In mid-February, the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, a constitutional body chaired by the 74-year-old Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, aired the idea of an early presidential election. The election, originally scheduled for the end of 2016, will now take place on the 26th April 2015. Under constitutional law, which allows Nazarbayev to seek re-election however many times he wants, an early presidential election is set by the decision of the acting president. It needs to be held within two months of such a decision. In addition, the Constitution requires holding separate presidential and parliamentary elections, which according to the previous calendar, could have ended up scheduled at the end of 2016.
Support for the initiative has been voiced throughout the country by all institutions, with different reasons being cited. Experts widely agree on the fact that a general concern with stability is at the core of the change of date of the presidential election.
The Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan (APK) was the first institutional body to call for early elections. The institution, representing more than 800 ethnic associations throughout the country, cited ‘numerous appeals of citizens,’ and the need to give the president ‘a new mandate’ to implement his economic programme. The council then called on MPs in the Majles, the lower chamber of the Parliament, to take on and support an early presidential election. Indeed, nine out of the 107 members of the Majles are elected by the APK, according to national law. The lower house of the parliament backed the proposal with 107 votes in favour, while the ruling party Nur Otan also echoed the call. In an interview with national TV Khabar on February 14th, the poet Olzhas Suleimenov declared that ‘in these difficult times, the leader bears special responsibility. It is then important to support Nursultan Nazarbayev now … Kazakhstan needs to go through several very tough years. We will preserve the country, preserve the people, and develop. .. I am confident our people will support this proposal.’
On February 25, Nazarbayev accepted the invitation and set the date for the early election. During a televised address to the nation, he announced 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 elections for April 26’.
Nazarbayev said that he had received numerous messages from citizens expressing their anxiety about the country’s future in light of growing instability and escalating conflicts in the region. The incumbent president quoted a letter from Nina Misochenko, a resident of one of the country’s central provinces. She wrote to the President that she ‘prays daily for our children, for peace and concord in our country, so that no confrontation and no war will come to our home.’ The woman said she cherished the fact that the people of Kazakhstan live quiet and confident lives, dedicating themselves to hard work and raising their children in an atmosphere of peace and stability. Also, citing national security concerns in light of current geopolitical tensions, the president said he felt there is a growing demand among his compatriots for a ‘continuation of balanced domestic and foreign policies.’
Addressing the other concern of the Kazakh population and of the elite as well, Nazarbayev also mentioned the negative effect that political stability might have on the national economy. With the negative consequence that the global economic crisis and falling oil prices are having on Kazakhstan’s economy, the people of Kazakhstan, the president said, need ‘confidence in their future … maintaining jobs, stability, welfare benefits, salaries, scholarships.’
A few days later, on February 28, the country’s Foreign Ministry invited the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the Parliamentary Assembly of OSCE to observe the early presidential election in Kazakhstan.
Explaining early election: economic and regional stability
Stability is at the core of growing political concerns in Kazakhstan. From geo-political and strategic points of view, the Ukrainian crisis has re-ignited anxiety in Central Asia, where significant Russian minorities are present and where the national populations are very diversified with the possibility of ethnic conflict; the discord between Moscow and other Central Asian capitals, among which is Astana, over the Eurasian Economic Union and sanctions against Western produces; and the recent eruption of the jihadi threat in Central Asia – an area in which, however, Astana and all of the other Central Asian capitals are heavily dependent on Moscow when it comes to anti-terrorism measures, make the general regional context far from being stable and safe.
However, it is mainly economic stability that motivates the call for an early election in Kazakhstan. On February 11, in a speech to the government, Nazabayev admitted that the republic was facing economic difficulties and that the government would need to cut spending for 2015-2017. In addition, in the recent months, the oil-exporting country has been heavily affected by falling oil prices, which have lowered from around $120 per barrel in June 2014 to $50 – $60 per barrel currently, and also from the unstable economic situation in Russia, itself hit by lower oil prices and the West’s sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine. Nazarbayev said that he did not plan to devaluate the national currency again, as he did in February 2014, causing protests all over the country. However growth forecasts are not encouraging, with Kazakhstan downgraded to 1.5% growth this year, from a 5.1% forecast in September by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. In such a context, the ambitious economic strategy developed by the government called ‘Nurly Zhol’ seems to set unreachable targets. Precisely because of this, ‘we fully support the initiative to hold early elections and we hope that Head of State will continue the fruitful work in the best interests of our people,” said the head of Almaty Association of Entrepreneurs Viktor Yambayev talking about the necessity of implementing the Nurly Zhol – Path to the Future new economic programme and the long-term Kazakhstan 2050 Strategy’ despite uncertainties.
Considering the relevance of economic stability, Dosym Satpayev, director of the Kazakhstan Risks Assessment Group, declared that it is likely that the decision to call for an early vote had been building for some time. After an assessment of the unpopular economic measures to be taken, it is likely that the elite and Nazarbayev himself decided to implement them after an election to counteract the likely loss of support for the government. Similarly, Yang Jin of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences declared that ‘Nazarbayev wants to reduce uncertainties by winning presidency again, and to ensure the consistency of his policies’.
Whatever the reason, no one really doubts that Nazarbayev will be re-elected.