Tokayev, Kazakhstan’s interim President, called early presidential elections on
April 9, his victory was a foregone conclusion. In fact, the ballot on June 9
brought him 6.54 million votes, nearly 71 percent of all votes cast.
The next day, the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, a presidentially appointed advisory body of the President, declared Tokayev’s victory the confirmation of “a clear and understandable mechanism for the continuation of the strategic course of Elbasy,” i.e., Nazarbayev.
At the same time, international observers made their comments. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization called the elections “transparent, reliable and democratic.” The same conclusion was reached by the CIS observer mission, the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (Turkic Council), the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic Speaking Countries (TURKPA), and official observers from Russia.
Only the OSCE mission, acknowledging the efficiency of the
preparation and administration of the election, criticized the ballot as “tarnished
by clear violations of fundamental freedoms as well as pressure on critical
voices.” The observers found “considerable restrictions on the right [of independent
candidates] to stand” and “limits to peaceful assembly and expression [inhibiting]
genuine political pluralism.” On election day, they witnessed “significant
irregularities, […] including cases of ballot box stuffing, and a disregard of
counting procedures” as well as “widespread detentions of peaceful protesters”
in major cities.
However, the main problem with the recent presidential election is not its lack of integrity. Trying to measure electoral integrity in a country like Kazakhstan, which has never been a democracy in the first place, misses the point. In a very basic sense, democratic elections are but the method by which the top executive leadership is selected. In Kazakhstan, however, the people were not meant to choose who would run the country in the years to come. The election was announced, because of the new President’s need for legitimacy. Winning the election by a huge margin would strengthen his position against intra-elite rivals as well as vis-à-vis Nazarbayev, the “Leader of the Nation,” Chairman of the so-called ruling party Nur-Otan and Chairman for life of the National Security Council.
situation is a consequence of the logic of personalistic regimes. To survive, this
kind of regime is in urgent need of a strong leader, able to coopt all relevant
elite groups into a nation-wide politico-economic network, i.e., an integrated
“power pyramid.” Thus, a president who cares about the future of the regime he
created, must also arrange for a successor who is acceptable to the main elite
groups, instead of leaving this critical question to an aggregated and
unpredictable “will of the people”.
Since about 2013, Nazarbayev—the most experienced, smartest post-Soviet leader beside Putin—had repeatedly been explicit in public about the personal responsibility he felt for managing an orderly succession of power to secure political stability in the country. With the 2017 and 2018 constitutional reforms, he implemented the institutional design of a possible post-Nazarbayev regime – a slight redistribution of competencies between the power branches at the expense of the future president, and a lifelong supervisory position for the retired “Leader of the Nation.” The next step followed in March 2019, when he resigned from the presidency, paving the way for his trusted ally Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, then Chairman of the Upper House of Kazakhstan’s Parliament.
happened since then seems to fit well into the picture of a thoroughly choreographed
transition. The successor in office preponed elections by almost a year, declaring that “in order to secure social and
political accord, confidently move forward, and deal with the tasks of
socioeconomic development, it is necessary to eliminate any uncertainty.” The goal
of this move was to gain legitimate power via electoral acclamation as well as
to shorten the window of opportunity for the opposition to organize and unite.
stage-managed was also the nomination process of the contenders. A total of
seven candidates were registered by the country’s Central
Election Commission, which claimed the upcoming election to become the most
competitive one in the country’s history. Nur-Otan
nominated Tokayev as the chosen successor. Three other candidates were
nominated by the loyal pro-government opposition, i.e., by parties owing their orchestrated
existence to serve specific clienteles: the Democratic
Party Ak Zhol, which is somewhat more reform-oriented than Nur-Otan, the Social Democratic Party Auyl, which addresses the needs of the
countryside, as well as the Communist
People’s Party of Kazakhstan. In addition, Kazakhstan’s Trade Unions
nominated a former short-term member of the parliament, and a movement aiming
to develop Kazakhstan’s cultural and national values nominated the President of
the Equestrian Federation.
surprise was the participation of Amirzhan Kossanov, a moderate opposition politician. Since
leaving the ruling coalition two decades ago, he has been engaged in the loyal
opposition, and later in political organizations that were denied official
registration. In 2006 and 2012, he was sentenced to several 15-day jail terms for
organizing unauthorized rallies in support of the victims of political repression.
was widely seen as a political concession by the authorities, but critics
suspected him in having struck a deal with the ruling elite group or blamed him
for legitimizing an unfree and unfair election. Actually, any textbook for
authoritarian rulers would recommend staging select oppositional candidates to
divide the opposition over the question of whether or not to boycott elections.
In fact, domestic
experts noted rising levels of activity among the electorate during the
rather low-key, even sluggish election campaign, with the boycott question moving
center stage. This eased Tokayev’s situation, whose campaign ran under the
motto “Prosperity for all! Continuity. Justice. Progress.”
glance, the results of the presidential race seem to attest a happy end of Nazarbayev’s
thoroughly managed “operation successor.” Having won the election, Tokayev
declared the power transfer complete. All contenders—including oppositional Kossanov—accepted
his victory and offered congratulations.
there are some signs that this conclusion might be premature. Power transfer in
a heavily personalized regime is a risky endeavor for various reasons. The
obvious one is that people might not agree to accept the chosen successor. In
fact, the table below shows that the authorities rightly claim the presidential
elections to be the most competitive elections ever held in the country. This
is true not only by the number of competitors—which was under the ultimate
control of the Election Commission—, but also by the results of the ballot
Results of presidential elections in Kazakhstan (in percent)
||Number of |
|Votes for the |
| Votes for the |
Referendum on extending Nazarbayev‘s presidential term without elections
big as the margin of victory between the victor and the second-place finisher
remains, it was never as small as in 2019. Kossanov’s 1.5 million votes are a
solid, respectable result. Second, turnout was notably lower than in all previous
elections except in 2005, meaning that the regime was unable to mobilize the
electorate to the same degree as during the last decade when Nazarbayev was the
country’s uncontested leader. If the ballot count was indeed manipulated, which
is highly likely, the degree of non-approval may be much higher than reported.
media such as Eurasianet,
Free Europe and the BBC
reported rising civil disobedience on the streets and on the internet,
signaling widespread discontent and annoyance with politics in general—ranging
from the renaming of the capital into Nur-Sultan over entrenched corruption and
poor public sector services to socioeconomic grievances—and the handling of the
succession question in particular. New civil society groups emerged, such as “Wake up,
Kazakhstan,” calling citizens to demand more say in government. Public
awareness for possible electoral fraud was also on the rise, and many
Kazakhstanis became eager not only to cast their vote, but also to become election
day, a series of protest rallies took place, and over two days, around 700
people were detained by the police. According to the latest news on June 11, protests
speaks of “the biggest display of public discontent since 2016”.
Kazakhstani people do not select their president, mass protest would become
meaningful, because it would damage the legitimacy of the newly elected office-holder.
This, in turn, might spur elite competition, affecting the expectations of
various elite groups whether Tokayev will hold himself at the helm of the power
pyramid or not. Consequently, they would have to decide whether to back him or
to coordinate around a more promising candidate. At the time being, Kossanov,
for example, did not rule out the possibility to create a political party to
run in the legislative elections, scheduled for 2021.
It is too
early to speculate about whether Tokayev will manage to stabilize his position.
The next couple of weeks will show, whether the recent presidential election
completed “operation successor” or, instead, was the prelude to severe regime