In the coming months, voters in four Central Asian countries go to the polls to elect new parliamentary deputies. The elections are being viewed as the latest test of the countries' transition to democratic rule since becoming independent in 1991. In a four-part series, RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier looks at some of the issues and candidates in each of the countries. This first story focuses on Kazakhstan, which elects a new parliament in September and October.
Prague, 4 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakh voters go to the polls in September and October to elect a new parliament amid growing concerns that the country's electoral laws will have a chilling effect on opposition movements.
The first election (Sept. 17) is for the Senate, while the second vote (Oct. 10) will choose deputies to the lower house, the Mazhlis.
The Senate campaign officially began last month, with the Civil Party, loyal to President Nursultan Nazarbayev, being the first party to seek supporters in earnest. Party activists were seen in the former capital, Almaty, distributing medical equipment and drugs to hospitals. This generosity was meant to advertise the party.
Before campaigning started, several opposition parties and movements had complained about delays in the registration process by the Justice Ministry. A number of these opposition movements have now been registered.
The question that remains, however, is how much freedom opposition candidates in Kazakhstan will have to campaign without being pursued by the courts, which are largely under presidential control.
For example, Seydakhmet Quttyqadam, the leader of the opposition Orleu movement, was warned this week by an Almaty district court that remarks he made earlier this year could be interpreted as insulting to Nazarbayev's dignity.
Although Quttyqadam made the remarks five months ago, the court's warning came in the run-up to the autumn vote. While no criminal case has been started against Quttyqadam, the court's warning can be expected to stifle much of his party's strongest campaign tactics.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, Quttyqadam claimed his case is not the first instance of his movement being harassed:
"Many active members of our party are being prosecuted. One of our colleagues who is a physician was recently fired without reason. One journalist who is also a member of our party in Atyrau was also fired. A scientist, Vasily Vasilenko, was also fired. Amangeldy Subanov in Taraz City also faces numerous of problems because he is a member of our party. Marat Telekbayev, who is a doctor, professor and is a well-known scientist as well, is also expected to be fired soon. All that does not correspond to democracy."
Observers say the Quttyqadam incident is reminiscent of what happened to former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, the popular head of the People's Republican Party and challenger to Nazarbayev in presidential elections in January.
Before the vote, a Kazakh court disqualified Kazhegeldin as a candidate for participating at an unsanctioned political meeting. He's now no longer in the country after also coming under investigation for tax evasion.
The current executive chairman of the People's Republican Party, Ghaziz Aldamzharov, vented his frustration about the situation in an interview with RFE/RL:
"The most ridiculous thing is that our country is a lawless country. People in the country are not protected by laws. For example, a person is not [officially] recognized as guilty but everyone considers him guilty. If we are a real democratic state, we have to prove a person guilty through a trial and only after that can we say he is guilty. Even the investigations have not started. The election laws of Kazakhstan still have an article saying people brought to trial for breaking the law have no right to take part in elections."
Kazakhstan's electoral laws, which can ban candidates suspected -- but not yet convicted -- of committing crimes, gives the government a powerful weapon to limit the opposition.
Eric Collins is a political officer with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In an interview with RFE/RL earlier this summer, he said the OSCE is quite concerned by Kazakhstan's electoral laws. The OSCE said January's presidential vote fell far short of meeting democratic standards and has refused to recognize the vote as being valid.
Kazakhstan's Central Electoral Commission said in June, however, that it foresaw no significant changes to the country's electoral legislation.
To evade persecution by the laws, some Kazakh parliamentary candidates are considering running as independents, and only revealing their allegiances to voters -- and state investigators -- later.
Baltash Tursumbayev is a well-known Kazakh political figure and former governor of Kostanay Oblast. He says he's running as an independent candidate. Being independent seems to have emboldened Tursumbayev to level heavy criticism at parliament, as he did in an interview with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service:
"If the parliament had real power in its hands, if the parliament was really able to solve the problems faced by the nation, it could even influence the cabinet, it could even decide who is able to be a member of the government or not. It could even give real proposals to the president. But, unfortunately, the current parliament can be defined as a pocket parliament. And unfortunately, because of the current parliament, democracy in our country is stumbling."
Quttyqadam says members of the Orleu movement may also consider the advantages of running as independent candidates. He told RFE/RL that may be the only way for the movement to take part in the vote under current circumstances.
Merhat Sharipzhan of the Kazakh Service contributed to this report.