The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

While in Kazakhstan to observe the November presidential election, I talked with civil activists and government officials. While visiting Astana, I had a conversation with Araylim Nazar, the head of an independent election observer group, which in English loosely translates as the Independent Observer, at her group’s headquarters.

Our conversation was conducted through a translator and has been edited for content, length, and clarity.

Can you tell me about your organization?

We’re called the Independent Observer and we were founded in 2019. Our group observes elections in and around Almaty. We usually partner with other NGOs who have the same mission.

Did you notice any irregularities at the polls?

The main irregularity was that [election officials] didn’t allow us to see the ballots. They kept the ballots really far away. When they were counting the ballots, they didn’t show [election] observers what marks were on the ballots. It happened almost at every place we observed. At three stations, they called [the] police to detain independent observers. In [the rules governing elections] there is a procedure for how we go through the process of elections and in almost every place we observed, they didn’t follow the procedures. Three observers were detained.

What reason did officials give for detaining them?

The reason is that it’s enough for the head of the polling station to say, “please take this person out of the station.” By law, the only proof needed is a complaint from the head of the polling station and it’s their word against that of the accused. That’s enough for the police. No appeal from the observer is considered.

Were the observers released without being charged?

Their punishment was to take them out of the [polling station]. They didn’t charge them. They just kept them out of the polling station.

One person, Konai Abdiev, was harassed at his home by the police the night before the election, from 10 pm to 4 am. Usually, you have to be up by 4 am to be at the station by 6 am. At 10 pm, the police showed up and said, “we will take you to the police station,” but they just held him inside a police van right outside his home for about an hour. They then loudly blared their sirens outside his home so that he couldn’t sleep.

When Konai got to the polling [station] he was detained by the police and then was released at about 9 am, with no charges being filed.

When you observed officials counting the ballots, did they post the results?

We tried to check some polling stations [for the results]. In some places, they said, “oh somebody stole them” and in some places, “we don’t know if they placed it or not.” So, it depends on some places. I went to the polling station where I live and nothing was posted.

Were the polling stations transparent with the results?

The process of counting was not transparent and there was no trust in the results because observers couldn’t even see the counting process. Also, the turnout was not clear because there appeared to be a 100 to 400-person difference at many stations that we observed. Voter headcounts should equal official estimates.

How many polling stations are there in Almaty?

616 polling stations in total and we covered around 10%. In one area of Almaty, we completely covered one district. I mean, we were present at all polling stations in one district and about half of another district. We concentrated on one district, with all the polling stations in one district. Other groups were present in the districts that we couldn’t cover.

Did you coordinate with them?

So, we do not coordinate, we all act independently of one another. They have different strategies while observing. They did not agree with our strategy of covering all polling stations in one district. They sometimes prefer to hire observers and they go to the polling stations next to their homes. The strategies are different, we work independently from one another.

Is voting mandatory for public servants and students?

It’s not mandatory, but public employees are encouraged to vote. Bosses will ask them for proof they voted. After they have voted, they take a picture of themselves as proof. Students are strongly encouraged to vote.

At my station when I was observing, a student was observing me. Her polling station was far away. Someone was texting her “why didn’t you vote?” She was so upset. She was telling me that there’s a blacklist. For example, if you live in a dormitory and you don’t show proof of having voted, the next semester they might not let you stay in the dormitory. Or some workplace benefits may be withheld.

Did you notice anyone getting turned away?

If a person is not on the list of registered voters, then they will be turned back. It happened a lot at my polling station. A lot of people faced this situation because before the constitutional referendum they had a different poll. They would come to the polling station asking, “I voted [here] last time what happened?” Also, within 30 days you have to register for a new polling station. Not many people live where they originally registered so they couldn’t vote. For example, a woman who is listed as living in Astana has to go to Astana to vote. For every election, she has to go to her official polling station and get a certification paper and then come back to another polling station. It’s really expensive to do that and that’s why a lot of people can’t vote.

Is it hard to change your residence?

There were 55 polling stations in Almaty which were open to anyone. You have to go to your original residence and get this paper 30 days ahead of time. For example, I have to fly to my hometown to get this paper and come back and vote here. I have to do this according to the law. But this time the government made a bylaw saying that up to election day you can get permission to vote.

In terms of accommodations for people with disabilities, do you think the government did a good job?

They have facilities for people with disabilities. I think we ratified the Convention for People with Disabilities. The government made some efforts to spend some money. They have special voting booths with magnifying glasses and hard-of-hearing facilities and wheelchair accessibility. If a person is homebound, then they can vote at home.

What other kinds of discrepancies did you notice?

I mentioned that the worst discrepancy was officials not showing the ballots to independent observers. Because of the work of observers, the city is learning how to hold elections more efficiently. But one significant issue is that the government has created non-independent observers. At some polls, the space reserved for observers might be really small. Out of ten observers, two of them might be independent, and eight of them are hired by the government to observe and badger independent observers. In my case, a person from the Amanat Party observed us. She was saying, “Let’s go home early,” “don’t bother this commission,” or “Don’t ask them for any information, just be quiet.” And they go through this training on how to prevent us from doing our job.

How would you assess the fairness of the presidential election?

In the city, I would give them a middle rating. Partially fair. Election transparency in Kazakhstan depends on independent observers like us and others.

Theo Casablanca is a blogger who lives in Brasília.