Kazakhstan will hold its first parliamentary elections on January 10 without longtime authoritarian Nursultan Nazarbaev as the president.
Nazarbaev finally stepped down in 2019 from the office he held since Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991 -- ushering in his successor, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev.
But despite a change of president, many feel Nazarbaev still rules the country.
One sign he's the country's gray eminence is the manner in which these elections to the Mazhilis, the lower house, are being conducted.
Though some hoped Toqaev would open up society and allow some freedoms absent under Nazarbaev, the upcoming vote appears to be no different than earlier ones for parliament -- none of which were deemed free or fair by Western election monitors.
And there still is no popular vote for members of the Senate, the upper house of parliament, to which 34 deputies are chosen by local "maslikhats" (councils) made up of appointed people, with the remaining 15 seats selected by the president.
To make matters worse, it seems that the few changes that are taking place in Kazakhstan seem to be for the worse.
Where's The Opposition?
In December 2019, nine months after he stepped into the president's chair, and six months after a snap presidential election that brought protesters out into the streets in nearly every major city of Kazakhstan, Toqaev promised changes.
He had created a National Council of Public Trust that recommended reforms, among them that official permission would no longer be required to hold public rallies and those wishing to form political parties would only need 20,000 members -- not the previous 40,000 -- to register.
All the same, none of the five parties competing in the upcoming elections are new* and all are pro-government.
Nur-Otan is Nazarbaev's party and therefore the favorite to once again win the majority of the 98 seats in the Mazhilis. The Auyl party, the People's Party of Kazakhstan (formerly the Communist People's Party of Kazakhstan), the Adal party (formerly the Birlik party), and Aq Zhol all back the government but are not expected to play much of a role in the new parliament.
The Nationwide Social Democratic Party (OSDP), a quasi-opposition party, was also registered on November 5 to compete with the other five but shortly after being registered, the bete noire of Kazakh politics -- fugitive banker and leader of the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement Mukhtar Ablyazov -- called on his supporters to back the Social Democrats.
But at the OSDP's congress on November 27, chairman Askhat Rakhimzhanov said, "This election campaign is no different than the previous [election campaigns]: the same rules, the same law, the same procedures, the same political parties," and announced the party was withdrawing from the vote and urged its members to boycott the elections.
After the OSDP withdrawal, Ablyazov called on his supporters to back Aq Zhol, which in its early years was an opposition party but has long since become pro-government, differing little from the other parties taking part in the elections. In response, Aq Zhol stopped accepting new members in an effort to keep out the DVK, though several supporters of Aq Zhol have been detained and party leaflets confiscated.
The independent news website Orda.kz reported on December 21 that "from October 2019 to October 2020 eight initiative groups filed documents to register as political parties. But not one new party was registered."
Forbes wrote in May 2020 about the Justice Ministry denying registration to six of seven new parties that were applying. The report did not mention the names of the parties and the only thing it said about the one party not to be rejected was that the Justice Ministry was checking to be sure none of the members were citizens of another state, employees of law enforcement bodies, soldiers, [or] judges."
Several activists gathered outside the Justice Department in the southern city of Shymkent on December 22 to protest the ministry's refusal to register the Halyq Tangdauy (People's Choice) party.
In the meantime, Kazakh authorities, with scant evidence, have branded as "extremists" Ablyazov's DVK and the Koshe Party (Street Party). Members of the two groups have also increasingly been detained in the run-up to parliamentary elections.
Rights defenders in Kazakhstan say there are some 110 people from the DVK and Koshe who have been convicted under Article 405 of the Criminal Code -- participation in a banned organization.
An activist group called Human Rights Movement 405 has been tracking detentions, arrests, and convictions of people for violating Article 405 and their posts on Twitter show a recent uptick in actions against members of the two parties, as well as activists, peaceful protesters, and bloggers.
Other groups such as #ActivistsNotExtremists, Qaharman, and Veritas have also been keeping records of activists who have been detained, arrested, or imprisoned in the weeks leading up to elections.
The Central Election Commission (CEC) has changed some of the rules for monitoring elections, requiring that election observers must obtain permission to take photos or videos of polling stations on election day.
Many domestic groups that planned to observe the elections have been denied registration to do so, often on the pretext that they did not submit the required paperwork, though some of these groups have complained that authorities are now asking for an enormous amount of documents.
There will be 398 international election observers, but 227 of those are from the Commonwealth of Independent States. Fifteen are from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, seven from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and a combined 16 from the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking Countries and the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic-Speaking Countries.
The election-monitoring body of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights -- is sending 42 observers and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly nine more. The remaining 76 accredited observers are from 31 countries.
The CEC chairman is Berik Imashev, whose daughter, Aida, is married to Nurali Nazarbaev, Nazarbaev's grandson.
Representatives from the five parties competing in the elections did participate in televised debates, but even the pro-government media outlet Kazinform found it difficult to make them interesting since no one truly spoke out against government policies.
Kazinform reported on December 30 that the representatives "outlined the plans of Kazakhstan's economic development, asked each other questions, and touched upon economic development, food security, social themes, problems in the agro-industrial sector, and so on."
None of the debaters had anything critical to say about the way Kazakhstan is governed or recommendations for real changes.
Conspicuously absent from the debate was any mention of Kazakhstan's sovereignty, which was cast into doubt recently by two deputies from Russia's State Duma.
Defending Kazakhstan's sovereignty and territorial integrity might seem like an easy way to score points among the electorate, but the subject was never mentioned.
It also appears that the first parliamentary elections with Toqaev as president have failed to generate much interest among the general population.
The very predictable results of a big win for Nur-Otan will do little to increase public trust in Toqaev's government or to calm growing tensions in Kazakhstan as the people tire of controlled elections.
Aigerim Toleukhanova of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, contributed to this report.