Kazakhstan: “Operation successor” complete or in jeopardy?


 

When Kassym-Jomart 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.

This 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.

What 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.

Obviously 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.

The only 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.

Kossanov’s nomination 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.”

At first 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.

However, 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 itself.

Results of presidential elections in Kazakhstan (in percent)

Date Number of
candidates
Votes for the
winning candidate
Votes for the
“best loser”
Turnout
01.12.1991 1 98.8 88.2
29.04.1995 * 95.5 91.2
10.01.1999 4 81 11.9 87
04.12.2005 5 91.15 6.61 76.8
03.04.2011 4 95.55 1.85 89.98
26.04.2015 3 97.75 1.61 95.22
09.06.2019 7 70.96 16.23 77.5

* Referendum on extending Nazarbayev‘s presidential term without elections

First, as 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.

Moreover, independent, mostly international, media such as Eurasianet, Radio 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 observers.

On 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 continue. Reuters speaks of “the biggest display of public discontent since 2016”.

While the 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 turbulences.

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