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Kazakhstan: Can Opposition Compete In Presidential Elections?

Incumbent President Nazarbaev could cruise to an easy victory (file photo) Kazakhstan's Constitutional Council has set the first Sunday of December as the date of the country's early presidential elections. The date, 4 December, still requires approval from parliament, but already many are predicting an easy victory for incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbaev. The country's last early presidential election caught the political opposition unaware, leaving them little time to campaign or strategize. This time, however, the opposition had anticipated an early vote and has been forging a platform for the better part of the past year. With just over 100 days until the polls open, RFE/RL looks at the Kazakh opposition and its presidential candidate.

Prague, 22 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The announcement on 19 August of the early presidential vote took few in Kazakhstan by surprise.

In particular, For a Just Kazakhstan, the leading opposition group, had seen it coming. But Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, the movement's presidential challenger, still expressed frustration at having so little time left before 4 December:

“There are only four months remaining before elections, and until now people haven’t even known the exact day of the election," Tuyakbai said. "That’s just nonsense that probably has no precedent in the world.”

Actually, there is a precedent for December’s early election. Kazakhstan’s last presidential elections were also held early. Moreover, it was clear months ago that it could happen again. With Nazarbaev's current term due to end in January 2006, and elections scheduled for only the following December, early elections were a likely outcome.

The opposition's anticipation of an early vote has helped from an organizational point of view. But with little more than three months left to mount an official campaign, the opposition still faces some daunting challenges. Serikbai Alibaev, the head of the Astana office of For a Just Kazakhstan, said the late announcement of the election date is clearly favors Nazarbaev.

“The idea was not to give the opposition enough time and to get an element of surprise by announcing this decision [only on 18 August],” Alibaev said.

For a Just Kazakhstan is now Kazakhstan’s leading opposition group. It was officially registered, on its third try, on 3 August. The movement unites the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, the Pokolenie pensioners' movement, the recently created Alga party (formed from the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan party) and the Naghyz Ak Zhol party, a splinter of the original Ak Zhol party.

Many of Kazakhstan’s opposition groups pledged late last year to support Tuyakbai, the former speaker of the Mazhilis, or lower house of parliament. In previous elections, the opposition has not been able to gather support for a single candidate, so this political union is critical for Tuyakbai’s hopes of success.

But not all of Kazakhstan’s opposition groups are behind Tuyakbai.

The Ak Zhol party split last April. Prior to last year’s parliamentary elections the party claimed some 147,000 supporters, but it appears most remained with the original party and did not transfer their allegiance to the Naghyz Ak Zhol party that is part of the For a Just Kazakhstan movement. Ak Zhol could run its own candidate.
With little more than three months left to mount an official campaign, the opposition faces some daunting challenges.

For A Just Kazakhstan does not have any supporters in parliament. The movement also cannot count on much help from the country’s media. Most of Kazakhstan’s newspapers, radio, and television stations are owned by the state or people close to President Nazarbaev. The few independent media outlets that do exist in Kazakhstan are subject to a number of problems -- from tax police to simple vandalism. These problems regularly strike pro-opposition media but rarely hit pro-government outlets. Such problems have been particularly acute in the days leading up to previous polls.

Legal problems equivalent to a misdemeanor charge barred the leading opposition candidate from running in the last presidential election. Already the prosecutor’s office has warned Tuyakbai about campaigning before an election date was named, a charge Tuyakbai has denied.

“As for the movement For a Just Kazakhstan, there has been no pre-election campaigning," Tuyakbai said. "No calls for people to vote for us took place. In the current situation, I think the most important thing is to hold free and fair elections without ignoring the wishes of the voters. If all this happens, then let the strongest candidate win.”

For Tuyakbai, and anyone else who may enter the race against Nazarbaev, there is the prospect of being attacked. Tuyakbai and his supporters claim he and the group were targeted in two attacks earlier this year.

The opposition also must contend with Kazakhstan’s relative prosperity. The standard of living in the country has become better, in part due to the huge revenues Kazakhstan is taking in from its oil industry. Something of a middle class is developing and it owes its change in fortunes to the current regime.

A last drawback for the opposition is that, as is true in many other former Soviet republics, the opposition leadership is made up mainly of former government officials. Tuyakbai himself is an old friend of Nazarbaev, and until last year’s parliamentary election was deputy chief of the Otan ruling party, which is dedicated to seeing Nazarbaev reelected. Some voters may see Tuyakbai’s candidacy as personal opportunism rather than the product of a desire to improve the life of the country’s citizens.

(Merhat Sharipzhan of the Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)

See also:

"Kazakh Senate Selection Holds Unusual Significance"

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