Political scientist: COVID-19 will not become a brake for Kazakhstan election

Mukhit-Ardager Sydyknazarov [Personal archive]

This article is part of our special report Kazakhstan elections.

Kazakhstan is holding parliamentary elections on 10 January, expected to further bolster the soft democratic reform process in the Central Asian country. In a wide-ranging interview, political scientist Mukhit-Ardager Sydyknazarov explained the political landscape and the stakes ahead of the ballot.

Mukhit-Ardager Sydyknazarov is a doctor of political science, director of the Institute of Contemporary Studies, Eurasian National University. L.N. Gumilyov, Nur-Sultan.

The President of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, signed a decree on holding the parliamentary elections for the Mazhilis (lower house of parliament) on 10 January. Could you describe the political context ahead of the elections? Who are the main political candidates?

At the end of May 2020, the president signed the Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan “On Amendments and Additions to the Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan” and some other pieces of legislation which provided for the rights of the opposition in the Kazakh Parliament. Members of the parties representing the parliamentary opposition were given the right to speak at parliamentary hearings and at joint sessions of the Chambers. The legislation provides, which is especially important, the appointment of members of the parliamentary opposition as heads of parliamentary committees.

The initiatives on gender and youth quota, supported by the president and the Parliament, also meet the socio-political needs of the maturing Kazakhstani society.

Last October as you said the President said the decree on holding the parliamentary elections. The next 2 months pass for voters in a rather difficult political electoral campaign, plus, on the whole, because of the pandemic, the year itself is one of the most difficult in the history of Kazakhstan.

All except the ruling Nur-Otan party, according to the logic of the pre-election struggle and competition for the minds of voters, are opposition. I will answer your question about the main political contenders in (Cyrillic) alphabetical order (the interview was conducted in Russian).

Party “Adal” (“Justice”). This newly formed party is based on the rebranding of the renaming of the Birlik party. The party intends to replenish its membership base primarily by business representatives. Interestingly, the choice of the name was carried out on a scientific basis, professional opinion polls were conducted. According to the leaders of the party, the choice of the new name of the party is explained by the demand of the population for renewal and justice. At the same time, people put a lot in the word of justice: from the fight against corruption to the transparency of decision-making.

The party’s program consists of five key areas: A dignified life for all citizens; Entrepreneurship is the basis of a successful state; Agro-industrial complex development and food security; Strong regions are a strong country; A State for the people.

The program as a whole is focused on the general population, with elements such as free medical care, a twofold increase in the subsistence minimum, an increase in salaries for doctors and teachers, improvement of rural infrastructure, etc.

The party wants to reduce the burden on business and free it from administrative restrictions. Adal proposes to introduce a moratorium on tax increases until 2025, and conduct a “new wave of privatization.” The Adal party also announced the popular initiative in Kazakhstan to return to completely free medical care. This combination of liberal and socialist measures means only one thing: the Adal party intends to quickly mobilize its new electorate from a wide range of the population. However, will it be able to do this when there are only 2 months left before the elections – we will see.

Party “Ak Zhol” (“Lighted Path”). The party calls itself “the” parliamentary opposition. The party’s pre-election program was recently announced. It should be noted that its leader Azat Peruashev had earlier initiated a law on parliamentary opposition. The party’s frontmen, in addition to the chairman, are Daniya Espaeva, ex-presidential candidate of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Kazybek Isa, Berik Dyusembinov.

After the President signed the laws providing for the rights of the opposition in the Kazakh Parliament, the leader of AkZhol Azat Peruashev literally said: “The main novelty of this draft law is that we are introducing the word “opposition” into the legal field. You know that we did not have this concept. We considered it correct that there should be a parliamentary opposition in the Parliament, which will express the opinion of the people and raise issues of concern to the entire population. That is, the parliamentary opposition is not just an opposition, it will have the right to express its opinion, it will also express the opinion of the people. ”

At the party congress Peruashev noted that “this state faces many challenges and problems, the solution of which is no longer possible without wide participation and control from society”. He highlighted the need for a gradual transition from a super-presidential system to a parliamentary republic and from a monopoly of power to a system of checks and balances.

The AkZhol party has defined the main threats to Kazakhstan in the following terms: bureaucracy and corruption, social injustice and the growing gap between rich and poor; monopolization of the economy and power in Kazakhstan.

Perushaev has stated that further dragging out of reform may lead to a crisis of statehood, as it happened in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, and earlier in Ukraine.

People’s Democratic Patriotic Party “Auyl”. It’s one of the youngest parties in Kazakhstan, created in 2015 through the merger of the Kazakh Social Democratic Party “Auyl” and the Party of Patriots of Kazakhstan. It has participated in parliamentary and local elections in 2016. The frontmen of “Auyl” are its chairman, Senator Ali Bektayev and his first deputy, ex-presidential candidate Toleutai Rakhimbekov. The electoral list is headed by Rakhimbekov, an active politician who is very successful in social networks. The party successfully conducted a nationwide poll with the aim of monitoring the most pressing socio-economic problems, which, logically, should form the basis of the party’s electoral program.

In particular, “Auyl” proposes to introduce “children’s capital”, which provides for the payment of a certain amount of budget funds to each minor Kazakhstani from the moment of birth. This builds on the experience of the rich Arab monarchies of the Gulf countries. “Auyl” is focused on supporting large families, which are traditional in Kazakhstan.

