Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

‘Democratic’ Poll Cloaks Kazakh Autocracy

ASTANA, Apr 4 2011 - Kazakhstan’s nine million registered voters went to the polls Apr. 3. Incumbent Nursultan Nazarbayev is not expected to lose.

An activist for President Nursultan Nazarbayev canvasses for the Apr. 3 presidential poll, which critics consider a farce. Credit:  Robin Forestier-Walker/Al Jazeera

An activist for President Nursultan Nazarbayev canvasses for the Apr. 3 presidential poll, which critics consider a farce. Credit: Robin Forestier-Walker/Al Jazeera

Observers have already given the country’s election commission poor marks for allowing a questionable selection procedure through which three political lightweights are up against “Papa” – as Nazarbayev is affectionately known.

A fragmented opposition have not put forward any candidates. Unwilling or unable to mount a serious challenge through Egyptian style public protest they have tried to discredit the ageing strongman by encouraging voters to boycott the poll.

But Nazarbayev does not seem concerned. On Jan. 31, the sprightly 70-year-old called the new presidential election with his seated ministers gazing at him from their ornate golden chairs in Astana’s Ak Orda palace – an oversized White House with a dome and mast as high as the building is tall.

“As the first democratically elected president, proceeding exclusively from the highest interests of the country, I have made the decision not to hold a referendum,” he said in a televised address.

“(Taking) into account the will of the people and the faithfulness to democratic principles, I am proposing to hold an early presidential poll, despite the fact that this reduces my term of office by almost two years.”

Censorship and control

It was hard for Kazakh watchers not to ponder whether Kazakhstan’s ‘Leader of the Nation’ (a title for life approved by his rubber-stamp parliament that makes him immune from prosecution) had Cairo on his mind.

A planned referendum on dropping term limits to extend his rule until 2020 had earlier been criticised by the European Union and United States. Certainly the president seemed to be saying this was a more democratic gesture.

The Kazakh president, along with his Central Asian counterparts in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, has absolute authority. His country suffers from systemic corruption with massive inequalities between rich and poor.

There is no independent judiciary, and the mass media either self-censors or is controlled by the state. Freedom of assembly is curtailed, and genuine opposition movements are suppressed or banned.

Credible international monitors like the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have never certified an election in the oil-rich nation free or fair.

Kazakhstan’s fragmented opposition believes the country deserves the same wave of change that could precipitate democracy in the Middle East.

Boycott initiative

The opposition recently held a rally in Almaty with the sanction of the authorities. Calls were made for a boycott of Sunday’s vote by a loose coalition of activists and political parties. Leaflets posing the question ”Tunisia, Egypt, who will be next?” were circulated.

Vladimir Kozlov, who heads Alga! (Forward!), an unregistered political party, says the elections – originally scheduled for 2012 – are just another method of extending the president’s power.

“We think it’s an insult. We didn’t think it gave us enough time to participate. So we’re asking people not to vote and this will be our protest. Let Nazarbayev get his 96 percent as his advisers say, but it will be 96 percent of the 15 percent who partake in these elections.”

Yet hidden within Kozlov’s argument is the tacit acknowledgement that president Nazarbayev possesses an enduring popularity, something no opposition politician can match.

Far from the city centre, only a few hundred people turned out in support of the movement, and most of them were pensioners. Plain clothes security agents circulated among those gathered. At the latest count, the movement’s Facebook page had attracted a meagre 435 members.

Standing at the back, Olzhas, an opposition supporter in his early twenties, looked on with contempt.

“They demonstrate a stark lack of talent. Even the place itself: who wants to go to a remote park on the outskirts of the city to protest? No one has enough fervour or courage to illegally go out onto the main square.”

On this, Olzhas and the president’s chief political adviser, Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, can agree. “They are poorly organised, and have no financial support. They don’t have any ideology. They can’t propose anything that could compete with the president’s policies.”

Opposition murders

But Kozlov says that in today’s Kazakhstan, it is almost impossible for genuine opponents of the government to succeed.

