The first rallies of the latest election campaign in Kazakhstan have shown a timid popular reaction to a newly-expanded political landscape. Only around 100 people gathered in Almaty on February 18 to listen to around a dozen candidates for the national and local assemblies.
Candidates are now officially registered for next month’s vote, which will renew the lower chamber of parliament, the Majilis, and a vast majority of the Maslikhats, district assemblies.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev had pledged to allow more competition in the political sphere soon after he took power in March 2019. After Bloody January, the violent suppression of urban protests last year, known in Kazakh as Qandy Qantar, the promise for a more varied political environment was repeated. The ruling party changed its name from the supercharged Nur-Otan (which shared first letters with the first name of ex-President Nursultan Nazarbayev) into the more sober Amanat (Kazakh for “commitment” or “to entrust”).
Tokayev, in an effort to demonstrate distance between him and the party, resigned and said the president and Amanat will now stay at arm’s length. Yet, as we saw in November for the presidential elections, Amanat was the main supporter of Tokayev’s candidacy and its headquarters were used for the incumbent president’s campaign.
Established pro-government parties will run alongside Amanat. Ak Zhol and the People’s Party, which gained seats in the Majilis at the January 2021 elections, will run again, as will the Adal and the Auyl parties, which did not garner enough votes last time to overcome the 5 percent threshold and gain seats. The National Social-Democratic Party, which boycotted the 2021 elections, will also run.
Besides the existing pro-government parties, two additional parties were registered. A group of entrepreneurs founded Respublica, a party without a clear political agenda that looks more like a publicity stunt by its founders. A former manager at state enterprises created Baytaq, a purportedly green party, which infamously paid university students to fill up the room of its inaugural conference in Almaty last year.
Financial consultant Rassul Rysmambetov, who comments on Kazakhstan’s politics from his Facebook blog, said the political programs are nothing surprising.
“Amanat seems to want to fulfill the program that the Nur-Otan failed to implement. Ak Zhol’s plan also includes the abolition of banking secrecy for officials and politicians, which is surprising. Respublica has a program that looks like the president’s speech from September 2022,” Rysmambetov wrote.
The real opposition remains in the sidelines. The Democratic Party still has not managed to convince the Central Election Commission (CEC) to grant it official status. Zhanbolat Mamai, its leader, is under house arrest while his court case continues. He was arrested and sent to prison in February 2022 for having allegedly “organized a mass riot” during Qandy Qantar. Mamai’s wife, Inga Imanbai, will run in a single-mandate constituency for a seat in parliament. A few other Democratic Party affiliates have managed to apply for candidacy.
Notably, the CEC said it accepted hundreds of candidacies for the single-mandate districts. By the February 19 deadline, the CEC said it had to reject around 125 applications that did not meet the minimum requirements.
According to most observers, the lion’s share of seats in the Majilis will be captured by the ruling Amanat party. Other parties will struggle to get past the 5 percent threshold. Given that elections in Kazakhstan are seldom considered “free and fair,” there is an expectation that a wide range of parties will enter parliament to give a semblance of competition.
Yet, the fight is not over between certain candidates and the CEC, given that other candidates were later excluded from the race and some rejected candidates were able to fight their exclusion in court and are poised to be reinstated. Civil society’s hope is that the presence of some independent candidates could shake the rock-solid structure that constrains political freedom in Kazakhstan.
On March 16, the state TV channel Khabar will broadcast political debates among party representatives. Few are holding their breath for bold declarations.
On March 19, registered voters will pick their favorite parties and candidates on five ballots of different colors, according to party or single-mandate constituencies and according to the national-local lists.
The candidate registration procedure, especially for the new faces running in single-mandate districts, has proved clumsy and somewhat opaque. This practice of allowing non-party candidates to run should be eased further, if Kazakhstan wants to see real competition in national and regional assemblies.