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Kazakhstan Holds Elections for a New Parliament

On September 19, Kazakhstan held the first round of elections for a new Majilis (lower parliamentary body). Second-round run-offs are being held on October 3, but the first round already established the contours of the complete results. In addition to parties formed around the persons of President Nursultan Nazarbaev (Otan) or his daughter Dariga Nazarbaeva (Asar), the technocratic Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) and Ak Zhol, which emerged from it, were among those running candidates. The conduct of the elections was better than in other Central Asian states, but exit polls were diverged markedly from the official results, which give Otan a majority in the chamber. Important structural impediments to de-authorization and democratization remain, but they are not insurmountable. However, the longer reform is delayed, the more endemic they will become.


In 1994 Kazakhstan elected its First (post-Soviet) Parliament, on the basis of the country’s first post-Soviet constitution. It was dissolved very soon thereafter when, on the basis of accusation of electoral fraud by one anti-Nazarbaev candidate in a single electoral district, the Constitutional Court ruled the entire parliament to be illegal. President Nursultan Nazarbaev then ruled by decree for over a year. In December 1995 Kazakhstan elected its Second Parliament. Its influence was reduced by a new constitution and by its removal to the new capital Aqmola, subsequently renamed Astana.

In October 1999 the country elected its Third Parliament. Its lower house is the now-outgoing Majilis. (The upper house, the Senate, is not elected.) In preparation for the 1999 elections, political formations surviving from 1995 regrouped themselves. The People's Unity Party of Kazakhstan, universally known by its Russian acronym SNEK, amalgamated into the Otan (Fatherland) Party with some smaller parties that were equally pro-Nazarbaev. At the same time two other parties, the Civil Party and the Agrarian Party, no less supportive of the regime and its president, formed out of the regroupings of smaller parties. These three became the largest parties in the Third (1999) Majilis: Otan gained 28 seats, Civil Party 19, and Agrarian Party 9; also represented was the Auyl ("Village") Party likewise with 9; and there were 10 unaffiliated deputies, plus 10 more directly appointed by Nazarbaev himself.

Since then Dariga Nazarbaeva, the president's daughter and head of the country's dominant TV-and-press conglomerate, has formed the Asar party, which due to regroupings in the Majilis since 1999 already counted two deputies before elections took place. Running candidates as well in 2004 is the dissident but regime-supportive party Ak Zhol, led by former deputy prime minister Oraz Dzhandosov. Ak Zhol was formed from out of the split of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) movement after its two other leaders were sentenced to prison on charges widely viewed as politically motivated: Mukhtar Ablyazov, also a former member of Nazarbaev's cabinet and head of the Temirbank financial group, requested and was granted a pardon; while Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, once Nazarbaev's prefect in Pavlodar, was moved to house arrest days before the elections. In the present elections, DCK is running candidates in a bloc with the Communist Party of Kazakhstan (CPK), which survives from the 1995 elections but does not descend even indirectly from the Soviet-era CPK. Also surviving from the 1995 elections are the Agrarian Party and Civic Party, which together formed the AIST bloc for the 2004 elections.


Several days before the first-round parliamentary elections held on 19 September 2004, the Institute for Socioeconomic Information and Forecasts in Almaty announced the results of a pre-election poll that it had conducted. Predicting voter turnout at about 60 percent (in the event, it was around 56), the institute's head Sabit Zhusupov also said it would conduct exit polls on the day of the election encompassing no fewer than 400,000 voters (or one in ten of the eventual turnout). A comparison between the pre-election poll and the exit poll is instructive. According to the exit poll, slightly less than one-third of voters had cast ballots for Otan (32.8 percent as against 28.1 in the pre-election poll), slightly more than one-fifth for Ak Zhol (20.9 percent as against 22.9 in the pre-election poll), and slightly more than one-sixth for Asar (17.6 percent as against 24.6 in the pre-election poll). All other parties received fewer than ten percent in the pre-election poll; Zhusupov's exit poll gave the CPK/DCK bloc 8.7 percent, just behind the 9.6 percent received by the AIST bloc.

