“Wait, no one? Really? Not even one?” The Almaty newsroom of Vlast.kz was incredulous*.
The winners of the single-mandate districts portion of the March 19 parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan were surprising, but for all the wrong reasons. Analysts, observers, journalists, and civil society expected at least some of the independent candidates to win a seat in parliament, validating the alleged wind of change of “New Kazakhstan” that President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has often heralded in his four years (and counting) in power.
Out of 98 seats in the Majilis, the lower house of parliament, 69 were assigned via a proportional system according to party lists, while the remaining 29 were to be assigned, for the first time in two decades, according to a simple majoritarian system among individual candidates. The majority of the 435 individual candidates were self-nominated, with just 76 nominated by parties for the single-mandate seats.
This had pushed several activists and politicians, who could not register their parties, to run and test their popularity. Given that the government enacted this new electoral system, most observers thought this was an opening, a chance for some of these independent candidates to enter the political arena through the door of its principal legislative institution. After decades of choosing a parliament that was essentially a rubber-stamp assembly for the ruling party, the 2023 elections could have been the turning point toward political competition, the hopeful argued.
“The more naive you are, the more chances [of a fair election] you will see,” warned Vyacheslav Abramov, founder of media outlet Vlast.kz, in an editorial in January after Tokayev called for snap elections.
The hope continued in the 23-hour window between the closing of the polls and the announcement of preliminary results.
“It took them so long to count, we thought there would be something new,” an NGO worker said two days after the vote, whilst celebrating the Nowruz holiday, which marks the New Year across the Persian and Turkic world.
In the end, however, although six self-nominated candidates did win entry into the parliament, none of the truly independent candidates secured a seat.
Controlling, manipulating, and falsifying election campaigns, vote counting, and outcomes had been Kazakhstan’s modus operandi since independence. At the 2007 elections, in a surprising turn of omnipotence, the ruling party took all 98 seats, rendering the Majilis a superfluous entity, in the shadow of then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the “father of the nation.”
Tokayev had promised something different after the authorities suppressed urban protests in January 2022, leading to at least 238 deaths, thousands injured, and tens of thousands detained across the country. The events were dubbed Qandy Qantar (Kazakh for “Bloody January”) by civil society.
To the spirit of the protests, which called for a more just wealth redistribution, Tokayev answered with a plan to make Kazakhstan “fairer.” The richest would donate to a social fund (the ill-fated “Kazakhstan Khalkyna”), those who illegally withdrew assets would have to face prosecution and return the capital they had looted, and, crucially, the political arena would be widened with the admission of new parties in parliament.
Tokayev, however, did not deliver on those promises.
On Monday, more than a week after the election, the Central Elections Commission announced the final results. Amanat, the ruling party, is poised to gain 63 seats — 40 from the party list contest and 23 of the 29 single-mandate seats — certainly fewer than the 76 it occupied after the 2021 elections, but still close to a two-thirds majority, which allows for constitutional changes.
The new parliament, as well as the local assemblies, will thus be composed of deputies affiliated to pro-government parties, “Amanat people and wannabe Amanat people,” as a veteran journalist defined them in recent interview.
The reason for keeping independent candidates out of parliament is clear, according to Shalkar Nurseitov, director of the Center for Policy Solutions, an Almaty-based think tank.
“Tokayev now concentrates absolute power in his hands. And to exercise his political clout he needs a puppet parliament consisting pro-presidential deputies. As an authoritarian president, Tokayev wants to craft his own Majilis and his administration will oversee the appointment of the speaker and the heads of the commissions,” Nurseitov told The Diplomat.
At a regional level, on March 24, local elections commissions started publishing the final results of the vote for the local assemblies, which also showed an overwhelming support for Amanat and government-friendly figures.
Ravkat Mukhtarov, a researcher and candidate for the local assembly in Almaty, said in an Instagram post that his team monitored most of the polling stations in his district and recorded results that were radically different from the ones published by the local elections commission on March 24. He argues that the most glaring manipulation of the votes occurred at the polling stations that his team could not visit.
Amanat was known as Nur Otan until last spring. Nur Otan was modeled around the figure of Nazarbayev, and after Qandy Qantar Tokayev’s team gave it a rebrand in an effort to mark a departure from the past. Tokayev also resigned from the party, with the declared goal to distance the role of the president from that of the ruling party. The ultimate idea was to transfer some of the super-presidential powers back to the parliament.
In this spirit, having more parties in parliament would have helped with the legitimacy of the legislative institution, the political architects of “New Kazakhstan” argued.
Calling for snap elections could have been the perfect moment to widen the political horizon beyond historical forces that characterized the improbable “political competition” of the past. Parties such as Ak Zhol and the People’s Party won seats in the last Majilis elections. Auyl failed to win seats in the last election, but had been represented in parliament before. The National Social and Democratic Party (NSDP) had boycotted the 2021 election and was unsure about its participation until the last minute this year.
