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Kazakh 'Rerun:' A Brief History Of Kazakhstan’s Presidential Elections

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev addresses his supporters during a rally in Astana on December 5, 2005.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev addresses his supporters during a rally in Astana on December 5, 2005.

Kazakhstan is conducting an early presidential election on April 26, which is no surprise. In fact, none of the events surrounding this snap presidential poll is surprising.

With the possible exception of the first post-Soviet presidential election, every presidential election in Kazakhstan has been an early election.

On October 26, 1991, more than two months after the collapse of the U.S.S.R., Kazakhstan announced its first postindependence presidential election and set the date for December 1. The Communist leaders in all the former Soviet republics were scrambling to secure legitimacy in the confusing first days after the U.S.S.R. fell apart.

In Kazakhstan, this was deemed so important that Nazarbaev’s victory with 98.8 percent of the vote (his sole challenger received 0.1 percent) came two weeks before Kazakhstan officially declared independence. *

Nazarbaev was elected to a five-year term, but there was no presidential election in 1996; instead, there was a referendum. During the first half of 1995, several events with large consequences for the future took place that really set the stage for Nazarbaev “the strongman” to emerge. **

It started with a challenge to the results of parliamentary elections in 1994 by one candidate in that election, Tatyana Kvatkovskaya, who lost in her bid for a seat in the then 177-seat parliament. Her complaints about the system for citizens living outside Kazakhstan to vote, and the division of electoral districts, were eventually reviewed by the country’s Constitutional Court.

On March 6, 1995, the court ruled the Central Election Commission’s regulations were not constitutional and that the 1994 election was illegitimate.

When he heard the Constitutional Court ruling, Nazarbaev said he was surprised by the decision, vetoed it, and sent it back to the court. Nazarbaev said at the time that he had “great hopes” for parliament.

It wasn’t true. Parliament had continually blocked and slowed Nazarbaev’s attempts at economic reform. Still, on March 9, Nazarbaev did an interview with state television and said, “I support stability or power and that is why I could not remain silent” about the Constitutional Court’s ruling, which he said was unfounded and was in any case outside the court’s jurisdiction.

On March 10, the Constitutional Court upheld its decision and overrode Nazarbaev’s veto. The following day, he told parliament he had sent an official inquiry to the court requesting explanations for the ruling.

Parliament, no doubt encouraged by the president’s remarks, submitted a motion for Nazarbaev to suspend the court.

Nazarbaev responded, “I do not have to sign the proposals of an assembly that no longer exists.” And just to rub it in, Nazarbaev added, “It is the Constitutional Court that has made all market reforms possible to date…and parliament has hampered them.”

He then officially dissolved parliament.

Nazarbaev would eliminate the Constitutional Court just a few months later, but before that, on March 24, a recently formed body called the Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan submitted a proposal to have a referendum on extending the presidential term until 2000.

The Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan is the same group that started the calls for an early election in 2015.

On March 26, 1995, Nazarbaev said he needed time to research the legal basis for such a referendum. On March 27, he announced that the referendum on extending the presidential term would be held on April 29.

Admittedly, there was regional precedent, since Turkmenistan held such a referendum in January 1994 and Uzbekistan has just done same on March 26, 1995.

Nazarbaev said this month that he wasn’t sure about running in the April 2015 election.

“Speaking honestly, my personal plans are different…Maybe it’s time for a change of scenery,” he said, hinting he might follow the example of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who left the post of prime minister but maintained control of his city-state.

In April 1995, as the referendum approached, Nazarbaev also said, “If there was anyone worthy of being president, I would support him with pleasure and go off to be a businessman.”

Of course, Nazarbaev won an extension in the referendum and another referendum in August that year changed the constitution, concentrating more power into the executive branch of power and also annulling the Constitutional Court and replacing it with a Constitutional Council.

In September 1998, four MPs suggested the next presidential election should be brought forward from December 2000 to sometime in 1999. Nazarbaev categorically rejected the proposal on October 1.

On October 5, a group of MPs met with Nazarbaev behind closed doors and convinced him to move the presidential election forward and lengthen the president’s term in office from five to seven years. On October 8, parliament announced January 10, 1999, as the date for the next presidential election. Parliament also approved removing the rule that a president could not be older than 65 and could not serve more than two terms.

In June 2005, with the presidential election scheduled for December 2006, the lower house of parliament, the Mazhilis, appealed to the Justice Minister to clarify the date for the next presidential election.

MPs argued that Nazarbaev had been inaugurated in January 1999 and that if the next presidential election was held in December 2006, Nazarbaev would be serving for 11 months after his mandate had expired.

The Constitutional Council was charged with making a ruling and in August 2005 decided that the presidential election should be conducted in December that year. Parliament had to approve the court’s ruling. Before the Mazhilis did so, Nazarbaev appeared on state television for a well-orchestrated question-and-answer show (a la Vladimir Putin) and said he would run “if” parliament made the decision to hold the election early. ***

In mid-January 2011, parliament voted in favor of holding a referendum to keep Nazarbaev in office until 2020. Nazarbaev rejected the proposal. The Constitutional Council took up the matter and on January 31 also rejected the referendum proposal. The court referred the issue to Nazarbaev, who accepted the decision on February 4; he then announced there would be an early presidential election on April 3 of that year.

-- Bruce Pannier

* Kyrgyzstan declared independence on August 31, 1991; a presidential election was held on October 12.

Tajikistan declared independence on September 9, 1991; a presidential election was on November 24.

Turkmenistan declared independence on October 26, 1991; a presidential election was on June 21, 1992.

Uzbekistan declared independence on September 1, 1991; a presidential election was on December 20.

** And the subject of my first-ever published article in Transition Magazine some 20 years ago

*** I wrote about the event. I’m including two of the “comments/questions” from that session here. Remember, these are from almost 10 years ago:

Dmitri from Ust-Kamenogorsk (also called Oskemen) asks: 'It's well known that several years ago a number of Slavic organizations criticized you, but lately they all voice unconditional support for your policies. What, in your opinion, Mr. President, explains this extraordinary metamorphosis?'"

Nadia Fatkulina, a high-school music teacher from Semipalatinsk:

"Now it's gotten to the point where I don't even feel like turning on the television, as there is hardly a day without bombings, acts of terrorism, and most importantly [news that] innocent people are dying. Thank God that we don't have this in Kazakhstan. Things are calm here. Looking at what is happening in neighboring countries. One is glad that we have no fears for our children, for our relatives and those close to us. And I, as a mother, want to thank you sincerely Nursultan Abisevich [Nazarbayev], for the peace and tranquility in Kazakhstan. Thank you so much."

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 the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

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


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