Monday, January 9, 2012

Barring Elections in Zhanaozen is a Blow to Democracy in Kazakhstan


We are a little under a week away until Kazakhstan's elections for the Mazhilis and Maslikats scheduled for January 15th. A lot has happened in Kazakhstan since December 16th -- the deregistration of the Rukhaniyat party on December 29th, the banning of elections in Zhanaozen and the extension of the state of emergency until January 31st, and the banning of 10 Adilet candidates from running for maslikats for the city of Almaty, just to name a few. During the next week, all eyes are on Kazakhstan. Who knows what to expect? 

In the middle of the Russian Orthodox Christmas, President Nursultan Nazarbayev extended the state of emergency in Zhanaozen, a setback for the apparent transparency by the regime. On January 6th, a Kazakh government official announced that parliamentary elections scheduled for January 15th would not occur in Zhanaozen due to the state of emergency. 

There are wrong-doers on both sides of the December 16th events – the police should not have shot innocent people, as Youtube video demonstrates, and protesters should not have stormed the stage, set buildings on fire and loot ATMs. With that said, the cancelation of parliamentary elections in Zhanaozen deprives Kazakhstani citizens of their constitutional right to vote and is a negation of all of the Government’s claims to transparency, democratic governance and electoral processes.

Banning elections in Zhanaozen will have long-term consequences, as citizens are not able to decide their elected representatives. Their elected government officials will not represent them, thereby fostering further distrust of the regime. Instead, Presidential Nazarbayev will appoint officials who will be responsive to his interests, rather than to the will of the people. Assuming that no early elections are called and elected representatives are able to fulfill their five-year term, depriving Zhanaozen citizens their right to vote now results in no government representation at least until 2016. Further, while the regime has no intention of intensifying the Zhanaozen conflict, over time, anti-government, pro-democracy forces will cite the government action as a rallying cry for group mobilization.

In a democratic state, voting is one of the primary mechanisms through which citizens articulate their interests. Eliminating this peaceful and democratic channel of communication between elected officials and the polity will prompt citizens to adopt other mechanisms of voicing their interests – such as violence. From the Arab Spring revolutions, the regime has learned how to maximize the appearance of transparency through social media networks and has created a fabulous new website for young bloggers to virtually engage with civil society. However, the government failed to learn a key lesson: do not mess with elections.

It is important to remember that the January 15th elections were organized after President Nazarbayev dissolved the Mazhilis and signed a declaration for early elections on November 16th. The elections were previously scheduled for August 2012. The decision to dissolve the Mazhilis and elect a new body was defended by President Nazarbayev in order to elect at least two political parties to parliament in accordance with the 2009 amendments to the National Constitutional Law on elections and to establish firm, national leadership in the wake of global financial instability. Prime Minister Karim Massimov asserted that new elections present “an excellent opportunity to once again demonstrate the democratic development of our country.”

The government’s interjection of elections in Zhanaozen delegitimizes its claim of commitment to a democratic transition. Eliminating the votes of the industrial laborers makes a mockery of the entire election.

Constitutional Council President Igor Rogov asserted on behalf of the Government that elections can only occur “in an environment of stable public security and order, in the presence of a number of necessary conditions, including proper implementation of citizens' rights to freedom of movement, association, meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches, picket lines to receive and impart information.” While Rogov’s point is valid, elections have occurred in conflict-afflicted regions such as Sudan, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Nigeria and Pakistan. The 1984 elections in Nicaragua occurred while the country was under a state of emergency, which had been implemented two years earlier.  It is not impossible to carry out electoral processes in regions recovering from war or currently in the midst of civil strife. Doing so requires increased allotment of resources into security and ensuring the transparent and efficient administration of elections by international observers.

Banning elections in a region under a state of emergency during a national parliamentary election is a unique policy option that is virtually unprecedented in the modern history of states.

There is precedent for leaders postponing elections after a state of emergency. Pervez Musharraf postponed Pakistani parliamentary elections in Pakistan after a two-month state of emergency in 2007. But Musharraf did not cancel elections. In Kyrgyzstan, in response to the June 2010 violence in Jalalabad, Rosa Otunbayeva cancelled elections for the country. Elections for the president occurred in October 2011, when the entire country was able to participate.

One state in which certain regions were restricted from carrying out elections was Nigeria. In April 2011, gubernatorial elections in the Nigerian states of Bauchi and Kaduna were postponed due to administrative problems and violence in the aftermath of the Presidential election. At the time, President Goodluck Jonathan contemplated implementing a state of emergency if there was no cessation of violence. Ultimately, elections in Bauchi and Kaduna were delayed by two days.

The Government of Kazakhstan should have followed Nigeria’s example and postpone elections in Zhanaozen, rather than canceling them. Or, the regime should have taken measures to ensure the successful conduct of elections during the state of emergency or postponed the elections until February or even as late as August, when the elections were originally scheduled to occur. There are clearly policy alternatives to barring elections.

Conducting parliamentary elections whereby the entire nation can participate would render them more legitimate to domestic and international observers and be a decisive step forward for Kazakhstan’s democratic development. Sadly, the Kazakhstan regime violated the basic tenant of democracy by closing the electoral channel for citizen participation in the state.

As always, comments are welcomed. Thanks for reading!

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