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Kazakhstan: Elections Drew Low Turnout

  • Bruce Pannier

Kazakhstan's elections to the lower house of parliament yesterday drew the lowest turnout of any election held in Central Asia in the past eight years. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier looks at the disappointment greeting the country's first experiment with party lists.

Prague, 11 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In Kazakhstan's elections for its lower house of parliament, or Mazhlis, yesterday, the country tried something new. Ten of the 77 seats were designated for competitive selection by party lists. And nine political parties openly campaigned for those 10 seats.

The innovation was part of a plan by Kazakhstan's government to push the country forward on its path toward democracy, by exposing voters to the concept of multiparty elections. But the campaign was marred by accusations of pro-government bias by the media and by local election officials. Perhaps it is not too surprising, then, that the election drew the smallest voter turnout for a Central Asian election since the region gained independence in 1991 -- assuming turnout figures for earlier polls are reliable.

Less than 24 hours after the last polls closed in Kazakhstan, officials at the Central Election Commission are already saying that because of poor turnout, there will have to be run-off elections in more than half the voting districts. Run-offs will take place in two weeks, so final election results will only be available after October 24.

Preliminary figures show that just over 60 percent of eligible voters took part in yesterday's elections. According to the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS, only 33 percent of voters in the former capital, Almaty, turned out to vote. And the current capital, Astana, did not do much better, with a turnout of 43 percent. Residents in the northern part of the country were much more politically active, at almost 74 percent turnout.

Yesterday's 60 percent voter turnout is far less than the 86 percent of the electorate that participated in the presidential election last January. It is also short of the 78 percent turnout among voters in the last elections to the Mazhlis, in December 1995.

So far, there have been few reports of irregularities in voting itself. Jack Metcalf, a member of the United States Congress, observed the elections and said they exhibited, in his words "a high degree of organization, ... such as we have in the United States."

But the irregularities reported in the campaign could account for some of the low turnout. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) sent a team to monitor Sunday's elections. At a press conference today, the head of the OSCE mission to Kazakhstan, Ihor Ostash, said, "The election to the Mazhlis of Kazakhstan marks a tentative step in the country's transition to democracy."

However, Ostash cautioned that "despite the improvements, illegal interference by authorities ... contributed to widespread expectations that the election results would be falsified and that nothing would be changed as a result of the election."

That is probably the best explanation for the disappointing turnout yesterday. Many Western news agencies noted that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is the one who really wields power in the country. During the campaign, several leaders of opposition parties justified their decisions not to field candidates by saying that the Kazakh parliament is effectively powerless. Still, the careful optimism expressed by the OSCE may at least help increase participation for the run-off elections.