International Policy Digest

RIA Novosti
World News /15 May 2019

Kazakhstan: Are the Upcoming Democratic Elections Merely a Facade?

When it comes to democracy in Kazakhstan, the Eurasian nation’s constitution proudly reads “the only source of the state power is the people.”

Played out in reality, protesters flying banners with those exact words emblazoned on them are arrested and found guilty of hooliganism in court. In fact, just last week, a man was detained for simply holding up a blank sign. This is true Kazakh democracy: laughably sinister.

On June 9th, the Kazakh people will go to the polls and elect what will be only the country’s second head of state since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

The next leader’s predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, held power for almost 3 decades and enjoys almost God-like status in Kazakhstan. Whoever claims victory next month will have giant shoes to fill. Although due to Nazarbayev’s appointment as the spiritual lifelong ‘Leader of the Nation’ in 2010, these shoes may well have to be shared.

Nazarbayev vacated power having set a dangerous precedent. He enjoyed near-universal popularity, but his rule came to be defined by sham elections and the removal of any voice of political dissidence. The statistics speak for themselves. In his first and last election, Nazarbayev won 98.8% and 97.7% of the vote respectively.

Why should we now expect Kazakhstan to transform seamlessly into a true democracy with a transparent election process? Many predict this ‘political transition’ will change very little.

Geopolitical analyst, George Voloshin, has stated that “if succession goes according to plan, the winner will be mentored by Mr. Nazarbayev.” Any independence from the state a candidate might display pre-election will soon be squeezed out of them under Nazarbayev’s mentorship.

Eight candidates have successfully made it to on to the national ballot but we should expect nothing but a one-horse race. The acting head of state, Kassym Jomart Tokayev, has the crucial backing of Nazarbayev and his ruling party, so any share of the vote under 90%, let alone a defeat, would constitute a surprise.

Tokayev has used his position of temporary power to full effect. On April 9th, he called a snap election, a full year before they were scheduled. The move is shrewd, unsurprisingly made after consultation with Nazarbayev, albeit one that entirely discredits any attempts to pursue true democracy.

Tokayev claims the election was rescheduled to “remove uncertainty over the country’s political future…and resolve the socio-economic development issues.” Make no mistake, the actions of the establishment are little more than a rushed attempt to prevent any potential rival gaining popularity or even any form of publicity.

The chances of this occurring had become increasingly more likely in the face of recent protests over the country’s lack of economic and social reform. We can gauge the increasing level of discontent as protesters reared their heads even with the autocratic Nazarbayev still in power.

A glimpse into the future for democracy in Kazakhstan reveals a bleak outlook. For his first foreign visit as Kazakh leader, Tokayev crossed the border to engage with his allies in Moscow. Coincidentally, the snap election announcement came straight after a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kazakh people should be greatly concerned if their leader is now subscribing to the same form of Russian democracy that has seen Putin unchallenged for the best part of two decades.

However, many Kazakhs are not giving up on democracy without a fight. Discontent regarding the upcoming elections has been brewing in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city and cultural hub. According to reports by RadioFreeEurope, protestors have chanted cries of ‘boycott,’ ‘We have a choice,’ ‘Wake up Kazakhs,’ and ‘old man out.’ Inevitably dozens of arrests have been made and authorities will continue to sweep voices calling for greater democracy under the rug.

Abuses of democracy can surely only go on for so long before the international community sits up and takes note.

From a UK standpoint, Brexit was supposed to bring us closer to countries outside the EU, strengthening bonds with countries in the Eurasian bloc. The next Conservative Party leader, however, would be well advised to make a stand and seek to redefine our relationship with Kazakhstan in light of recent developments that continue to hinder the processes of democracy.

Tokayev assures us he will hold ‘honest, open and fair elections’ next month but Kazakhstan’s institutional autocracy runs so deep that this promise will prove impossible to keep.