Ahead of the elections, the Central Elections Commission accepted the applications of two new parties, Respublica and Baytaq. Respublica, a group that vows to defend the rights of entrepreneurs, was registered on January 19, the same day as Tokayev’s announcement that the country would hold snap elections. Baytak, a self-proclaimed environmentalist party, was registered the month before the vote, after more than a dozen attempts to be officially recognized.
After the vote, it became clear that the new parties would serve radically different purposes. By gaining 8.5 percent of the votes, Respublica has become the newest feature of Kazakhstani politics and is likely to parrot the government’s plans for business-friendly reforms. Baytak, on the other hand, failed to gain enough votes to enter the parliament and will continue to occupy a confusing role in Kazakhstan’s push for an energy transition.
Real opposition parties, such as the Democratic Party or Alga Kazakhstan, which have repeatedly tried to register, were not allowed into the race. Zhanbolat Mamai, the leader of the Democratic Party, is currently facing charges related to Qandy Qantar (he was accused of organizing an illegal mass demonstration), and his potential return to politics is unclear. His wife, Inga Imanbai, ran for a spot in the Majilis as an independent candidate, but failed to gain a seat in the hotly-contested third district in Almaty. Like several other independent candidates, Imanbai complained of violations during the voting process and after the polls closed, when the commissions compiled the results.
Without any real opposition, the parties in parliament are poised to become an ally in Tokayev’s blame game in the future, Nurseitov argues.
“The Majilis will promote Tokayev’s agenda by passing all bills unanimously. In addition, the new Majilis will be proactive in terms of criticizing the government and blaming it for policy failures, while praising President Tokayev for his initiatives in the socioeconomic sphere.”
Tokayev’s approval rating has increased gradually over time, especially since Qandy Qantar, as he used the aftermath of the violence to consolidate support around himself. Conversely, the approval ratings of both Amanat and the cabinet have fallen in recent months, according to data collected by Central Asia Barometer.
Turns Out Nobody Voted
One of the most striking features of this election was the scant turnout. The meager official turnout of 54 percent amounts to the lowest-ever participation in an electoral competition in Kazakhstan. And the turnout figures are usually inflated. This time, too, observers witnessed instances of ballot stuffing, double voting, and improper ballot handling.
“They seem unable to learn from their past mistakes,” a European diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
Historical results demonstrate that turnout for parliamentary elections is always lower than for the presidential vote, despite both being almost never competitive in Kazakhstan. Yet, in an effort to assign legitimacy to the races, the Central Elections Commission usually cooks up the numbers. In addition, against the rules of a fair electoral process, most government workers, from bureaucrats to schoolteachers, are forced to vote by their superiors.
Given evidence of violations and the independent observation of the electoral process on March 19, it is fair to say that this time the turnout was also inflated. Inflating turnout to a historical low could be a sign that any number above that would be judged as completely unrealistic.
Observers noted empty polling stations across the country, and especially in large cities. In Almaty, the country’s most populous city, the election commission officially recorded a mere 25 percent of eligible voters, while independent analysts say a more accurate number would oscillate between 10 and 12 percent.
Kazakhstanis deserting the polls could be a sign of disillusion toward the government’s political machinations. During election day, people across the country, whether they voted or not, said they knew that their vote would be manipulated. It is not surprising then that just two days after the quiet Sunday elections, tens of thousands crowded the streets of Almaty for the Nowruz festivities. Going to the polls when the result is already designed before the vote has a higher opportunity cost than a carefree celebration for regular people.
Tokayev said the Majilis elections were the “last step” within a range of institutional changes that he set in motion since Qandy Qantar. In June 2022, he called for a constitutional referendum, which pitted the “old” versus the “new.” In November, he flexed his electoral muscles by securing a landslide victory in snap presidential elections. He is now serving a seven-year mandate, which, according to the most recent Constitutional amendments, should be his last.
The snap elections became a clumsy attempt to feign a democratic opening, according to Nurseitov.
“Tokayev and his team will continue giving lip service to democratic reforms by stressing that, for the first time, NSDP, a so-called opposition party, gained seats in ‘New Kazakhstan,’” Nurseitov said in an interview.
In 2017, Nazarbayev developed the Rukhany Zhangyru state program (Kazakh for “Spiritual Rebirth”). A few years later, Tokayev nicknamed his tenure “Zhana Kazakhstan” (Kazakh for “New Kazakhstan”). Yet, naming something “new,” “revived,” or “reborn” does not necessarily make it so.
Since Qandy Qantar, the government has pronounced and performed examples of so-called change. The people of Kazakhstan were instead expecting the authorities to act and provide real change, or at least to allow some space in the parliament for new, independent voices. These elections, just as the promises of the past, failed to kick-start the change that Kazakhstanis want to see.
*Paolo Sorbello, for years a correspondent for The Diplomat, is also the English-language editor of independent media outlet Vlast.kz.