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Kazakhstan: Voters Take Cynical View Of Elections

  • Bruce Pannier

Kazakhstan holds run-off elections for its lower house of parliament on Sunday (Oct. 24). In the first round two weeks ago, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted some improvements over previous Kazakh elections, but found many faults. RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier says that the results of the first round, and the surprisingly low turnout, support one of the OSCE's major criticisms -- that Kazakhs do not expect much to change as a result of the elections.

Prague, 22 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Voters in Kazakhstan return to the polls Sunday to finish what they started two weeks ago -- choosing representatives to the country's lower house of parliament, or Mazhlis. Run-off elections are necessary in nearly two-thirds of the country's single-mandate districts.

In the first round, Kazakhstan's experiment with elections by party lists for 10 out of the Mazhlis's 77 seats went fairly well -- although, not surprisingly, the ruling Otan party took four of the 10 seats, more than any other single party.

But the low turnout earlier this month, and the need to hold so many run-off elections, support one of the strongest criticisms made by the election observer mission of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE). The day after the first vote, the OSCE said: "Despite improvements [over previous elections, there was] a widespread expectation that the election results would be falsified and that nothing would change as a result of the election."

In the balloting's first round, turnout was only about 60 percent of eligible voters. With an average of eight candidates competing for each seat, no candidate won the more than 50 percent of the votes necessary to win a seat in 47 of the 67 single-mandate districts. So those 47 districts must be contested again, this time with an average of two candidates running for each seat.

Forty-eight candidates in the coming race call themselves "independents." But that's a shadowy term these days in Kazakhstan, since many candidates from opposition parties have chosen to run as independents because they fear a party affiliation could damage their chances.

Two parties are seen as supporting President Nursultan Nazarbayev -- the ruling Otan group and the Civic Party. Otan has 19 candidates in the run-off elections, the Civic Party has seven. Trade unions are fielding 15 candidates, the Communist Party one, and the Azamat (Citizen) Party one as well.

Curiously, the opposition Republican People's Party has three candidates in the run-offs. This could be considered a victory for a group whose chairman -- former prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin -- is under an arrest warrant and has lived abroad for more than six months. In addition, the party announced its withdrawal from the race a month before the first round, but the national elections commission insisted the party's candidates remain on the ballot.

In addition to the four party-list seats it won, Otan took another four single-mandate seats in the first round and is expected to win at least half the 19 seats it is contesting on Sunday. Otan's ally in parliament, the Civic Party, took seven seats in the first round, and is likely to get four or more on Sunday.

Trade unions, which have gravitated toward opposition parties in the past, turned more pro-government earlier this year when authorities introduced protectionist trade policies aimed at supporting domestic industries. The unions are likely to side with the government as long as their interests are protected.

The OSCE statement after the first round said that the low turnout was due in part to fears that results would be falsified. Indeed, some of those defeated in the first round have already claimed the counts were falsified. Delays in releasing the official results fueled these accusations. Independent polls, taken on election day, showed far different results from the official count.

But whether the vote-counting was fixed or not, there is little doubt about the OSCE's observation about voter cynicism. First-round results and expectations for this Sunday's voting leave little reason to expect that radical changes are about to come to Kazakhstan.

Under recent amendments to the constitution, the executive branch of government has wide-ranging powers. What's more, the constitution gives Kazakhstan's two parliamentary chambers, the Senate and the Mazhlis, little room for political maneuvering -- one reason they have been reluctant to oppose the president. Many members of the current Mazhlis recall that the often combative chamber elected in 1994 was dissolved in March 1995 with the president's blessing.

The main problem, therefore, may not be so much the final election results -- which seem certain to support the government -- as what is likely to occur after the vote. Ultimately, President Nazarbayev makes all the important decisions in Kazakhstan. He may be guided in his decisions by officials in the government, but once his mind is made up, no political group is likely to change it.

Baltash Tursymbayev, who ran against Nazarbayev in the presidential elections early this year, expresses what is likely on the minds of many in Kazakhstan:

"The situation in Kazakhstan is getting worse. The elections were not held in a fair way. The Otan party was abruptly announced as winner. This was not true. The problem is that President Nazarbayev has the keys to all the doors of this country in his pocket. Everything is controlled by him."

But the elections to the Mazhlis have frequently been billed as a step on the path toward democracy, and there is some justice in that. The OSCE statement noted a few encouraging signs of improvement in the voting's first round -- notably, the participation of nine political parties. Some of the nine did not do very well, but all received some votes and at least four will be represented in the new Mazhlis. That could translate into greater participation at the polls on Sunday. And, if nothing else, both opposition parties and voters will have gained valuable experience in competitive, pluralistic elections.

(Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)