This article is part of our special report Kazakhstan elections.
When Kazakhs go to the polls for a presidential election on Sunday (9 June), they will face something of a novelty – the name of their first president, Nur-Sultan Nazarbayev, will not be on the ballot.
Nazarbayev, 78, stood down as president in March, after nearly thirty years of uninterrupted rule, with Senate leader, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, appointed interim president. Tokayev called early elections the following month and is running as the ruling party candidate.
Regional analysts expect Tokayev, a former diplomat and Director-General of the United Nations in Geneva, to win with about 70% of the vote.
But Kazakhstan is still very much seeing a gradual political transition. Nazarbayev is set to retain significant powers in his title as ‘Yelbasy’ – head of the nation – as well as the leader of the security council and of the ruling Nur Otan party.
The transition is already taking place, said Murat Shibutov, head of the Transparency Kazakhstan Foundation. Nazarbayev “preserves a certain role in strategic decision making but the operative decisions are already being taken without him”.
“For our political elite, it is a big test of how they can govern. How competent can they be without him (Nazarbayev)”, added Shibutov.
Western observers have never recognised elections in Kazakhstan – the last presidential poll in 2015 was won by Nazarbayev with 98% – as free and fair. Nazarbayev last faced an opposition candidate in 2005.
This time, however, veteran oppositionist Amirzhan Kosanov has been permitted to run by the National Electoral Commission, as part of a field of seven candidates.
“A very important period is currently undergoing in Kazakhstan. What model of power will be after Nazarbayev?” said Kosanov, who will stand as the candidate for the Destiny of the Nation movement, which lobbies for Kazakh linguistic and cultural rights.
“The presidential election is one of the answers…it seems that the authorities are starting to realise that the opposition should exist, that it exists and that it shall be taken into account,” Kosanov told EURACTIV.
“After 14 years, I was registered as the representative of the opposition. Frankly, I was not expecting that. I see positivity in this,” he added.
The new government will be under pressure to move towards a more competitive and open economy, and diversified away from dependence on oil and gas.
“We are at a very transitional period,” said Zhazira Duisembekova, a member of the civil society group, Almarat.
“Our economy is very commodity addicted which brought a lot of easy money into the economy, and created a whole class of oligarchy at some point, and a whole level of large businesses which is very important for our economy,” Duisembekova told EURACTIV.
While Tokayev is almost certain to win by a hefty margin on Sunday, and has the state machinery behind him, the next step in the transition is likely to be parliamentary elections, which are expected to follow in the coming months.
“When the elections were announced, the Ak Zhol party demanded that the President ensure fair and open elections. President Tokayev has promised to do that,” said Ak Zhol’s presidential candidate, Dania Yespayeva. Her party won 7% and 7 of the 98 seats in the Mazhilis, Kazakhstan’s lower house of parliament.
“The results of this election will demonstrate how transparent they were, and this will affect relations between state and society.”
Meanwhile, with observers certain of a Tokayev victory, many say that, unlike at previous polls, it will be significant who places second and third.
“In this election, it is not only important who will win, we more or less know who will. There are other things like turnout, regional distribution of voices, and those who will run second and third,” Murat Abenov, chairman of the National Council for Education and Innovation, told EURACTIV.
“I think that the parliamentary election will be right after these elections, and those who are participating – they don’t really think of this election, but of the parliamentary election and how many seats they will be able to win there. I think it is the beginning of the process of political reform,” he added.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]