Kazakhstan will be holding Parliamentary snap elections in March 2016 ultimately providing a mandate for autocratic President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The elections will not produce significant differences in the country’s political landscape which has remained relatively unchanged since Nazarbayev gained power in 1989.
Arguably, the elections in Kazakhstan are part of Nazarbayev’s attempts to make Kazakhstan appear as a democratic country and are part of Nazarbayev’s managed government or “managed democracy.” The elections are being held against the backdrop of a failing economy, low oil revenue prices and the oil crash, political dissent, and Nazarbayev’s need to be reaffirmed by the people of Kazakhstan.
The snap elections stirred up secessionist fervor and possible chances for political change among Kazakhstan observers as the country has no secessionist policy and is essentially under one-party rule. On 20 January 2016, the lower-house of the Senate, the Majlis, voted to dissolve itself; the Majlis is dominated by the Nur-Otan Party, Nazarbayev’s party. The elections, originally scheduled for late 2016 or early 2017, are scheduled for 20 March 2016.
The focus of the snap elections is economic recovery and political change. The snap elections are supported by the Majlis, and the miners and metallurgists to allow for “further implementation of reforms,” under Plan of the Nation (or “100 Steps”) and to “understand how we work in a new way, what laws should be adopted to meet the requirements of a market economy,” according to the Kazakh BNews news portal. The Head of the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan (APK) says the elections will benefit the country politically and economically. Kazakhstan’s People’s Democratic Patriotic Party, known as “Aul” Party, also supports the snap elections. Support from Aul makes the elections and the decision not so one-sided appear more competitive. The Astana Times, published astonishing, but not surprising, poll results about voting in a new Majlis and reforms: “92 percent of citizens believe the early elections make the public more confident the new reforms will be implemented.” Other poll results are similar.
Similar to April 2015 Presidential elections, the elections were held against the backdrop of increasing political dissension in the country. The government fears another 2011 Zhana Ozen protest over labor conditions, and protests similar to the protest in May 2015 in the monocity (or company town) of Temirtau.
Recently, on 12 January 2016, protests were held in Astana against the Kazakh Bank and the falling tenge. In response to economic fears, the Kazakh government now offers powdered mare’s milk on the global market which “can generate product worth $1 billion (a year)” to mitigate declining global oil prices. Another recent incident was the firing of the Sovereign Wealth Fund manager, Berik Otemurat, stated Kazakhstan’s National Oil Fund would run out in the next six or seven years. The National Oil Fund, often used as an emergency fund, has fallen 17% from $77 billion since August 2014 and the government is withdrawing about according to the Wall Street Journal. Two activists in Kazakhstan, Serizkhan Mambetalin and Ermek Narymbaev, were convicted and sent to prison for two and three respectively for Facebook posts “inciting national discord” (Article 174 of the Criminal Code) and the “authorities claimed the clips amounted to a ‘serious crime against peace and security of humankind’ ” according to Human Rights Watch. The two men were arrested in October 2015 and their trial began 9 December 2015. A third activist, Bolatbek Blyalov, has movement restricted for three years and cannot “[change] his place of residence or work, or [spend] time in public areas during his time off.” The punishment for the three activists violates many of Kazakhstan’s international commitments.
Nazarbayev’s snap elections fall into a pattern of managed governance or managed democracy. The international community repeatedly chastises Kazakhstan for failure to execute and commit to democratic reforms, failure to improve human rights abuses (without little diplomatic and international consequence), and for lack of political freedoms and party pluralism. Nazarbayev in April 2015 won the election by a landslide and Nazarbayev said it would have “looked undemocratic” for him to question election results.
Edward Schatz categorizes Kazakhstan as a soft authoritarian regime that engages in managed information and “[discourages] opposition and [encourages] pro-regime authorities.” Information management, according to Schatz, is not only through media, but by staging “many events to convey information dramatically.” Nazarbayev has a history of staging political events. Applying this notion to snap elections, Kazakhstan’s citizens know of the economic troubles. Snap elections are unnecessary to highlight the problem and snap elections give the impression the government is actively handling the problem and that political change is welcome.
Besides during election cycles, Nazarbayev effectively manages the press, limiting dissent and alternative political voices. Media freedoms in Kazakhstan declined after the Zhana Ozen protests. In-depth legal analysis by France-based group, Article 19, provided that Law No. 545-IV on Television and Radio Broadcasting (the Law) of the Republic of Kazakhstan, is “open to abuse by government” and “poses a genuine threat to freedom of expression, as well as freedom of information.” The newspaper, Pravdivaya Gazeta, critical of Kazakhstani authorities was shut down February 2014. The Respublika newspaper was shut down in 2013 and the Assandi Times faced closure in April 2014 after being affiliated with Respublika. The Assandi Times maintains an empty Facebook page. On 18 December 2015, Kazakh authorities raided the offices of investigative news outlet Nakanune.kz; as of late January 2016, the website still operates.
The snap elections in Kazakhstan are not a way to encourage civic participation in political affairs, but a way for President Nazarbayev to consolidate his autocratic power via other means besides the Presidency and to provide the image he is supported by the people. The snap elections will not produce different results but will reinforce Kazakhstan’s current policies and ways to undertake reforms. As the Kazakh economy continues to tumble and public dissatisfaction increases, it is likely activists and news outlets will face persistent censorship and scrutiny from the Kazakh government. Nazarbayev’s ability to control the media and creative interpretations of the nation’s criminal code generates further criticism from international organizations and violate Kazakhstan’s obligations to international commitments.