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Kazakhstan: Opposition Hoping To Gain Ground In Local Elections

Kazakhstan is holding elections on 20 September for city, district, and provincial councils. Previously, these elections held little meaning, but Kazakhstan's opposition has set its sights on these polls after a succession of failures in parliamentary and presidential votes.

Prague, 18 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan is holding city, district, and provincial council elections on 20 September and the country's beleaguered opposition is hoping these polls will help it gain ground lost in previous parliamentary and presidential votes.

The elections are expected to be the last held under the country's old election laws. Kazakhstan's previous elections have been criticized as undemocratic by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other international institutions.

Steve Sabol is an expert on Kazakhstan from the University of North Carolina in the United States. He says this weekend's elections represent a golden opportunity for the opposition, if the elections are free and fair.

"If [the elections] occur in a normal fashion, it could be a significant step towards some liberalization of civil liberties in Kazakhstan," Sabol says. "It seems to me that this is perhaps a response to criticism the regime has received really during the past decade, that civil liberties are violated repeatedly in the republic. It seems to me that it's a unique opportunity for Kazakhstan."

There are more than 7,000 candidates running for local posts in the elections. Naturally, the winners will be expected to respond to the needs of their communities and represent communal concerns in the capital, Astana. But the winners of the provincial council races also will be responsible for naming two people from each province to the Senate, the deputies of which are chosen, not elected. The winners of the city council races, called akims, will be responsible for selecting the members of local election commissions.

Provincial governors are believed to exert a great deal of influence in the election of city council members. These governors are themselves picked by the government in the capital and are alleged to put pressure on local administrative and election officials into ensuring the success of progovernment candidates.

This process helps fuel charges of vote rigging and campaign obstruction against opposition candidates. The opposition argues that these local council members owe their positions to the governors, who themselves owe their positions to the government and are therefore likely to be biased in their selection of election officials and in their treatment of opposition candidates.

This is still the situation heading into this weekend's elections.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) says accusations of election tampering have surfaced in the run-up to the polls. On 15 August, the IWPR cited Agrarian Party Deputy Serykbay Alibayev as claiming that officials in the northern city of Pavlodar and progovernment parties were planning to block opposition candidates from running.

The same article cited Gennadii Bondarenko, the head of the Pavlodar office of the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement, as saying someone had been distributing leaflets purporting to support the opposition before the official campaign started. That would be illegal.

Candidate Marzhan Asfandiyarova is running for city council in Almaty as a representative of the Almaty in Clean Hands movement. She told RFE/RL about an experience with mysterious leaflets appearing in her campaign.

"There were some leaflets going around, false information about my [political] stance, portraying me as a supporter of religious extremism," she said. "Those who organized those leaflets have never been found, and all my letters of protest, sent to the district election commission, to the chairman of the Central Election Commission Zagipa Baliyeva, to the Prosecutor-General Mr. [Rashid] Tusupbekov, and to [Nurtai Dutbayev,] the chairman of the National Security Committee, have never been answered."

Asfandiyarova also said the process of registering as a candidate was "prolonged" and seemed designed to deprive her of time she could have been campaigning.

Asfandiyarova said campaign money the authorities are supposed to give to all candidates was not sent to the publishing house that was printing her real campaign leaflets. She also said the mayor's office has not been able to make available to her any of the five schools where candidates could hold meetings with constituents. She alleges that progovernment candidates have been holding such meetings, however.

Dokhtarbai Nurzhanov is running as an independent candidate for the provincial council in Aktau in western Kazakhstan. In an interview with RFE/RL, he says he was told that to register a candidate needs a certificate of sound mental health. But he said acquiring such a certificate has proven difficult.

"When I was asked to bring a certificate proving I have no mental problems, I went to the psychiatric clinic, and I had to stay there for three days while a special commission examined me," he said. "A doctor named Tazhiyeva Rauza made me stay for three days and kept changing doctors."

The leader of Kazakhstan's opposition Patriot Party, Gani Kasymov, said in July that in order for the 20 September elections to be fair the whole system, starting with the akims, needs to be overhauled.

Retired General Murat Kalmatayev was once the political officer, or zampolit, in the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan and a highly placed military official in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. He agrees with Kasymov and casts doubt on the impartiality of Central Elections Commission chief Baliyeva.

"I don't believe the elections will be fair," Kalmatayev said. "To make them fair, the Central Elections Commission, led by Zagipa Baliyeva, should be fair. I'm a witness to how unfair the elections are. I use to be a deputy in parliament with Baliyeva. In order to make fair elections, we have to have all the governors and officials, regional, oblast, municipal, to be different people, people of higher character. But for this, I'm afraid we have to wait for a long, long time."

Kazakhstan plans to change its current election law to bring it more into line with standards set by the OSCE. Officials in Kazakhstan have been promising since June that the new law will be published but, as of yet, it has not.

Analyst Sabol of the University of North Carolina doubts these elections will be sufficiently free and fair for the opposition to make many gains, however. He says it is more likely that complaints of biased elections will be heard from opposition groups once again.

(Merhat Sharipzhan and Sultankhan Zhussip of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)