Prague, 12 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Like its Central Asian neighbors, Kazakhstan has a poor track record in terms of holding free, fair, and democratic elections.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declined to even send a formal election mission to monitor the last presidential ballot in January 1999, saying that minimum conditions were not in place to ensure a fair election.
"The methods of forming the election commissions should be changed, but the constitution does not allow that."
The OSCE did send observers to parliamentary elections later that same year. It found the voting to be an improvement on the presidential poll, and said the balloting had been relatively free of violations. But at the same time, the OSCE noted that intimidation and the obstruction of opposition candidates and parties "seriously undermined" democratic principles during the campaign and "contributed to widespread expectations that the election results would be falsified and that nothing would change as a result of the elections."
In 2002, Kazakhstan passed a law on political parties that imposed stringent conditions for re-registration. As a result, the country's most popular opposition groups have been barred from contesting future elections.
Over the last five years, world leaders and representatives of international organizations have repeatedly impressed on the Kazakh leadership the need to pass new election legislation that would create equal terms for all political parties and candidates.
For example, in a letter addressed to President Nursultan Nazarbayev last November, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell singled out passage of a new, more democratic election law conforming to OSCE standards as one of the most urgent priorities for the Kazakh leadership.
In the summer of 2003, having effectively sidelined opposition parties, Nazarbayev ordered the government to draft a new election law, which incorporated proposals made by the opposition Communist Party and the "constructive" opposition Aq-Zhol and Patriots parties.
Following initial debate in parliament last month, the government reportedly twice agreed to changes in a draft law aimed at ensuring fairer voting.
The Kazakh government reportedly agreed to allow representatives of political parties to join appointed officials on local election commissions. Previously, only those appointed by local officials were allowed to sit on local election commissions.
Justice Minister Onalsyn Zhumabekov announced that concession to parliament on 26 January. Zhumabekov confirmed this to RFE/RL.
"We agree with such proposals, to make executive power branches stay away from the creation of election commissions. We agree with that change, as well," Zhumabekov said.
The government also reportedly agreed to give more rights to independent observers at polling stations.
Aq-Zhol leader Alikhan Baimenov welcomed the government's compromises but said the bill still does not provide adequate protection for the rights of voters and candidates. Other opposition leaders also welcomed the concessions but agreed they do not go far enough.
However, six opposition parties aligned in the Republic group -- which has been lobbying for electoral law reform since before the 1999 parliamentary elections -- dismissed the government's concessions as "purely cosmetic.”
Parliament has since created a special commission to work on other proposed changes to the bill and is set to discuss the draft again next month.
Part of the problem of making the election law more democratic is that some of the changes the opposition says are needed are at odds with Kazakhstan's constitution. Communist Party leader Serikbolsyn Abdildin explains: "The methods of forming the election commissions should be changed, but the constitution does not allow that. It says, for example, that the Mazhlis [lower chamber of parliament] can change [the methods of forming the election commissions] only with presidential approval. The current law says that only 10 members of the Mazhlis can be elected through party lists. We want the number of the Mazhlis members to be 150 and half of them to be elected through party lists. The current law says that local governors are responsible for organization and holding of all referendums and elections. We demand [the governors] stay away from any elections."
Some deputies also are demanding the use of transparent ballot boxes in future elections, such as were provided by the OSCE for elections in Armenia and Georgia last year. The parliamentary majority has rejected that proposal, however.
Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.