Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dissecting Kazakhstan's Elections

One week ago, Kazakhstan held elections for the Mazhilis and Maslikats. From the Lower Level of the Georgetown University Library, I was glued to my computer, monitoring the Twitter feeds and news updates from politicians, bloggers and journalists. The tit-for-tat between western commentators, Kazakhstani bloggers and Kazakhstani government officials was quite entertaining. For example, AP reporter Pete Leonard commented that Kazakhstan would host an election during one of the coldest months of the year and only a few minutes later Ministry of Foreign Affairs Representative Roman Vasilenko responded that during the August 2009 elections, there were comments on how Kazakhstan hosted an election during the hottest months of the year. Touché.

On a more serious note, the elections were conducted smoothly and professionally, without any major outbreaks of violence or major violations, as noted by most international observers such as the SCO and CSTO. The Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) acknowledged that the elections were technically well administered and produced a multi-party parliament, but concluded that they were not “genuinely pluralistic elections.”  In its statement of preliminary findings and conclusions released on January 16th, the OSCE declared that the elections “did not meet [the] fundamental principles of democratic elections.” The OSCE report notes how several parties were prevented from registering or deregistered by the Central Election Commission (CEC). In October 2011, a Kazakh court placed a six-month ban on the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, thereby preventing the party from participating in the January elections. On December 26, the CEC deregistered the Rukhaniyat party for alleged problems with registering party candidates. Since independence, Kazakhstan has not conducted an election deemed “free and fair” by the OSCE.

On Election Day in Zhanaozen, there was reportedly a huge security presence. While this must have contributed to a tense and uncomfortable environment, no violence broke out in the region. In Magistau region, voter turnout was relatively high at 74.2%. On Caspionet, check out a video of some U.S. commentators on the elections.

It is worth noting that there are two “communist parties” in Kazakhstan: the banned Communist Party of Kazakhstan and the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan (KKKhP).

The official election results are presented bellow. To no surprise, the Nur Otan won the majority of the votes and will be the dominant party in Parliament.

-       People’s Democratic Party “Nur Otan” - 80.74 %
-       Democratic Party of Kazakhstan “Ak Zhol” – 7.46 %
-       Communist Peoples’ Party of Kazakhstan (KKKhP) – 7.2 %
-       All-National Social Democratic Party – 1.59 %
-       Kazakhstani Social-Democratic Party “Aul” – 1.46 %
-       Party of Patriots of Kazakhstan – 0.89 %
-       Democratic Party “Adilet” – 0.66 %

But the real story is voter turnout – listed below by oblast (plus Almaty and Astana).

-       Astana city – 53.32 %
-       Almaty city – 41.38 %
-       Akmola oblast – 78.01 %
-       Aktobe oblast – 78.4 %
-       Almaty oblast – 92.6 %
-       Atyrau oblast – 83.55 %
-       East-Kazakhstan oblasts – 80.21 %
-       Zhambyl oblast – 80.83 %
-       West-Kazakhstan oblast – 71.9 %
-       Karagandy oblast – 75.2 %
-       Kostanay oblast – 84.83 %
-       Kyzylorda oblast – 80.95 %
-       Mangystau oblast – 74.2 %
-       Pavlodar oblast – 71%
-       North-Kazakhstan oblast – 80.7 %
-       South-Kazakhstan oblast – 78.76 %

What explains the low voter turnout in Almaty and Astana? I initially hypothesized that the low turnout was due to the substantial youth populations. Even in America, younger people vote in fewer numbers than their elder counterparts. I asked my friends in Almaty and Astana if they voted and received a variety of responses. One friend (age 22) commented, “why vote when you know who will win?” Another young Almaty professional who works in the PR and magazine industry (age 23) told me that neither she nor any of her friends voted. In fact, she confessed to never having participated in an election.  

Why do young Kazakhstani citizens not vote? One explanation is because people are simply not interested in politics. My friend in the PR industry said that she is so far from politics. Also, candidates usually “promise too much.” Young people are turned off by candidates who make grand proposals and create high expectations only to institute policies that fall short of campaign promises. Are politicians who make unrealistic campaign promises a sufficient reason for not voting? I argue no. As an American citizen and voter, I’m accustomed to this and I think it is fair to say that most, if not all, candidates never fulfill their campaign promises once elected to office. But that is the way things work in a democratic republic like the U.S. – or most modern democracies for that matter.

For most young people, the elections were simply not important. Several of my friends reflected this apathetic view of politics. They did not see their participation in the electoral process as a mechanism for change. Unlike their elder counterparts who grew up during the Soviet Union and participated en masse in “symbolic elections,” young people do not feel the same sense of obligation to at least go to the poll even if they know their ballot is useless. Based on my personal communications and observation of Kazakhstani and post-Soviet politics, to most young people, politics is a fixed phenomenon that operates remotely, out of touch with their day-to-day lives.

My friend in Astana gave me particularly insightful commentary. While he lives in Astana, he is registered to vote in his hometown. Kazakhstan’s law stipulates that individuals may vote in the towns they are registered to vote for but individuals who are not registered to vote in the cities they inhabit may not vote. This is not atypical – I go to school in Washington DC but am registered to vote in New Jersey. In Astana, over half of the city’s residents are from other cities. Many residents are young professionals who recently returned from completing their Bolashak scholarship at a foreign university. Many others are in the city to work. While people can complete the necessary paperwork for an out-of-city vote (absentee ballot), most people simply do not go through the hassle of doing so. While it is unclear whether the voter turnout numbers represent the percentage of total people registered to vote or are based on the cities’ populations, in any event, the lack of youth vote certainly contributed to an overall low voter turnout. The Government of Kazakhstan should make the out-of-city registration more accessible by working through universities and civil society groups, such as Toastmaster Clubs (yes, there is a civil society in the FSU). Reforms should also be implemented that reduce the amount of bureaucratic paperwork necessary to register out-of-city.
Interestingly, over half of Kazakhstanis living overseas participated in the elections according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Out of the 9,000 Kazakhs abroad, some 4,521 voted.

Elections Happened – now what?

On January 20, the CEC announced the official distribution of seats: eighty-three Nur Otan, eight Ak Zhol and seven KKKhP. The President appoints the remaining nine seats.
The January 20th session also marked the first meeting of the Mazhilis in Astana. Current Prime Minister Karim Massimov was reappointed to the post and Kairat Kelimbetov will be deputy prime minister.

The President also announced changes to the Ministries.

While it was expected that Ak Zhol and Nur Otan would be elected, the KKKhP’s victory was not widely predicted. It will certainly be interesting to monitor the legislative activity of the Mazhilis. I do not predict that there will be a major change in the country’s politics, despite the presence of three parties, due to the similarity of the three parties’ political agendas and the levels of bureaucracy, corruption and personal patronage networks deeply entrenched in the Government of Kazakhstan’s administrative apparatus. Further, individual personalities more so than political parties define the workings of Kazakhstan’s politics. One Kazakh friend noted that the KKKhP’s leader, Vladislav Kossarev, a 74-year old veteran of Kazakhstan’s politics and a loyal foe of the President, is one explanation for the Party’s success.

With elections over and a new parliament in power, all eyes are on Kazakhstan to see whether the country will truly make progress in its democratic development.

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