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Kazakhstan: OSCE Concerned About Presidential Election

Warsaw, 3 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan's flawed presidential election in January has led international organizations to argue that greater efforts are needed to develop democratic practices in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Representatives of eight democracy-building organizations met in a closed session in Warsaw last week to consider the assistance they can offer to countries holding nationwide elections this year. The polls include parliamentary elections in Armenia, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and a presidential election in Ukraine.

The January presidential election in Kazakhstan was frequently cited as a warning. Before it was held, Kazakhstan was considered one of the leaders in democratic reforms in Central Asia. A report issued afterward said the election process had fallen far short of the standards to which Kazakhstan was committed. Those attending the Warsaw meeting were told by one international organization that the presidential election was a "warning that even best preparations can be tossed aside by political decisions."

In Kazakhstan, these "political decisions" included an unexpected change in the date of the election, which left candidates challenging incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbayev with insufficient time to develop their campaigns; legal measures that effectively disqualified some candidates; restrictions on the right of assembly; and a media that devoted a disproportionately large share of its coverage to Nazarbayev.

The situation in Kazakhstan was not all bad, however. International organizations found that the Central Election Commission undertook a wide-ranging and impartial program to educate voters about their rights, about the backgrounds of the candidates and about the way to properly complete a ballot slip. They agreed that plans for election day were well-drafted and well-executed. But these positive points were overshadowed by problem areas.

The conditions in which the election took place dismayed international organizations, which had worked for months to arrange free and fair polls. It led some speakers at the meeting in Warsaw to argue that international organizations should not send observers to elections in countries where the development of democracy is stunted. They said cooperation could be misused by authorities to suggest they enjoyed international support. But others argued that it is important that international organizations remain active in these countries to build on the foundations already there.

Although much of the discussion focused on Kazakhstan, some participants were also critical of Uzbekistan, where parliamentary elections are scheduled later this year. Because the meeting was private, none of the speakers would talk about the discussions. But organizers said there was no decision to stop sending electoral assistance to any country.

The Warsaw meeting was organized by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) -- the election arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). ODIHR and the OSCE missions and offices in Central Asia and the Caucasus have developed programs to educate voters and political parties on how a democratic political system and democratic elections should operate.

The ODIHR's director -- the Swiss diplomat Gerard Stoudmann -- insists, however, that in the final analysis only individual governments and voters can ensure that elections are honest. He said the ODIHR "does not run an election," adding that the body is "not like the United Nations, which arranges elections in countries like Cambodia." He said the ODIHR and other international organizations "can advise on the composition of the Central Electoral Commission; can help with technical matters, like devising an easily understood ballot ticket; can educate election monitors on their duties and their rights." But he said running the elections is the work of the authorities in the individual countries. That is also the view of the other participants in last week's Warsaw meeting. They included organizations experienced in helping organize elections in the former Soviet Union, such as the International Foundation for Election Systems, the National Democratic Institute from the United States, the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation, and the Canadian electoral office. Some organizations that help finance elections in Central Asia and the Caucasus also attended the meeting, including the USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) and the European Commission.

In its final report on the Kazakh elections, issued last month (Feb. 5), the ODIHR election-monitoring team mentioned six failings that international organizations want to avoid in other elections this year:

DURATION OF THE ELECTION CAMPAIGN: In October last year, Kazakh authorities announced that presidential elections would be held on January 10, 1999. This was almost two years earlier than planned. The ODIHR said opposition parties and possible presidential candidates were caught by surprise because there had been no public discussions on holding the election earlier than scheduled. In the ODIHR's view, the period before the election was too short to allow for sufficient preparation by all prospective candidates. ODIHR said an election law adopted by parliament after a public debate would enhance the credibility of any election process.

ELECTION COMMISSIONS: The ODIHR noted that election commissions at all levels in the Kazakh presidential election were controlled by the president and local officials appointed under his aegis. The report said neither the method of the appointments nor the makeup of the commissions encouraged public trust in the electoral process. The report said, quoting: "The elections commissions ... are not perceived as independent, representative or neutral."

INFRINGEMENTS ON THE RIGHT TO SEEK PUBLIC OFFICE: Initially, eight candidates sought registration as presidential candidates. Two voluntarily withdrew. Another two were not allowed to participate under circumstances which the ODIHR and other international organizers criticized.

Both candidates were rejected under an amendment to election laws that banned anyone punished by a court for an offence in the 12 months before registration. One of those banned -- Amantai-Kazhi Asylbek -- had been sentenced to three days of detention for organizing an unregistered prayer meeting. The other -- former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin -- was banned for attending a meeting of an unregistered non-governmental organization (NGO) called "For Honest Elections." Kazhegeldin had been viewed as Nazarbayev's strongest challenger.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION AND ASSEMBLY: The Constitution of Kazakhstan guarantees freedom of association. The ODIHR said the authorities restricted this freedom in some cases during the election campaign. It also noted that some human-rights organizations and other NGOs had faced problems with registration. The ODIHR said it appeared that the authorities had the right to delay registration without an obligation to provide an explanation. Some NGO members reported harassment by the police. The ODIHR report said: "These measures tend to discourage the right of individuals and groups to establish political parties and organizations."

CAMPAIGN ENVIRONMENT: The ODIHR report says state authorities in Kazakhstan did not behave impartially and provided election support for some candidates, in particular President Nazarbayev. It said that, in some cases, candidates had difficulty gaining access to work places, universities and other places to hold meetings.

MEDIA ACCESS: The ODIHR says both the state-owned and private media gave a disproportionately large share of their coverage to Nazarbayev. In the ODIHR's view, most of the coverage of Nazarbayev was either positive or neutral. The other candidates received little coverage, and what they did get was generally neutral or negative.

(This is the second of four features on efforts by the OSCE to promote free and fair elections in Central and Eastern Europe and the states of the former Soviet Union.)