Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Election Post 3: Interpreting the results


It was a busy, but fascinating, trip to Astana. Over the course of four days, I interviewed a former Nur-Otan Mazhilis member, a current Nur Otan Mazhilis candidate, a political operative for Ak Zhol, an Ak Zhol Mazhilis candidate, citizens at various polling stations, and even had an opportunity to ask President Nazarbayev aquestion! I will not comment on the administration of the elections, since I am not an expert in that area; please refer to the OSCE. Rather, this blog serves as a platform through which to understand the political dynamics within Kazakhstan.

The polls closed 8 PM Sunday evening, and the preliminary results were televised in the middle of the night, with the Central Election Commission (CEC) announcing the official results around noon on Monday.

Kazakhstanis came out en masse to vote, with turnout at 77% according to the CEC. This is in line with turnout in the January 2012 Parliamentary elections, which was at 75.44%. But high turnout numbers is a Soviet legacy; the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was consistently re-elected with over 90% turnout. Interestingly, turnout was low in Almaty city – at around 33%. While the head of the Commission for the Control of Elections Nurlan Erimbetov attributed this low figure to internal migration and registration, other factors that likely contributed to this include the Nowruz holiday and the city’s generally liberal, business-focused orientation.

In the January 15, 2012 parliamentary elections, Nur Otan secured 80.99% of the votes of 83 deputy seats; Ak Zhol received 7.47% and 8 seats, while the Communist Party of Kazakhstan (CNPK) secured 7.19% and 7 seats.  

To no surprise, the results of Sunday’s election preserve the existing structure of the Mazhilis. The ruling Nur Otan Party, having secured over 82% of the vote, retains its majority in the Mazhilis. The CNPK and the Ak Zhol Democratic Party secured 7.14% and 7.18 % of the vote, respectively. These three parties passed the necessary 7% threshold to serve in the Mazhilis, as none of the three smaller parties reached this critical number. The parties “Birlik”, the Social Democratic Party (OSDP) and “Ayul”, earned 0.29%, 0.18% and 2.0% of the votes, respectively.

On March 22, the CEC posted the numerical results by region. I attached some graphs below, and a deeper analysis of the numbers reveals some interesting trends. First, the OSDP secured 9.9% in Almaty city, effectively taking 10% of the electorate away from Nur Otan, and reducing its share of the vote to 70.10%. Ak Zhol and Birlik also performed best in Almaty. Meanwhile, the largely agricultural, social-oriented Ayul party performed best in Mangistay oblast, an oil-rich region that has experienced some civil unrest in recent times, securing 3.89% of the vote. The KNPK secured 8.58% in Zhambyl oblast – an agricultural and trading region in the southern part of the country that neighbors Kyrgyzstan. The KNPK even outperformed Ayul in SKO and Zhambyl oblasts. I suspect this is largely due to demographics, as older voters tend to gravitate towards the KNPK. Nur Otan’s stellar performance in the capital city of Astana (85.18%) comes as no surprise.  

In its analysis, the OSCE noted that the elections were “efficiently organized, with some progress,” but still did not satisfy Kazakhstan’s OSCE election commitments. The OSCE based its preliminary conclusions on over 125,000 data points collected by their team of 250 observers who visited 1,433 polling stations out of some 9,400 throughout the country. During Monday’s press conference, OSCE representatives observed that the elections did not present voters with “genuine political choice” and there is a “lack of pluralism of opinion in the media.” The results of the election, general media campaign, and my interviews largely confirm the OSCE’s statement with respect to the absence of political pluralism.

While the parties held their first, live televised debates, there was much more agreement than disagreement between the parties. A reading of each party’s pre-election party platforms reveals very little ideological differences between them; they all emphasize societal stability, unity and security, albeit with some nuances. For example, Nur Otan’s party platform emphasizes modernization of the energy industry (which is desperately needed), while the Ayul party positions itself as a party of agriculturalists that promotes the interests of rural inhabitants. Meanwhile, the OSDP advocates on behalf of social issues, and is largely comprised of urban intellectual elites (based on my observations and discussions). But there are others who would disagree with my interpretation. According to my interview with an Ak Zhol candidate, Ak Zhol is a party of businessmen. To him, Nur Otan is the Centrist Party, Ak Zhol is right of Nur Otan, and the remaining parties are left-leaning.

