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Kazakhstan: Elections Proceed, Minus Opposition Leader

Kazakhstan goes to the polls today to elect members of the upper house of parliament, and again in three weeks to elect members of the lower house. Former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, a prominent opposition leader, has been barred from running. RFE/RL correspondent Liz Fuller analyzes the effect that Kazhegeldin's absence could have on the elections.

Prague, 17 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The run-up to Kazakhstan's parliamentary elections has been dominated by uncertainty over whether one of the country's most charismatic opposition figures would be permitted to run. Last week, the uncertainty ended, when the Electoral Commission refused the candidacy of former Premier Akezhan Kazhegeldin.

It was not the first time that the 47-year-old economist has been barred from an election in Kazakhstan. Last year, Kazhegeldin, who resigned in 1997 after three years as premier, founded a political party to defend the interests of industrialists and businessmen. He said he would run for president in January 1999.

In the run-up to that election, Kazhegeldin accused incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbaev of authoritarianism, nepotism, and indifference to human rights. He said a new government should reverse the rising unemployment and the increasing impoverishment of the population. Kazhegeldin, however, was barred from running in the presidential elections on the grounds that he had participated in an unsanctioned demonstration. Nazarbaev won that election in a poll international observers termed "deeply flawed."

In today's Senate elections, 33 candidates, all of them government officials or members of the current Senate, will contest 16 seats. A second round of voting, for the 77 seats in the lower house, the Mazhilis, is scheduled for October 10. It is the Mazhilis election that Kazhegeldin has now been barred from.

Ten of the 77 seats in the Mazhilis will be distributed according to proportional party representation. Kazhegeldin's party, the Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan, has put forth a list of 10 candidates for those seats, and Kazhegeldin himself heads the list. But on September 9, the Electoral Commission refused to register his candidacy because of an outstanding charge of tax evasion. Kazhegeldin had been charged a few months earlier with tax evasion and illegal acquisition of foreign real estate. He has denied those charges and termed them politically motivated.

The charge of tax evasion did not only result in Kazhegeldin's dismissal from the parliamentary race. It also got him arrested last week. Kazhegeldin has been abroad since 1998. Last Friday, he was on his way to Kazakhstan when he was detained by Russian police during a stopover at a Moscow airport. The police said the Kazakh authorities were demanding his extradition. Kazhegeldin was hospitalized after suffering a suspected heart attack during interrogations. But he told RFE/RL from his hospital bed that he was traveling to Kazakhstan because Kazakhstan's ambassador in Washington had written that no legal measures would be taken against him if he did so.

On Wednesday, Kazakhstan announced that the charges against Kazhegeldin had been dropped "on humanitarian grounds" and that he is free to return to Kazakhstan.

Kazhegeldin's detention sparked protest demonstrations in Almaty and was denounced by prominent opposition figures, including Communist Party leader Serikbolsyn Abdildin. The Communist Party and two other parties are aligned with Kazhegeldin's Republican People's Party in an election bloc. Those parties have pledged not to compete against one another in the single-mandate constituencies.

With Kazhegeldin unable to run, his party said it will boycott the elections. Six of its members, however, are to run in single-mandate constituencies.

A total of 565 candidates from 10 parties are registered for the 77 Mazhilis seats. Russian observers predict that the pro-presidential Otan party and the Civic Party, which claims to represent businessmen and industrialists, will garner the lion's share of the vote, followed by the Communist Party. Otan's proclaimed objective is to replace the existing government with one that is willing and able to implement Nazarbaev's economic policies.

The removal of the threat posed by Kazhegeldin and his party does not necessarily guarantee a decisive election victory for Otan, however. Kazhegeldin's supporters can vote for whichever opposition party they consider has the best chance of competing with Otan, or they can vote for no one, in protest.

How many are likely to choose the latter option is difficult to predict. There is a high degree of resentment among the impoverished majority of the population against the oligarchy centered on Nazarbaev. But the popular resentment is accompanied by widespread political passivity. To date, resentment has found an outlet in protest demonstrations against employers' or local authorities' failure to pay wages and pensions, rather than in support for opposition parties. In a recent opinion poll, more than half the respondents could not name even a single political party.

The conduct of today's Senate elections will be a test of the fairness of the Mazhilis election to come. Many observers in Kazakhstan and abroad believe the oligarchy may rig the elections in order to cling to power.