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Kazakhstan: Early Elections Put Opposition At Disadvantage

Kazakhstan's state-run Khabar television announced yesterday that elections to Kazakhstan's Senate, the upper house of parliament, will take place on September 17. Elections to the Mazhlis, the lower house, will take place on October 10. The unexpected news caught opposition parties in Kazakhstan off-guard. Many have not even officially registered yet. Potential opposition parties and their candidates have little time to mount a campaign. But as our correspondent Bruce Pannier reports, the sudden announcement of elections in Kazakhstan is hauntingly familiar ...

Prague, 8 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In early October of last year, Kazakhstan's parliament approved holding presidential elections in January 1999, instead of December 2000, as was originally scheduled. Then, as now, the Kazakh opposition was left at a serious disadvantage.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United States government both criticized the Kazakh parliament's decision to hold early elections. Both had been paying special attention to Kazakhstan, believing the country and its leadership possessed great potential for becoming an example of democracy in Central Asia. After the vote, however, the OSCE said January's presidential elections fell "far short" of being free and fair and refused to recognize them as valid.

This week's announcement of dates for parliamentary elections mean those votes will also come earlier than many had expected. Deputies' terms in office officially expire in December. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in March did mention October as the month for elections for the lower house. But much recent speculation had still focused on December as the more likely month.

At least one OSCE official in Kazakhstan, however, sees some sense in holding parliamentary elections in September and October.

Eric Collins is the political officer at the OSCE office in Almaty. He explains that the September and October dates for elections are an improvement over the choice of January for presidential elections. Collins says:

"I think that is a good time for elections, in terms of if we look at the presidential elections which took place in January, that was very difficult from a technical and organizational standpoint because of weather conditions and road conditions. And I think September and October are probably a quite appropriate time to hold elections, given that, first of all, this meets the constitutional demands and, second of all, I think this will help guarantee a good turnout for the elections."

However, the opposition is in much the same position as it was late last year during the presidential campaign. Though the requirement for gathering signatures is waved in parliamentary elections, as is the registration fee, there is still the problem of obtaining official registration from Kazakhstan's Justice Ministry.

This problem is reminiscent of the problems former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin experienced during the presidential campaign. He had trouble registering and then -- due to a minor legal offense -- he was barred by a court from participating. Incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbayev, on the other hand, had no difficulty in registering and clearing every hurdle on the road to re-election.

Kazhegeldin now heads the Republican People's Party, but he and his wife have been outside Kazakhstan for several months as Kazakhstan's Prosecutor General is investigating Kazhegeldin for charges of tax evasion. Some opposition parties in Kazakhstan are having problems registering due to a requirement that all parties establish branches in at least seven of Kazakhstan's 15 administrative regions before they can be considered "fully" registered.

In contrast, the pro-Nazarbayev Otan Party is registered and has branches in all of the country's regions. A large number of current parliamentary deputies belong to this party, which was only formed in February.

Independent Kazakh politician Dos Koshim evaluated the situation for opposition parties now that elections have been set earlier than expected:

"Of course, for the government and those who are in power it is very advantageous to hold elections earlier. This will not allow opposition movement and parties to gather their forces and prepare for elections. Rumors and predictions that elections would be held early have been circulating for several months. Some people even recommended holding them in the summer. But the prognosis made by politicians and observers in the last five months said the parliamentary elections would probably be held in the period after October 20, at the earliest."

Before any of the opposition parties or movements can seriously plan a campaign strategy, they must first face the task of being officially registered, a process likely to take the rest of July. Then they will have less than 50 days to convince the public that their candidates are the right people to become parliamentary deputies.

The opposition parties in Kazakhstan had been widely viewed as offering no serious competition to pro-presidential parties. Such a short time to prepare their campaigns only weakens their prospects.

(Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this story.)