To explain the dismal performance of the smaller parties, we must first resolve the question – what is the purpose of a political party?

On a basic level, political parties exist to elect individuals to political office. Parties aggregate voters and present opinions at the political level, during elections. When officials are in power, the party modus operandi ensures that all elected officials adhere to the party ideology. This is particularly true of Nur Otan, as its members are known for their unabated commitment to the party line. One official shared that it is difficult for parliamentarians to negotiate with Nur Otan because of the “party discipline.”

Whereas moderate officials who are capable of compromising with members across party lines are generally lauded in the US, Kazakhstan lacks this legislative culture of compromise and inter-party negotiations. Nur Otan members tend to vote as a unified block, and any member who votes differently from the rest of the party is penalized – usually by being excluded from the party list during the next round of elections. One political operative added that it is difficult to negotiate a policy agenda with Nur Otan because of the party’s ideological stringency. “We do not negotiate with individual members, but with the leadership, which sets the agenda that the entire party follows unequivocally,” one political insider shared. 

The primacy of the party line helps explain why there is such a high degree of turnover in Mazhilis members, as in the fifth session of the Mazhilis, according to my estimates based on data from the Mazhilis website, only 6% of delegates served four terms, 5% served three terms, 30% had served two terms, and 61% were first-time delegates.

Without officials in public office, smaller parties have, at best, a fragile structure.  One political strategist observed that it is difficult to muster the time, energy, human resources and financial means necessary to sustain a political party when there is no official in power to act as a mechanism for the realization of a capable of realizing a given party’s ideological agenda. It is also challenging for smaller parties to mobilize resources when they have two months’ notice prior to an election. If elections were to occur in a regularly, scheduled interval, then parties would be able to adequately prepare. Thus, smaller parties should not be perceived as unambitious or as marginally interested in Kazakhstan’s political development, rather, their sparsity reflects the country’s political environment.

To that end, insofar as Nur Otan has been the dominant party since 1998, and its leader, President Nursultan Nazarbayev is the head of state, this blurs the line between the state and political party. The President symbolizes the state and the party, or as one Mazhilis candidate put it, “President Nazarbayev is our future, as he is both an institution (institutitzia) and an individual (lichnost’)”. Voters, in turn, tend to associate the party with the President, and it is difficult for non-Nur Otan candidates, and ideas, to gain entry into the political scene, especially in the context of Kazakhstan’s conservative – what one political observer described as “Asiatic” – political culture. Kazakhstani culture values hierarchy in social, familial and political matters. Allegiance to the state and unity are also important norms, as the words “unity” and “stability” appeared in the pre-election platforms of all political parties. In this cultural context, any opposition to Nur Otan could be misconstrued as defiance to the state.

In many ways, this political structure is a consequence of the Soviet Union, when there was unabated loyalty to the Communist party and any digression from the party line was akin to treason. But as Kazakhstan, a young government of only 25 years, develops, and the older cadre is replaced with newer, younger deputies, this dated ideology of party rule should disappear.

But there are also other measures that can be taken to foster party pluralism.

Irregularly scheduled elections, while constitutionally permissible, are problematic, in that it is nearly impossible for smaller parties to gain entry to elected office. As noted in a previous post, changing the campaign period requires constitutional amendments. This requires significant reforms to the legal code, which the Kazakhstani authorities have committed to doing in 2017, as well as political will.

Beyond legal reforms, the government should take an active effort to foster greater compromise between the political parties when ratifying legislation. In the sixth session of the Mazhilis, the government should make efforts to foster greater inter-party negotiations. Mazhilis debates should be recorded and available for public viewing, along with written transcripts. These measures to foster transparency would give the population insights into the process of lawmaking, as currently, only the results are published. This would also foster accountability.

All in all, the election was a way for the people of Kazakhstan to renew the status-quo. The Kazakhstani people, in voting for Nur Otan, chose security and stability, as they know what to expect. But the elections lacked political pluralism due to the structure of Kazakhstani politics and society. This, however, can change, so long as the new government uses the legitimacy the people of Kazakhstan have bestowed upon it to foster greater political pluralism.

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