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Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, the leader of the opposition Nationwide Social-Democratic Party previously ran for president against current longtime incumbent Nursultan Nazarbaev, but only garnered around 6 percent of the vote.

Out of six parties* competing for seats in the Mazhilis, Kazakhstan's lower house of parliament, in the March 20 elections, there is one that could be considered a genuine opposition party: the Nationwide Social-Democratic Party (NSDP). The NSDP probably doesn't have much of a chance, considering the history of Kazakhstan's parliamentary elections since 2004, but the presence of an opposition party shows Kazakhstan's government has not totally forsaken the idea of political pluralism, as three other Central Asian regimes have already done.

The NSDP kicked off campaigning on February 23 with a press conference in Almaty. The chairman of the party's campaign team, Aydar Alibaev, wanted to acquaint voters with the NSDP's platform. However, even the best of platforms, even during these difficult economic times in Kazakhstan, is not likely to have much of an effect on the outcome of the vote next month.

The NSDP party has some veteran politicians running as candidates, including former deputies Baltash Tursumbaev, Bolat Abishev, Serikbay Alibaev, Petr Sovik, Zuaresh Battalova, and Ualikhan Kaysarov.

But the favorite to win seats in the March elections is the ruling Nur-Otan party led by President Nursultan Nazarbaev. And among Nur-Otan's candidates are the Kazakh president's eldest daughter, Darigha, world middleweight boxing champion Gennady Golovkin, actor Nurlan Alimjanov, who played Nazarbaev in a film about the president's youth, popular singer Kayrat Nurtas, and other celebrities.

Additionally, the NSDP has only 23 candidates running for the 98 seats available, while Nur-Otan has 127 candidates. The other four parties, all pro-government, have a combined 84 candidates.

In the three parliamentary elections since 2004, opposition parties have managed to win one seat (Ak Zhol in 2004).

'Paid' Opposition

Another handicap for the NSDP might be the party leader Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, a former chairman of the Mazhilis. Tuyakbai was a member of Otan, now the Nur-Otan party, but in October 2004 he left the party claiming there were violations in the parliamentary elections in March of that year.

In 2005, the now-defunct For A Just Kazakhstan movement nominated Tuyakbai to run against Nazarbaev for the presidency. Tuyakbai predictably lost but managed to receive some 6.6 percent of the vote. Tuyakbai met with Nazarbaev in 2007 in Nazarbaev's office, sparking rumors Tuyakbai could never shake that he was a "paid" opposition figure.

Another challenge the NSDP faces is conducting a campaign. At a party event in Astana, similar to the one in Almaty, NSDP member Askhat Rahimzhanov said the party would be relying on the Internet and social networks to get their message out to voters. "We don’t have money for typical campaigning: leaflets, banners, and television [promotion] spots," Rahimzhanov said.

Some at the February 23 briefing noted that the support base for the NSDP is people approaching, or over 50 years of age, so there are questions as to how effective campaigning on the Internet can be for the party.

The NSDP also said it was prepared to participate in debates with any of the parties competing in the upcoming elections.

It will be interesting to see how the NSDP fares in the campaign and at the polls. But even if the party does poorly, as it very well might, at least there is actually an opposition party competing in these elections. That is more than anyone will be able to say about the next parliamentary elections in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, or Uzbekistan.

With help from Yerzhan Karabek and Asylkhan Mamashuly of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service
*There is a seventh registered political party in Kazakhstan -- Azat -- which is an opposition party but has been dormant since leader Bolat Abilov left its ranks in autumn 2013.

A court in Saudi Arabia has sentenced a man to 10 years in prison and 2,000 lashes for expressing his atheism in hundreds of Twitter posts.

The online daily Al-Watan said on February 27 that religious police in charge of monitoring social networks found more than 600 tweets denying the existence of God, and ridiculing verses of the Koran.

It says the 28-year-old man admitted to being an atheist and refused to repent, saying that what he wrote reflected his own beliefs and that he had the right to express them. The report did not name the man.

The court also fined him 20,000 riyals, about $5,300.

Based on reporting by AP

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