Thursday, March 17, 2016

Election Post 1: Reassessing how we analyze elections

Comrades,

This is the first of several posts on the Mazhilis election in Kazakhstan that are set to occur on Sunday, March 20. Neither American-style campaigns nor its culture of active, and at times outlandish, political rhetoric exist in this part of the world. Though, some could argue that Donald Trump’s flamboyant remarks qualify him as the American-equivalent of Russian LDPR politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Nonetheless, objective analysis of Kazakhstan’s parliamentary elections requires first an understanding of the country’s legislative history, government structure and electoral processes, and second, an acceptance that Kazakhstan is not the United States. In short, lower your expectations. 

Kazakhstan’s current government structure dates back to August 30, 1995, when the second constitution was adopted in a national referendum. Though, subsequent rounds of constitutional amendments made in 2003, 2004 and May 2007 expanded the number of deputies in the Mazhilis and altered other structures as well. Between Kazakhstan’s Declaration of independence in December 1991, and August 1995, the young country experimented with a series of different structures. The Soviet-elected Supreme Kenges was repeatedly disbanded: Kazakhstan operated without a parliament from December 1993 to May 1994. The first post-Soviet constitution was adopted in January 1993 and remained in force until December 1993, when the President invited the Supreme Kenges to dissolve itself. While the new constitution was being drafted, Nazarbayev ruled by Presidential Decree between March 1995 and August 30, 1995. This early experience with different constitutions is normal for a young country. After all, the newly liberated thirteen original colonies were governed under the Articles of Confederation between 1781 and 1789, before the Constitution was adopted in 1789. France experienced four republics between 1792 and 1958, and the United Kingdom’s system of constitutional rule evolved over hundreds of years and through the course of various episodes of bloodshed (note the UK does not have a written constitution). As William Churchill so prudently observed, “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” In short, democratic governance is no easy triumph. 

Under the second constitution adopted in 1995, Kazakhstan contains a bicameral legislature – the Senate and Mazhilis. The upper chamber, the Senate, is comprised of two representatives from each of the fourteen districts of the country plus representatives from the cities of Almaty and Astana. Each Senator serves for six years, and similar to the US, half of the Senators are up for elections every three years. The lower house, the Mazhilis, includes 107 deputies, 98 of which are elected by a popular vote from a party list, with the remaining nine deputies appointed by the Assembly of Nations of Kazakhstan (ANK).

As you may recall from my blog leading up to the April 2015 Presidential elections, the ANK is a body of 382 delegates appointed by regional governments that responds directly to the President. Its charter is to promote interethnic relations, and its members are nominated by local governments (Akims). While the Assembly lacks substantial de juro authority, as a state organ, it has demonstrated its ability to influence political life. For example, last year it was the ANK that initiated the call for an early Presidential election. Plus, in any capital city, there is a large degree of informal socialization and interaction between government officials, so the ANK is not to be overlooked. Already, the ANK, has nominated nine delegates for its block for the sixth session of the Mazhilis, three of which are currently sitting deputies in the so-called “ANK bloc” in the Mazhilis.

Many critics contest that Kazakhstan has never held a regularly-scheduled election. Yet, every single election that has occurred in Kazakhstan has been announced earlier in the election cycle than it was in the preceding cycle, with voters going to the polls within two months of the announcement. A closer reading of Kazakhstan’s constitution reveals that unscheduled elections are not only culturally acceptable, but legally permissible. In other words, Kazakhstan’s election essentially safeguards a system of irregularly scheduled elections.

Section IV, Article 51 of the 1995 Constitution states:

The election of deputies of the Majilis is carried out on the basis of universal, equal and direct suffrage by secret ballot. Nine deputies of the Majilis are elected by the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan. Regular elections of deputies of the Majilis shall be held no later than two months before the end of the term of the current Parliament.

Since the fifth session of the Mazhilis was elected in January 2012, by law, an election for the sixth session of the Mazhilis must occur before November 2016 (two months before January). Furthermore, Section IV, Article 51 continues,

Extraordinary elections of the deputies of Parliament shall be held within two months from the date of early termination of powers accordingly the Parliament or the Mazhilis of the Parliament.

Thus, by law, an election is required to occur within two months from the date of dismissal of the existing parliament. Since the fifth session of the Mazhilis was dissolved in January, an election is constitutionally required to occur in March.

Calling the elections themselves “irregularly scheduled” does not accurately capture the political perspective inside the country. During a visit to Almaty this past January, prior to the announcement of elections, a journalist friend of mine noted that elections would be held this year before November. He was anticipating the announcement for elections in the spring. Low and behold, he was right.

Whether this system of, what I like to call, “elections by declaration” is beneficial for the development of a transparent, stable and democratic political system, is a separate question and one that should be deliberated within, and outside of Kazakhstan. There should also be a discussion with respect to timing, as the elections coincide with the Persian New Year, Nauruz, and occur on the start of a week-long country-wide holiday. Such timing could adversely impact voter turnout.

For now, though, referring to the Mazhilis elections as “early” is not accurate, as “elections by declaration” have become a part of the country’s political culture. For better or for worse, there is no Super Tuesday in November or spring caucuses – elections occur two months after they are announced.


That’s all for now. Until next time, in Astana!

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