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The Biggest Loser In The Kazakh Presidential Election Could Be The Government's Reputation


Kazakh police detain people in a square in the center of Almaty on June 9.

The election-day figures from Kazakhstan are in.

Officials said nearly 80 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Front-runner Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev was said to have received more than 70 percent of the vote. Several thousand people around Kazakhstan demonstrated against the election. More than 500 were detained.

It is those last numbers that many people are likely to remember. Images of police carrying away protesters were all over social media on June 9 -- whether from the capital, Nur-Sultan, Almaty, or these from Shymkent.

State media like Kazinform were disseminating serene images like newlyweds in Nur-Sultan casting their ballots, this bride in Shymkent, or children accompanying parents to polling stations.

What state media did not show was riot police deployed to central locations of Kazakhstan's major cities like these.

Or this one from Nur-Sultan.

Other images from election day included video of ballot boxes apparently being stuffed, a woman voting twice after a quick change of clothing,

or pens given out at polling stations with ink that disappeared when exposed to heat.

Police continued to detain people on June 10, and activists and journalists posted more photos and videos of people being dragged away, including this video taken in Almaty by veteran Central Asia correspondent Joanna Lillis.

Since four young activists unfurled a banner that read "You cannot run from the truth" along the route of the Almaty Marathon on April 21, there has been a steady stream of public demonstrations of dissatisfaction with the early presidential election. Some people in Kazakhstan objected to sitting idly by while longtime President Nursultan Nazarbaev resigned and handed over power to friend and ally Toqaev.

Other slogans like "I have a choice" and the "I woke up in a country where..." video campaign that encouraged people to complete that sentence by commenting on the lack of choice they seemed to have when it came to electing officials or making their voices heard without risking detention.

It is unclear how many people demonstrated during the June 9 presidential vote. Probably a very small percentage of the electorate. But their skill at using social media could leave an indelible image of a country in which the government fears the opinions of its own people. The seemingly heavy-handed response to peaceful protests could be interpreted as government weakness -- suggesting that if the population were truly free to express its opinions publicly, it might not have elected someone like Toqaev and might disapprove of some others in government posts.

While Toqaev might have won the election, Kazakhstan's international partners are likely to be weighing the images from June 9 when considering their level of support for a leader who might be unpopular in some segments of Kazakh society. Toqaev's legitimacy in Kazakhstan could be a question, too. He was already regarded by some as a transition figure, someone between Nazarbaev and whomever the elites have decided to later install as leader on a more permanent basis.

Toqaev's election was in some ways being seen as ushering out the Nazarbaev era and marking the start of a new era for Kazakhstan under a new leader. It's achieving that latter aim; but it might not be the new era Nazarbaev and his inner circle had in mind when Kazakhstan's first president announced his resignation on March 19.

Such a new chapter almost certainly presents serious challenges to the usual way of doing business in Kazakhstan. Whether the government chooses to listen more carefully to the public or it continues to throw people in jail when they protest, whatever happens tomorrow, next month, and in the years to come will be some sort of departure from the past 28 years.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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