KAZAKHSTAN: Parliamentary Elections Show Democracy Still Work in Progress
Vladimir Beron «View Bio

October 10, 2004

Kazakhstan`s Central Election Commission announced on October 5 the official tally of the September 19 parliamentary elections and the October 3 runoffs, naming Otan, the party of President Narsultan Nazarbaev, as winner by a landslide. Otan secured some 42 seats in the 77 seat parliament, followed by the pro-presidential block AIST with 11 seats and Asar, the party led by Nazarbaev`s eldest daughter Darigha, with four seats. The opposition Ak Zhol party won only one seat, as did another pro-presidential faction, the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan. The remaining 18 seats went to independent candidates.

The official results sparked a torrent of complaints of electoral fraud, especially from the opposition Ak Zhol party, which considered itself particularly strong in the former capital and commercial hub of Almaty. International observers also criticized the electoral process, with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe formally declaring that the ballot generally fell short of internationally recognized democratic norms. Widespread allegations of government intimidation practices and pro-government bias on the part of the tightly controlled media came in addition to strong misgivings that the introduction of electronic voting without a paper trail for nearly 20 percent of the electorate significantly undermined the fairness of the election results.

These serious shortcomings notwithstanding, Kazakhstan`s latest step on the path to a pluralistic democracy could be seen with some positives as well. The mere fact that the elections did take place is no small feat given the country`s geographic position nestled among Central Asia`s decidedly undemocratic regimes, as well as Kazakhstan`s record of democratic development, or the lack thereof. Other encouraging points include the opposition`s success in crossing over the steep threshold of seven percent for entering parliament, as well as the substantial number of independent candidates winning seats.

Undoubtedly, the most important goal for the post-election period, domestically and as far as the international community is concerned, remains the preservation of stability in the Central Asian state. Kazakhstan is a strategically key country for its large deposits of fossil energy resources, as well as for its central geographic position in an often turbulent region. The country is an important ally in the U.S.-led war on terror, and maintains a close relationship with Russia, its giant northwestern neighbor. To the East is China, where Kazakhstan looks toward an ever expanding market for its oil and natural gas. To the South is a cluster of predominantly Muslim former Soviet states, chronically plagued with instability and facing a constantly growing threat from Islamic fundamentalism.

Hence, any prospect for destabilization in Kazakhstan as a result of internal political disputes is broadly viewed as a grave liability from the strategic standpoint, making it unlikely that any of the major powers will challenge in earnest the validity of the elections` outcome. Despite its democratic shortcomings, the Nazarbaev regime has thus far delivered a broadly valued continuity in its policies, and at least for the short term it is likely to be the partner of choice when compared with the inherit unpredictability of the opposition, irrespective of how valid its claims regarding the fairness of the elections.

As for the opposition, the most promising prospect for the time being appears to be the accumulation of experience, as well as gaining some moral high ground, in preparation for the next presidential election in 1996, which is the truly big prize. Unlike the parliament, which is devoid of any meaningful authority, the presidency is the true powerbroker. After Kazakhstan embraced independence in the early 1990s, prompted by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nazarbaev solidified his grip on power gained during the Communist era by consolidating all aspects of government under the presidency.

Should the threat posed by international terrorism and the proliferation of Islamic extremism in Central Asia be limited over the next couple of years, the opposition could be in a markedly improved position to demand from the international community greater accountability from the Nazarbaev regime regarding the respect of democratic electoral norms. However, a decision by the opposition to embark on some form of sustained civil disobedience in protest over ballot fraud could spell doom for its election prospects in two years, since the regime will certainly not tolerate any dissent now, and a helping hand from the major powers is unlikely to be forthcoming.

Vladimir Beron is a Senior Risk Analyst with the international risk management group Sentigence