Kazakhstan: The Illusion of Democracy
When Kazakh voters went to the polls on Sunday there was no doubt as to who would emerge victorious. This vote was never intended as a genuine democratic exercise. Rather, it was the formal coronation of the country’s new leader. By all accounts, interim President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s landslide victory was all but preordained.
According to exit polls, Tokayev, who is backed by the all-powerful ruling Nur Otan party, received 70.13% of the vote. The runner-up, Amirzhan Kosanov, only managed 15.39%.
Despite his comprehensive defeat, the mere inclusion of Kosanov on the ballot surprised many. In fact, Kazakhstan has never held an election that has been judged free and fair by independent observers and this one is certain to be no different.
The lack of independent media, the restrictions on any political opposition, the vast resources at the disposal of the leading party candidate and the short campaign period all ensured that this vote would be analogous to all the sham elections held in the past.
The reputable Freedom House, which monitors democracy and political freedom worldwide, gives a damning verdict on the status of Kazakh democracy. In the overall Democracy Score which ranges from 1 to a high of 7 (for least democratic), Kazakhstan is rated 6.71. For “Electoral Process,” the country scores a meager 1 out of 12.
The prospect of a genuine democratic transition was always a fantasy. The whole reason for holding an election was about legitimizing Tokayev’s rule as president after he assumed power in the wake of long-term ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev’s resignation earlier in the year.
The messy political succession in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan will have certainly served as a lesson to the Kazakh ruling class. There, a rift between the former president and his chosen successor has been majorly disruptive to the country’s political stability.
Keen to avoid a similar scenario, Nazarbayev’s departure and his choice of successor have been meticulously micro-managed.
Tokayev was chosen as a neutral candidate, one that would not trigger strongly felt opposition among the elite groups that vie for power and resources around the president. He was chosen due to his malleability, due to his willingness to do Nazarbayev’s bidding.
With his appointment the status quo ante is now ensured, the direction of travel unaltered: the same old recipe of phony democracy and unbalanced socioeconomic development now awaits.
One thing is certain, Nazarbayev will continue to pull the strings. The autocrat made sure that his power was formally ingrained before he symbolically stepped down.
He ensured that his role as Elbasi, which translates to “Leader of the Nation,” was constitutionally enshrined, providing him and his family with immunity from prosecution. He appointed himself as chairman for life of the Security Council and broadened the body’s scope and clout. He also remains at the helm of the ruling Nur Otan party and as a member of the Constitutional Council.
In other words, Nazarbayev’s relinquishing of power is merely nominal.
And while Tokayev will serve the outgoing president in the meantime, Nazarbayev has already made plans for the next leader. His eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, was promptly appointed speaker of the Senate upon her father’s resignation. The position, previously held by Tokayev, is the second post in the constitutional hierarchy, and widely seen as a preparatory role for the top job.
Nazarbayev’s long-term plan is clear: dynastic succession is undoubtedly in the cards once Tokayev has served his purpose.
And so the story continues. Autocratic rulers, more interested in maintaining the concentration of power amongst a select few rather than ameliorating the socioeconomic status of the Kazakh people, will continue to reign, while any attempt to alter the chosen course will continue to be suffocated by the authorities.
Such systematic repression could not have been clearer on election day. According to the interior ministry around 500 people were arrested. These were peaceful protesters, whose only crime was their opposition to the choreographed transfer of power. The run-up to the vote was no different as opposition activists and pro-democracy campaigners were routinely jailed, harassed and assaulted.
Under Tokayev, the government will remain as authoritarian as ever. Pervasive corruption, heavy-handed suppression, and economic mismanagement will continue to be the order of the day. This electoral charade may be complete, but democracy itself remains a mere illusion in Kazakhstan.