Step-by-step democratisation serves Kazakhstan well

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

People line up outside a polling station during Kazakhstan's legislative elections to elect the members of Majlis (lower house of the parliament) in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, 10 January 2021. EPA- [EFE/RADMIR FAHRUTDINOV]

Step-by-step democratisation has suited Kazakhstan’s national circumstances and interests well, writes Alberto Turkstra, who visited Kazakhstan during its parliamentary election on 10 January.

Alberto Turkstra is a project manager with the Diplomatic World Institute.

Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and severe weather conditions, Kazakhstan successfully organised its legislative elections in strict observance of all sanitary requirements.

The first parliamentary elections since President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev came to power, they represented an important occasion to elect a new parliament which will help guide the future direction and further reforms of the country in all spheres.

Local elections (maslikhats) were held concurrently and incorporated for the first time an important innovation as they were held based on party lists (as opposed to the single-member system).

In party list systems, seats in parliament more proportionally match the number of votes each party receives, a move that President Tokayev says will “enable parties to strengthen their position in the country’s political system”.

The lower house of the Kazakh parliament (Majilis) is comprised of 107 deputies, 98 of them elected by a proportional electoral system according to party lists, while the remaining nine deputies are elected by the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, an advisory body whose members are drawn from organisations representing major ethnic communities living in the country.

These parliamentary elections were also the also first of their kind since the implementation of a package of constitutional and subsequent legislative reforms starting in 2017, following a variety of recommendations from international actors, most notably the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE ODIHR).

These legislative changes include voter registration reforms, the inclusive participation of people with disabilities, the lowering of the threshold to register a political party, among a variety of other amendments.

For the first time in the Kazakh parliamentary practice, a 30% quota in party lists for women and youth was introduced, which will contribute to their increased participation in the political life of the country of these societal groups which heretofore had played a more marginal role in national politics.

A total of 312 candidates stood from across five parties.

The candidates included 90 women (this represents a 9% increase compared to the previous parliamentary elections), and 19 people under the age of 29. All five parties nominated candidates from national minorities, including, according to data presented by the Central Election Commission, some 13.8% ethnic Russians and 6.4% from 10 other ethnicities – reflecting the diverse, inclusive and multi-ethnic nature of Kazakhstan.

Televised debates were yet another step toward the development of a robust political culture in Kazakhstan. For the first time, a live debate was held among representatives of the five political parties on 30 December 30 (in 2016, there was a televised debate, but it was pre-recorded).

All parties conducted extensive national surveys in order to design their electoral programmes and better target their programmes to the needs of the electorate.

Broadly speaking, common themes revolved around the sustainable and resilient recovery from the effects of the pandemic; social policies for the vulnerable sectors of the population; improvements health care system; support to businesses and particularly SMEs; environmental issues; the role of women and youth in political life; and anti-corruption efforts.

Furthermore, in conditions of the pandemic, all parties embraced new technologies and communication channels (social media, Youtube, etc) to conduct their campaigns and engage with citizens, but without leaving traditional communication methods behind.

The party programme of Nur-Otan, the political force in power, named “The Path of Changes: A Decent Life for Everyone”, highlights the need to improve citizens’ quality of life, promote social justice, and an accountable state.

Specific proposals include an increase in medical workers’ and teachers’ salaries, improve the quality of student housing, and reorientate the economy from raw materials to manufacturing.

The Auyl People’s Democratic Patriotic Party, for example, has a strong focus on improving living conditions in rural areas (where 42% of the Kazakh population lives) and includes in its election programme initiatives on rural infrastructure and development projects.

The Adal Party has been a strong advocate of industry and the digitalisation of government services. Through the party’s new website, for example, people can report a problem or a complaint, suggestions on a dedicated portal, which can then easily reach regional party representatives.

Lastly, the People’s Party of Kazakhstan, for its part, emphasised sustainable and affordable housing and reduction of the retirement age.

On the election day, a very high degree of preparedness was observed in the polling stations in terms of voting procedures and their adherence to the sanitary norms.

Mitigating measures against the COVID-19 were generally in place (temperature controls), and personal protective equipment (masks, hand sanitizer) widely available in all polling stations visited for both observers and voters.

The stations also made voting easy and accessible for the elderly and people with disabilities (in every polling station visited, one booth was always reserved for people with disabilities: wheelchair-friendly, and also included a magnifying glass for people with poor eyesight).

There were minor incidents, which did not in any way impact the outcome of the election.

Apart from this, voting procedures were generally followed at polling stations. Even though the turnout in parliamentary elections is traditionally lower than in presidential elections, the interest of citizens was quite high from the early morning hours, and local observers from all contesting political parties were present in the polling stations visited.o

With this election, Kazakhstan has shown that it is possible to conduct an election during a pandemic in safe and secure conditions.

Some international observers and actors may not be not fully satisfied with the elections (the EU, for example, claims that the parliamentary elections were “a missed opportunity to demonstrate the efficient implementation of political reforms and modernisation”).

But piecemeal democratization has suited Kazakhstan’s national circumstances and interests well. We cannot compare Kazakhstan to countries with long traditions in multi-party governance.

Many of our interlocutors were open about the fact that democracy is a long-term objective, as is the increased role of the legislative branch and representative bodies, thereby bringing Kazakhstan closer to international standards.

Let us not forget that in 30 years as an independent nation, Kazakhstan has managed a peaceful and voluntary transfer of power, religious and ethnic harmony, substantial economic progress, gradual political reforms, all the while avoiding instability.

As a young nation, Kazakhstan has room to grow and reform further, but each election introduces new improvements in the legislation compared to the previous one, making the political space in Kazakhstan gradually more open, and more inclusive to all sectors of the population.

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