Hardly surprisingly, Nursultan Nazarbayev has been re-elected as Kazakhstan’s president on Sunday April 26. According to the Central Election Commission of Kazakhstan, there had been a record turnout of 95.11% for the poll and the votes in favour of Nazarbayev have been almost 98%. His two token-opponents gathered 2.3% the vote. The president, who is 74 years old and has ruled the country since independence in 1991, is now starting a new term, his fifth, in office. The Central Asian country has a semi-presidential system, and several constitutional reforms have been passed in order to ad hoc extend presidential terms or allow Nazarbayev to run for consecutive terms. Despite not being surprising, this election features some elements of interest to the observers. Kazakhstan has indeed gone through tough times recently, with both the economic situation being worsening as an effect of the Russian economic crisis; and an unclear future plan in terms of the post-Nazarbayev succession being increasingly a concern for the national elite and foreign investors. A sign of the impact of such growing concern and uncertainty was given by the government itself in first instance, when in March it called for early presidential election. During a TV appearance, Nazarbayev explained that ‘In the interests of the people… and for the sake of the general and strict implementation of the law, I have taken a decision and signed a decree calling an early presidential election for April 26.’ A more attentive analysis reveals how the Ukrainian crisis, the falling of the oil prices internationally, the constant devaluation of the national currency and the calls for the implementation of economic reforms can better explain the rush to re-confirm Nazarbayev as the leader of the executive in the country. Nazarbayev’s re-election has the benefit of solving all issues in one time, delaying the question of succession and reassuring the international finance community that the leader is firm in power and will keep the situation, politically and financially, stable.
Strengthening the economy and reforming the political system
The economic crisis in Kazakhstan has hit badly and the future is rather unclear considering the enduring difficulties that Russia, to whom Astana is diplomatically and economically very close, is currently going through. In January, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development cut the country’s growth projection for 2015 to 1.5% from 5.1%. In the meanwhile, prices of goods are rising, producers are having hard time in competing with foreign products from Russia and China and the national central bank is rumoured to be likely to devaluate the national currency, the tenge, again. It is worth mentioning that the tenge has lost almost 20% of its value in one day last year, triggering popular protests in a country known world-wide to be protests-free. Considering this situation, the decision of calling for early election has the goal of avoiding preparing for election in 2016 in order, on the contrary, to focus on strengthening the economy and prevent the crisis to further hit the country. Nazarbayev has acknowledged this difficult situation, and declared in November 2014 that “Kazakhstan, as a part of the global economy and a country close to the epicentre of geopolitical tension, is feeling the negative effects” adding that “the next years will be a time of global tests for the world, and for us too,” concluding that “not all the states will be able to adequately go through this stage. This frontier will be crossed only by the strong, united nations and countries.” The strategic plan that will constitute the backbone of the Kazakh exist strategy from the crisis is advanced in a document titled “The Path into the Future” which was presented by Nazarbayev in November and that involves the diversification of the economy and the active development of the non-oil sector as the main goals to be attained.
Nazarbayev also intend to reform the political system by the means of pro-democracy and meritocratic reforms after the economic situation will be stabilised. He is proposing a well-known rhetorical pattern sweeping through Central Asian authoritarian systems, whereby political pro-democracy reforms are to be carried out once the economy is strong enough. For instance, Karimov in Uzbekistan has adopted a number of liberal and democratic-minded documents, which set out the need of strengthening democratic and accountable good governance, civil society and the rule of law – liberal buzzwords that usually constitute authoritarians’ international discourse. Karimov, who ironically was re-elected last month and who is as old as Nazarbayev and faces similar succession challenges, has been an inspiration to Nazarbayev who declared that “first – a strong state and economy, and then – politics”. At the right time, then, Nazarbayev intends to tighten requirements for judges and law-enforcement bodies, and secure the rule of law. Also, he plans to create a modern, professional and autonomous state apparatus, with no room for nepotism, protectionism and corruption. Along with such changes, a new system will be introduced for paying the wages of officials in line with the efficiency of their contribution to the administrative process; and talented expatriates will be called back in Kazakhstan and offered a position in civil service. In order to start implementing these reforms, Nazarbayev intends appoint a special commission. Along with such themes, Nazarbayev’s electoral campaign has been much characterised by usual refrains of national harmony, celebration of national identity and condemnation of ethnic sectarianism.
Nazarbayev’s re-election also helped to easy the concerns for another issue, namely succession. The question of “who will come next” is particularly pressing now since no clear leadership is emerging. Many candidates have passed by, such as the president’s son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev, but the appointment of Karim Massimov as Prime Minister in April 2014, may signal an ambition of succeeding Nazarbayev. In fact, his nomination could indicate Nazarbayev’s willingness to counterbalance the growing power of Astana mayor, Imangali Tasmagambetov, or an attempt to weaken Timur Kulibayev’s influence, his son-in-law, another likely candidate for succession. After all, Turkmenistan has opted for this pattern of succession, with the former president Niyazov appointing the then little known Prime Minister Berdimukhamedov as his successor. Nevertheless, the president Nazarbayev has consistently avoided indicating any preference and he is still doing so: in a recent piece in the Financial Times, he portrayed Kazakhstan as a country navigating from despotism to democracy and therefore referred to the polls as the appropriate venue to select the national leaders.