‘We have to be observers’ in Kazakh elections, MEP says

Kazakhstan, Qostanay, June 9, 2019, A man in a red cap in the voting hall puts the ballot in a transparent box with the emblem of Kazakhstan during presidential elections. [Shutterstock/ROMSVETNIK]

This article is part of our special report Kazakhstan elections.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Parliament has yet to decide whether it will send observers to Kazakhstan’s parliamentary elections in January.

Andris Ameriks, a Latvian socialist lawmaker who is vice-chair of the European Parliament delegation for Central Asia and Mongolia, described the January election as a potential turning point for Kazakhstan’s relations with the European Union.

“In my personal opinion, we have to be observers in this election,” Ameriks said during an online event on Kazakhstan-EU relations hosted by EURACTIV on Wednesday (25 November).

He said, however, that the issue has not yet been discussed, and a lot depends on how the COVID-19 situation develops.

“For the European Union this election period in Kazakhstan will be very important and we follow all activities in case of this political process,” added the social-democrat lawmaker who is a former deputy mayor of Riga.

Push for turnout

The electoral commission announced plans to spend about €30.3 million on the elections, of which €676,000 is set aside for personal protective equipment.

Each participating party will contribute an electoral fee of about €1,200 for each candidate on their party list – with the exception of parties who passed the 7% electoral threshold during the last election and got into the lower house of Parliament, which includes the ruling Nur Otan party, the Ak Zhol faction and the former communists.

In announcing the decree setting the election date on 10 January, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called on “all citizens of our state to show active citizenship and take responsible part in the upcoming elections.”

The President’s call for people to participate in the election is actively promoted by top political figures and was accepted by the five opposition parties that will take part in the elections, although some disagree.

About 100 hundred people called for the boycott of the elections at the beginning of November at a protest authorised by the authorities, Azattyq reported.

“Reset” and rebrand

Of the six parties admitted to the elections by Kazakhstan’s Central Election Commission, the clear dominating force is the ruling Nur Otan party, which picked up 82% of the vote in 2016 and holds 84 of the 107 seats in the Majlis, the lower house of the bicameral legislature.

It was founded and is still lead by former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, a post he held from 1990 until his surprise resignation in March 2019.

After the first experiment with intra-party pre-elections in 2016, Nur Otan held its second primaries this year. This took place on a much bigger in scale, with more than 660,000 party members casting votes for 10 thousand candidates – an unprecedented process described as “a revolutionary idea” by an advisor to the former president.

“It can be explained by the fact that the Nur Otan is not so much rigid and bronzed party, but a monopolist party, which has a monopoly in the Majilis, the Senate and all local governments, has inevitably fallen into some kind of stagnation. What was needed was a very powerful shake, which was initiated by party leader Nursultan Nazarbayev,” Yermukhamet Ertysbayev said.

The focus on women and youth seems to have borne fruit – the  representation of women  for local and regional election party lists increased from 22% to 34%, while the number of young people rose to 24%.

For some, this shows that the President’s “reset” strategy is starting to work. According to a recent poll, 76.8% of Kazakhstanis are now ready to vote for Nur Otan compared to 65.8% a year ago.

The dominating ruling party is not the only one looking for a “reset.”

Based on the results of an opinion poll, the former Birlik (“Unity”) party rebranded itself to Adal, which means “justice”.

Party leader Serik Sultangali said the fact that the name ‘Adal’ won out of 10 variants is explained by “the public’s request for renewal, for fairness”.

“At the same time, people invest a lot in the word ‘justice’, ranging from the fight against corruption to transparency in decision making,” Sultangali said.

“The question is not about going to the Majilis or becoming a deputy. The main thing is to be able to convey the proposals and ideas to the persons making decisions,” Sultangali told the party’s general assembly in November.

The formal opposition also seems to be active in electoral tactics.

Before rebranding, Adal offered to merge with Auyl, a five year old party itself created from the merger of two groups. Auyl formed a working group to study the proposal but ultimately rejected it because of Adal’s perceived low activity and disorganisation.

The head of Auyl, Kuanysh Seitzhanov, said the merger “will not bring political dividends and will not increase popularity”.

The communists too have gone through a rebranding process, and dropped the term “communist” from their party’s name which was rebranded into the People’s Party of Kazakhstan.

Current MP and party chairman Aikyn Konurov said the move was made in  the hope of broadening the party’s base beyond its working class origins.

“At present, it is not right to be based on the principles of class struggle. We do not have classes as such, because our industry does not form a working class. It is in its infancy itself, everyone acknowledges this,” he said.

“There will be different factions within the party: communist, social democratic, extreme left,” added Konurov, who thinks “this has not shaken the position of the true Communists of the Party in any way.”

However, he later admitted that “the word ‘communist’ was a barrier for some.”

The party’s program, presented on 23 November, lists the electoral promises of the People’s Party of Kazakhstan: accessible and quality education and medicine, the reduction of the retirement age to 60 and “credit amnesty” for borrowers who pay back their loans – meaning  their bad credit history will be written off.

“A loan amnesty will not solve anything,” previously said Azat Peruashev, the leader of the Ak Zhol Party (“Lighted Path”). Instead, he believes high interest rates are responsible for the “impoverishment of Kazakhstani people due to non-performing loans,” and proposes introducing a rate ceiling of 7 or 8%.

The National Social Democratic Party (NSDP), one of the oldest parties, has not yet announced a rebranding campaign, though it may be in need of one after several leadership changes and exits by known members in recent years.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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