Kazakhstan voters open way for political reform

A young woman casts her ballot in the town of Akmol, at some 20 km from the capital Nur-Sultan. [Georgi Gotev]

This article is part of our special report Kazakhstan’s constitutional referendum.

Over 76% of Kazakh voters approved on Sunday (5 June) the constitutional changes aimed at political reform put to a referendum by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, with 68.44% or 8 million citizens turning out to vote, according to exit polls.

The first referendum in Kazakhstan in 27 years was seen by foreign observers as a test of Tokayev’s popularity after the January unrest, which shook up the Central Asian country in the first days of 2022.

Insider's account: The Kazakhstan unrest

A trusted EURACTIV source in Almaty gave a rare first-hand account of the Kazakhstan unrest that shook up the Central Asian country in the first days of 2022.

The referendum will give Tokayev a mandate for reform, with a series of laws to be adopted to flesh out the proposals he initiated.

However, a turnout of just 33% in the region of Almaty could be a cause for concern as the former capital city suffered the most during the January unrest.

The 56 amendments include limiting presidential powers, giving more power to parliament and making it more representative by replacing the proportional system of elections with a mixed majoritarian-proportional one. It also includes a significant decentralisation of power with more competences given to regional and local authorities.

Kazakhstan’s constitutional referendum explained

On Friday (3 June), Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev gave the shortest speech of his career – only three minutes, expressing the ambition “to make New Kazakhstan a reality” in which social justice would be the principal value.

Tokayev cast his vote at the polling station located in the building of the Al-Farabi Schoolchildren Palace in Nur-Sultan.

“Today is an important historical day for our country. People are taking a fateful decision. There is no compulsion. The referendum has been organised at a high level,” Tokayev said.

He added that the paradigm of relations between the state and the society was changing, and human rights were coming to the forefront.

‘Challenges on multiple fronts’

Answering questions from journalists, Tokayev said that the nation’s security was facing challenges “on multiple fronts”. He stopped short of mentioning the hotbeds of tension such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the tensions between the US and China, or the looming humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan unfolding on Kazakhstan’s doorstep.

“There are many threats to the security of our country. So we must be vigilant in this direction,” said Tokayev, as quoted by the Astana Times.

The January unrest was a well-planned operation against statehood, Tokayev said. Asked about the investigation, he said that the process continues and all involved would be brought to justice.

Later the same day, Tokayev signed a decree creating a commission for the return to the state budget of funds unlawfully taken abroad. According to experts, such funds are estimated at $140-170 billion.

Since the morning on Sunday, a group of foreign journalists visited several voting sections, witnessing what appeared to be a smooth electoral exercise. There were no queues, as the voting takes little time, with a simple question to answer, “Do you accept the constitutional changes” and two options – “Yes, I accept” and “No, I don’t accept”.

Several voters interviewed made no secret that they supported the constitutional changes, considering that the country needed reform.

Askar, 40, a health coach, explained that he had studied the constitutional amendments and “decided to be involved”. As he wore a Muslim cap, he was asked whether he thought religion needed a bigger place in society. He said that religion made him feel better as a person, that religion required him to be active, and that there were no problems in Kazakhstan as far as religion was concerned.

Festive mood

Nurgani, an 80-year old woman dressed in festive clothes, was delighted by the journalists’ attention and raised her fist, clamouring “Forward, Kazakhstan!”

In Akmol, 20 kilometres from Nur-Sultan, a chairwoman of the electoral commission said that by 11 a.m., 460 people had voted, which represented 33% of the total electorate of 1337 people.

Asked to compare this with previous elections, she explained that the turnout depended on the type of elections. For the local Akim (mayor), she said the turnout had been 97%, as in her words, “we voted for one of us”. For the presidential elections, the turnout in her section had been 67%. She said she expected a turnout of 60% for the referendum.

Elvira Azimova, the country’s ombudswoman, whose post will be strengthened by one of the constitutional amendments, told journalists that there had been malign calls on social media for citizens to write down on the ballot with which amendments they disagree. This, however, renders the ballot invalid, she said.

Banu Nurgaziyeva, president of the Civil Alliance of Kazakhstan, an umbrella organisation of NGOs, said the constitutional changes could increase the quality of elected local representatives and increase the trust in society.

Speaking to journalists, representatives of Uzbekistan, Turkey, Russia, the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, who acted as observers to the referendum, gave a high assessment of the organisation of the referendum.

Askar Nursha, representing the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies (KAZISS), said that some of the proposals made during the debates ahead of the referendum contained calls for even more decentralisation of power and bolder democratisation. He argued, however, that Kazakhstan needed an effective but strong power because of the difficult circumstances in which it may need to intervene.

The national television of Kazakhstan ran an attractive program throughout the entire day until past midnight called ‘Referendum – Online marathon’, in the format of infotainment, mixing talk shows with political scientists and celebrities with popular music, which reportedly got a huge audience.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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