People’s Party of Kazakhstan (formerly the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan). On the basis of rebranding and renaming, it became a “people’s party”. The frontmen of the People’s Party are well-known and active deputies of the Mazhilis of the Parliament Aikyn Konurov, Zhambyl Akhmetbekov and Irina Smirnova. The first two also hold the positions of secretaries of the CPPK Central Committee. Zhambyl Akhmetbekov twice ran for president of the Republic of Kazakhstan in the elections of 2011 and 2019.

The People’s Party aims at “uniting the left forces of the constructive opposition”. This is reasonable, since the communist legacy is not particularly popular among the mostly young Kazakh electorate. This is why instead on nostalgia, the party banks on the values ​​of equality and brotherhood: egalitarianism, a socially oriented state.

National Social Democratic Party (NSDP). It’s the oldest political party in Kazakhstan. The faces of the party are its chairman Askhat Rakhimzhanov and his deputy, Aydar Alibayev. The party counts on a protest electorate, and there are quite a few such sentiments amid the economic recession. In fact, it has traditionally been an opposition party since its inception. The party has gone through serious perturbations during its difficult history. The two-time change of the party’s leadership in 2019, the withdrawal of a number of active members from the party were at one time newsworthy in the Kazakh media. The NSDP recently postponed its extraordinary congress to 27 November. Given the difficult situation inside and around the party, it is difficult to predict the readiness of their party lists. In the media, the NSDP has already announced its ambition to participate in the parliamentary elections and is not going to boycott them.

Before I ask you to describe the ruling party Nur-Otan, let me ask you the following: isn’t its strategy based on the assumption that after years of rising living standards since the independence from the Soviet Union, the vast majority of the electorate would prefer stability rather than experiments to the far-left or of a liberal kind? And the opposition will always remain marginal?

Let me say a few words about the Nur-Otan Party. This is the ruling party. The history of the formation and development of the Nur-Otan party is closely connected with the name of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Under his leadership, the party became the country’s leading political force. Nazarbayev is the ideological inspirer of the Nur-Otan party, he was at the origins of the birth and formation of the party.

Without any doubt, Nur-Otan has the most organized and ramified infrastructure in the country, it has various internal committees, a youth wing, its own media resources, etc.

Regarding pre-election matters, until mid-November of this year, there was a complete and unconditional dominance of the Nur-Otan party in the Kazakh media. The party, its organizers, represented by the first deputy chairman Bauyrzhan Baybek, have done a huge organizational, ideological, media and content work both in the center and, more importantly, in the regions. Particularly noticeable and unprecedented in scale and content were the party primaries of the Nur-Otan party, over 600 thousand citizens took part in them, there were 11 thousand candidates, of which 5 thousand passed the primaries. But it is also necessary to take into account the organizational scale, the number of members and the capabilities of the Nur-Otan party: the party has 80-90 deputies, and AkZhol has no more than 10.

The elections will be held according to party lists. Parties need to overcome the 7% threshold, and this is a high figure – the votes of hundreds of thousands of Kazakhstanis. A multi-party parliament can exist only in the form of factions of political parties demonstrating different political platforms, reaching solutions through compromises in the name of the prosperity of citizens and the state. For this – the parliamentary opposition and a corresponding law has been adopted in Kazakhstan guaranteeing their powers.

Regarding the second part of your question: no, I do not believe that in the long term, as you said, opposition forces “will always remain marginal”. There is a party struggle, there are voters, therefore, everything depends on the actvism and initiative of each party.

Recently I wrote that the elections are part of the process of “controlled democratisation”, which are underway under the new president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Is this a fair assessment? 

The choice of political science terminology is a non-stop process. And it is possible that your term will catch on: life will show.

I will say that the second president of Kazakhstan set new trends in all areas. My personal opinion is that we were very lucky with the second president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev: he is a politician, a diplomat with vast Kazakhstani and international management experience, an expert and insider on international political processes, who speaks several key UN languages. He has a fresh outlook on many things, while the continuity declared by President Tokayev remains: this is very important, given our neighbourhood with two major powers: Russia and China, and the growing geopolitical threats and risks, the permanent instability, which has become new normalcy in international relations.

Due to the pandemic, there probably won’t be many international observers or journalists before and during the elections. Is this a setback?

Electoral campaigns in the world, including in European countries, and also in the US, took place during the pandemic, and the events showed that Covid-19 will not become a brake on political changes, on the contrary, it became their catalyst. I think that Kazakhstan will cope with this challenge, given the high degree of organization and well-established and efficiently functioning state institutions.

Also, the pandemic and social distancing, quarantine restrictions, less social contacts of part of the population have become a part of our everyday life, so going to the vote, on the contrary, will become an event in which they want to take an active part.

Holding elections in January, when temperatures in Kazakhstan are sometimes very low, can also be a problem?

Winter electoral cycles are not so rare for our country. In Kazakhstan, winter does not freeze citizens and country political processes. On the contrary, traditionally December, January, in general winter in Kazakhstan is a season of fateful political decisions: protests of student youth in 1986, which became the first harbingers of the collapse of the USSR, took place in December, the independence of Kazakhstan was also declared in December, the actual transfer of the capital from Almaty to Akmola (later – Astana, since March 2019 – the city of Nur-Sultan) was also a harsh northern winter. So Kazakhs are no stranger to being hyperactive in winter conditions.

In my subjective opinion as a political scientist, if there is a turnout of 60-70% of voters in these elections, it will be a great achievement.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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