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Kazakh Ruling Party Keeps Tight Grip In 'Uncompetitive' Vote

Participants in a rally in support of the Nur Otan party in Almaty on January 10.
Participants in a rally in support of the Nur Otan party in Almaty on January 10.

ALMATY -- Kazakhstan's ruling Nur Otan party has kept its firm grip on power in parliamentary elections called “uncompetitive” by international observers after the only registered opposition boycotted the vote to protest a lack of development and freedom in the Central Asian nation’s political landscape.

The Central Election Commission said on January 11 that preliminary results from the vote a day earlier gave former authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s Nur Otan, the ruling party since 1999, 71.1 percent, while two other parties loyal to it -- Ak Zhol (Bright Path), and the People’s Party (formerly the Communist People’s Party) -- also exceeded the 7 percent threshold needed to win seats in the Mazhilis, or lower house of parliament.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which had observers in the resource-rich country, said in a statement that “an uncompetitive campaign and systemic de-facto limitations on constitutionally guaranteed fundamental freedoms left voters without genuine choice."

“As all political parties contesting the elections supported the policies of the ruling party, the campaign was not competitive, and voters had no genuine political alternatives to choose from,” the OSCE said.

The OSCE’s characterization of the vote follows what observers have reported in past elections in Kazakhstan, which have been deemed neither free nor fair, and fraught with electoral fraud, repression of opposition candidates, and restrictions on a free press.

The lack of competition dashed the hopes of the country’s Western partners, who had hoped for deep political reforms. Nonetheless, some say continuity will bring the stability needed to attract foreign investment in the resource-rich country -- primarily into the oil, gas, and mining sectors.

The vote was the first legislative poll in the Central Asian nation since the resignation of Nazarbaev, who ruled the nation for three decades before stepping down in favor of his handpicked successor Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev in March 2019.

Despite having stepped down, Nazarbaev maintains vast influence in the country’s politics. He is the head of the powerful Security Council and enjoys almost limitless powers and immunity as elbasy -- leader of the nation.

The opposition All-National Social Democratic Party (OSDP) boycotted the January 10 vote saying nothing had changed this time around despite Nazarbaev's pivot to a less conspicuous public role nearly two years ago after he stepped down.

After detaining several activists in the run-up to the vote, police kept up the pressure on election day, detaining dozens in major cities across the country.

Deputy Interior Minister Arystangani Zapparov said that all those detained had been released without charges. He ignored questions on how many people had been detained in total, according to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.

Internet blockages also were reported as ballots were cast in the country's largest city, Almaty, where one demonstration was organized.

In at least three regions of Kazakhstan -- including Turkestan and Shymkent -- observers complained that they were prevented from entering polling stations.

Other independent observers previously complained of obstacles to receiving the basic PCR coronavirus tests that authorities demanded in at least some cases of election officials and party and other observers.

Several RFE/RL Kazakh Service reporters were excluded from polling stations, including one who was physically shoved out of a voting place in Almaty.

The elections decided 98 of 107 seats in the Mazhilis. Nine other seats will be separately elected by the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan -- a political body chaired by Nazarbaev designed to represent ethnic groups in the Central Asian nation.

The highest turnout was reported in the remote Northern Kazakhstan Province where some 75.5 percent of the voters cast their ballots, the Central Election Commission said. The lowest turnout -- about 30 percent -- was recorded in Almaty.

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