Introducing more of the same: Upcoming snap presidential elections in Kazakhstan 4 min read
On September 20, President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced that snap presidential elections would be held in “the coming months.” During the same speech, he also announced a new term limit for the presidency of one seven-year term. Later, the election date was set for November 20, giving hopeful candidates less than two months to drum up enough support to compete against the incumbent.
President Tokayev claimed these new changes were intended to continue to develop democracy in the country. While the new term limit might set a new precedent in Kazakhstan, starting with non-competitive elections seems counterproductive. While five candidates were able to register in time to get their name on the ballot, in all likelihood the results of the election will not be as revolutionary as President Tokayev has promised.
The elections were announced during the 77th session of the UN General Assembly. In his speech, Tokayev opened by highlighting the struggles that the year had brought and the importance of coming together as a global community, particularly within the United Nations. He also took the opportunity to share his successes in building a “Just Kazakhstan” and increasing transparency within the country. While President Tokayev has been working towards these goals, many experts have postulated that the economic and political instability he mentioned might have been the actual catalyst for the early elections.
This year has brought an onslaught of turmoil to Kazakhstan. In January, while the country was still scrambling to adjust to the new normal of the COVID-19 pandemic, mass protests broke out, resulting in over 200 deaths and thousands injured. One of President Tokayev’s most large-scale attempts to push forward this image of liberalizing Kazakhstan was by granting amnesty to those charged with “deadly unrest.” This month’s call for amnesty, however, when reading past the headlines, seems more like an attempt to save face without admitting that there is a possibility that the authorities misstepped in their response. This law would not only free officers that shot into the crowd, it would also force those charged to plead guilty in order to receive this pardon, a sentence that many believe not to be just.
An even grimmer story unfolds when looking at how Kazakhstan’s government has reacted to negativity or questioning of the reasoning for moving the elections. Eurasianet recently published an article suggesting that the elections were an attempt to bolster legitimacy for the Tokayev campaign. A few days later, the article had been removed and replaced with a notice that “a ministry representative warned Eurasianet that unspecified “measures” would be adopted against it and its contributor in reaction to what he described as a violation of the terms under which foreign media outlets operate in Kazakhstan.” Threatening this prominent media outlet only further highlights the lack of legitimacy for holding these rushed elections.
While the reasoning behind organizing the elections seems dubious, there are real politicians running in the race. Among the six candidates are two women, a rarity in presidential races in Kazakhstan. One of these women is Karakat Abden who is a member of the ruling Nur Otan party. For the last decade, she has advocated for women’s rights and is the Chairman of the NGO “Kazakh Kyzy [Girls].” She has made some hopeful campaign promises, including developing a national suicide prevention strategy. However, her campaign has lost some gravity, since she began taking a strong stand against Halloween. The other female candidate is Saltanat Tursynbekova, who currently serves as Deputy Chairman of the National Commission for Women’s Affairs and Family and Demographic Policy. Her campaign has focused on social issues, especially those predominantly affecting women, such as domestic violence. However, she has also promised to address corruption, improving the justice system, and developing civil society.
Nurlan Auesbayev, head of Astana’s branch of the National Social-Democratic Party, Meiram Kazhyken, head of the Astana School of Economics at the Astana International Science Complex (ISCA), Zhiguli Dairabayev, head of the Auyl People’s Democratic Patriotic Party and chairman of the Association of Farmers of Kazakhstan are also among the candidates competing against the and incumbent. These candidates have been termed “pocket candidates” unlikely to pose any real threat to President Tokayev. Given the lack of press coverage of them in Russian, English, and Kazakh alone, this summation seems accurate.
As Kazakhstani voters prepare to cast their ballots, it is unlikely that many are holding their breath about whose name will be announced as the victor. President Tokayev, despite his promises to democratize the country and to create a “Just Kazakhstan”, seems to just be playing the part for the time being. While the headlines look great, they tend to lose their shine when held under scrutiny. While it is important to recognize that he has made some progress, much more needs to be done to claim that Kazakhstan is truly a just country.