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Central Asia: Kazakh Vote Sparks Fear Of Regional Imitations

(RFE/RL) August 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- When the Kazakh ruling party won all 98 seats at stake in the August 18 elections, President Nursultan Nazarbaev suggested that democracy and pluralism would not suffer under a one-party system.

But political observers and opposition voices in Central Asia counter that it might have a negative impact in the region, with other leaders adopting the "Kazakh method" to tighten their grip on power.

After his Nur Otan Party's victory for each seat in the lower house of the parliament, or Mazhilis, Nazarbaev said a one-party parliament is no tragedy.

"There have been examples time and again in world history of parliaments that were one-party ones and yet effective, especially since we are going to consider constructive proposals from the opposition," Nazarbaev said.

A miffed opposition described one-party politics as a clear step backward -- to Soviet-style rule.

Regional Perspective

Opposition leaders and analysts elsewhere in Central Asia are also voicing concern that the rest of the region might soon follow suit.

Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan has regarded by many as Central Asia's most democratic state. But even in Bishkek, there are concerns that the Kazakh election results could affect the Kyrgyz political scene.

Adil Turdugulov, a Bishkek-based political analyst, suggested to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that authorities there might use "Kazakh methods" in the next elections.

"Nazarbaev was an initiator of the early parliamentary elections," Turdugulov said. "His main aim was to gather his closest people [in the new parliament] in order to maintain his own power by any means."

Rahmatullo Valiev, the deputy head of the Democratic Party in nearby Tajikistan, says no one expected any party but Kazakhstan's ruling Nur Otan to win the majority of seats in the August vote. But he said the total absence of any opposition deputies in the new parliament caught him by surprise.

"A country becomes 'multiparty' only when its parliament has several political groups and those groups have the opportunity to participate in legislative debates, to voice their thoughts, to amend laws," Valiev said. "Kazakhstan has now become a one-party country, just like the Soviet state."

Even if the total lack of any legislative opposition is a new development, this parliament is not radically different from its predecessor.

The opposition controlled just one seat in the outgoing Mazhilis.

Little Real Debate

It is tempting to regard Kyrgyzstan -- where parliamentarians take an active part in the country's political life -- as an exception in Central Asia.

In Uzbekistan, no opposition parties were allowed to enter the parliamentary race. All five parties with representatives in the Uzbek parliament support President Islam Karimov's policies.

Turkmenistan has just one political party -- the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan.

Many observers would argue that Tajikistan's parliament has just two genuine opposition representatives, both members of the Islamic Renaissance Party. President Emomali Rahmon's People's Democratic Party holds an absolute majority, and the handful of Tajik Communist Party lawmakers appear to represent opposition in name only.

Valiev said that without political debate, pluralism, and opposing views, a parliament becomes a rubberstamp institution.

Useful Tactic?

But Shirin Akiner, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank in London, said the elections results were neither more nor less than the Kazakh people's choice. Akiner said the Kazakh vote showed that the public has no real confidence in the opposition parties. She said people simply want a political system that works.

"I think that people do not live to create a perfect political system," Akiner said. "People live their lives in order to live their lives as well as they can. Now, if the system they have in Kazakhstan gives people a good standard of living, gives them the opportunity to look to the future with confidence, surely that is the most important thing."

Nazarbaev, too, has said that the voting public chose the party best able to maintain "political stability and calm."

But an independent Kazakh political analyst, Dosym Satpaev, said the apparent stability of the current political system could backfire in the long term.

Satpaev said Nazarbaev has made a strategic mistake if he thinks a one-party system is easier to control.

Satpaev said such a party is likely to disappear if Nazarbaev does.

Central Asia In Focus

Central Asia In Focus

THE COMPLETE STORY: Click on the icon to view a dedicated webpage bringing together all of RFE/RL's coverage of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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