“The regime uses many ways to limit us. They start criminal cases. People leave the country because they want to avoid prison. Or they can just shoot people, like they did with Altynbek Sarsenbaev.”

Sarsenbaev is one of a number of opposition figures who were murdered or who died in suspicious circumstances over the previous decade. He was gunned down along with his bodyguard and driver in February 2006.

Those deaths led to jail sentences for state security officers and the resignation of president Nazarbayev’s then head of national security.

Yermukhamet Yertysbayev says the president is aware of what has been happening in the Middle East. But he says Egypt and Kazakhstan share little in common.

“President Nazarbayev has learnt a lot from the revolutions, and he does want changes. In our country, a lot of young people go abroad to study. Here even menial work in the street markets can earn a man 30 to 40 dollars a day. In Cairo, they can earn just a dollar or two a day.”

Economic divide

Compared to Egypt, Kazakhstan’s 16 million strong population fares better on paper. Per capita gross domestic product is more than 9,000 dollars – four times greater than Egypt’s.

And Nazarbayev is credited with steering his country out of near economic ruin in the 1990s to become the region’s most successful economy with major foreign investment and money generated by its vast mineral resources.

If economic hardship is not a powerful enough incentive to bring people onto the streets, political scientist Mia Olsson says that Kazakhstan lacks the kind of politicised class movement that can organise mass protest.

“The big difference is that in Egypt and Tunisia there’s a large middle class unconnected to the elites. In Kazakhstan, the extremely wealthy are linked to the oil industry. They’re the economic elite and often the same people as the political elite. A separate, middle class is lacking.”

In the absence of a developed civil society, the president’s party Nur Otan has a virtual monopoly on political action. In the run-up to the poll, young party activists sporting baseball caps and tops emblazoned with the slogans “Nazarbayev, Our President” and “We are voting for our Leader” could be seen canvassing the public in hospitals, shopping malls and parks.

Three candidates, virtual unknowns, are running against Nazarbayev. Publicly, none have criticised the incumbent. The boycott lobby and other parties that did not field anyone have described them as stooges entered to provide a veneer of respectability to the race.

Mels Yeleusizov is an environmentalist who has stood against Nazarbayev before. At a tree planting ceremony, he says he knows he cannot win but runs in order to raise awareness about ecology, acknowledging Nazarbayev as “an outstanding politician, number one”.

Revolutionary neighbour

If Egypt is a long way from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan is much closer. Its impoverished and chaotic neighbour has experienced its own special run of revolutions – once in 2005, and again in 2010.

On those occasions, public supporters of politicians that had fallen from grace brought down sitting presidents who were perceived to have allowed their families to grow fat on corruption.

Much of the media in Kazakhstan portrayed the Kyrgyz revolutions as negative events that threatened to endanger stability in Kazakhstan. The same media extols the virtues of Nazarbayev on a daily basis.

In its interim report published ahead of Sunday’s poll, the OSCE observer mission described Kazakhstan’s media as restricted. Legal provisions, it said, contributed to self-censorship.

Professor Nargis Kassenova of the European Union Central Asia Advisory Group says most of the media is simply propaganda for the president.

“The information people receive makes them think he’s the only one. Without him they think there will be war or poverty like the rest of Central Asia. The comparison really helps him stay popular.”

Unease in the halls of power

Privately, senior government officials have stated their concerns about the next presidential term, which Nazarbayev is expected to inherit on Sunday. Professor Kassenova says the regime is worried about the future.

“They’re in a stalemate. I think there is a general realisation that the system is stagnating. There’s no fresh blood, fresh brains. It’s all built around one figure – the president. He is 70. He can’t last forever. They don’t know what to do when he goes.”

Behind the scenes, palace politics is said to have intensified of late, with the recent appointment of the Kazakh parliament’s Speaker as the head of the U.N.’s office in Geneva.

Senior figures are believed to be wrangling for his job, a prized possession. According to the Kazakh constitution, the Speaker inherits the presidency in the event of Nazarbayev’s death.

That still leaves the question of how political change will eventually come unanswered.

*Published under an agreement with Al-Jazeera.

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