The official first-round results gave 60.6 percent to Otan, followed by Ak Zhol with 12.0 percent, Asar with 11.4 percent, and AIST with 7.1 percent. (A handful of other parties also contested the elections, but the law establishes a threshold of 7 percent to gain representation.) The 77-member Majilis is elected through 67 single-member constituencies and 10 seats elected by party lists. The law mandates a second-round run-off if no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote in a given constituency. Forty-five of the 67 deputies were elected on the first round, and of these 33 are from Otan, nine from AIST, and two from Asar with eight independents. Ak Zhol won representation only through the party-list voting, with one of the ten deputies elected by that method; Otan took seven of the others, with Asar and AIST each also taking one. Otan is thus guaranteed 40 of the 77 seats even before the second round takes place. The CPK/DCK bloc won no seats under either method.

The only member of Nazarbaev's cabinet to belong to either Ak Zhol or DCK, the Ak Zhol leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev, appointed July 12 as information minister (a post he held under Nazarbaev for much of the 1990s), resigned in protest against widespread fraud. Russian and CIS observers have stated that the elections were satisfactory, while an official American statement has declared them to be more democratic than past elections in Kazakhstan. The OSCE report took note of improvements over 1999 but remained critical and gave detail of numerous shortcomings, including media bias and voter intimidation.


One positive factor favoring progress is the ongoing generational change in the Kazakhstani elite that empirical sociological research has established to be taking place. DCK embodies this inevitable movement; it and Ak Zhol grow out of the need for and constituency of younger and technocratic managers. Ak Zhol is well-connected among the ethnic Kazakh business elite that has emerged since independence. However, the extension of Ak Zhol's or DCK's influence and the prospect for ultimate political reform are complicated by the fact that procedures for political decision making remain far from routinized and rationalized.

An aide to President Nazarbaev has recently opined that, on the basis of the announced results, Otan should be considered Kazakhstan's "ruling party" and be institutionalized as such. It is not out of the question that a "one-party-dominant" system in Kazakhstan around a pro-presidential (rather than "ruling") party may lead to a genuine multiparty system that culminates in the legitimate alternation of another party in power: Mexico followed a similar pattern in the twentieth century. If that occurs, Kazakhstan's level of social and economic development suggests that it should not be necessary to wait, as did Mexico, many decades for this to come to pass. Also the cultural requisites for a multiparty system are better established in Kazakhstan. A more apposite case would be post-colonial India. There the alternation in power of another party occurred in three decades after independence, a period only twice the present lifetime of sovereign Kazakhstan. Nevertheless, the present political system remains highly "presidential" with little substantive role for parliament. The question for Kazakhstan, under its present constitution, is whether the political executive will allow a multiparty system genuinely to emerge.

The greatest fundamental restraint on de-authoritarization and democratization in Kazakhstan is continuing restriction upon the growth of socio-economic strata interested in and capable of supporting real alternative parties. There is no growth in Kazakhstan of an upper-middle-class to complement its emerging lower-middle-class. It is still easy to establish a modest small enterprise but much more difficult to expand into, or to establish outright, a more substantial medium-sized enterprise. This results from conscious policy decisions at the highest leadership levels. The second, and related, greatest problem blocking de-authoritarization and democratization is the absence of a public sphere. "Social opinion" exists in Kazakhstan but it would be incorrect to speak of "public opinion," because there are no regular public forums for social opinion to aggregate, manifest politically, and engage in dialogue with officialdom. That is due to the second greatest fundamental restraint on de-authoritarization and democratization in the country. This is the distortion of the media system, which remains under the direct and indirect control of members of the president's family, not least the president's daughter Dariga Nazarbaeva, head of the Asar party.

Copyright © Robert M. Cutler unless otherwise noted.
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First published in Central Asia -­ Caucasus Analyst vol. 6, no. 20 (6 October 2004): 5–6.

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