Sarsenbay’s brother, Altynbek Sarsenbayev, was an opposition politician murdered in 2006. reported that the recent meeting on September 5 of a “coalition of democratic forces” was attended by around 100 people, including notable opposition politicians Bulat Abilov, Nurzhan Altaev, Mukhtar Taizhan, Sarsenbay, and activists such as Gulzhan Yergalieva and Yerlan Kaliyev.

One major obstacle opposition forces face in terms of running candidates — even if a single candidate could be agreed upon — is that the candidate would need to be nominated by an officially registered organization. In March, among the reforms suggested by Tokayev for “New Kazakhstan” was the lowering of the party registration threshold from 20,000 members to 5,000, among other things, but little has been said about how Kazakhstan would truly create “a favorable environment for the institutional and organizational development of parties.”

Kazakh authorities have approved the registration of exactly zero new parties this year.

In May, cataloged more than a dozen hopeful political parties, many headed by individuals with ties to the regime and others by well-known opposition figures. All of the opposition politicians mentioned above are involved with nascent political parties striving toward, but failing to achieve, registration. For example, Abilov, who returned to politics in February 2022 after retiring under great pressure in 2013 (for more about his return, read Paolo Sorbello’s article from earlier this year), is among those hoping to register a party.

At least one major opposition figure did not attend the Almaty meeting: Zhanbolat Mamai. Mamai, who leads the unregistered Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, has been in jail since February. He was detained for 15 days, initially, for organizing an unsanctioned vigil in commemoration of those who died in the January violence. He was then rearrested in March on new charges and could face up to 10 years in jail. The detention keeps him out of the political arena at a critical time. 

Kazakhstan’s hopeful opposition politicians could easily meet similar fates.

A day after the Almaty meeting, Sarsenbay was among a handful of people detained near the House of Ministries in Nur-Sultan. According to RFE/RL and, the group of citizens were mostly parents of individuals detained in connection with the January events. The detention has been described as rough and “rude,” with reports claiming one woman had her arm broken by police. Abilov said that Sarsenbay had flown to the capital to support the women protesting and required medical attention after he was detained.

The families of those killed and detained in January have repeatedly protested the treatment of their loved ones, with many alleging torture at far greater rates than the government has admitted to, and called for a truly independent investigation into what many call “Bloody January.” 

Although Tokayev called for an amnesty of those charged in relation to the January events in his speech last week, many are unsatisfied with the government’s handling of the aftermath. It was only last month, seven months after the events, that the government released its official list of those killed.

The amnesty has drawn a lukewarm response and it’s not clear yet how many will be released under it. Activist Bakhytzhan Toregozhina, head of the Ar.Rukh.Khak Foundation, described it to RFE/RL as a populist measure, taken to score political points ahead of the election and sweep the January events under the proverbial rug. “[W]ith this amnesty, Tokayev is trying to put an end to the investigation, making it impossible to understand who is really guilty,” she said. Toregozhina linked the release of the list of those who were killed in January with the amnesty and the snap election announcement, neat pieces of a political puzzle.

The persistent discontent regarding the January events, and any future organizing against the snap election, are natural focal points for those organizing politically against the current government. They also present convenient opportunities to round up problematic politicians and tie them up with legal proceedings until the election passes by.