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Kazakh Authorities Seek 'Change They Can Control' In Parliament Election

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev votes during Kazakhstan's parliamentary election in Almaty on January 10, 2021.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- More than a year after cataclysmic political unrest and against the unsettling background of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Kazakhstan will complete a political cycle with its third nationwide vote in less than a year.

Elections on March 19 for the Kazakh parliament and local councils follow a snap presidential election in November and a constitutional referendum in June that solidified President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev's position as the oil-rich country's preeminent leader.

But will the outcome of these elections match the public demand for change that built up over the course of a protracted leadership transition and boomed after the biggest crisis since gaining independence? And, if not, can Toqaev's regime be confident in its ability to stay the course amid headwinds that show no signs of abating?

Rico Isaacs, a lecturer at Britain's University of Lincoln, told RFE/RL that in the past Kazakhstan's leadership has sought to "manage the inputs" of elections by not allowing independent parties to register and stacking the odds in favor of pro-government candidates.

This time "they're perhaps looking for a modicum of change, but only the type of change that they can control," said Isaacs, the author of a 2022 book on political opposition in Kazakhstan.

'Too Honest' To Be A Candidate

Critics have argued that this desire for control has been all too obvious in this election, especially in the single-mandate races that account for 29 out of 98 seats in the parliament and that are being reintroduced for the first time in nearly two decades as part of electoral reforms.

Last week RFE/RL detailed cases of self-nominated candidates in the upcoming parliament and city council races being registered, kicked off the ballot, and then readmitted following appeal.

Zhanar Dzhandosova says her campaign team has been affixing sticky tape reading "excluded for honesty" across her now-redundant campaign posters.
Zhanar Dzhandosova says her campaign team has been affixing sticky tape reading "excluded for honesty" across her now-redundant campaign posters.

But RFE/RL's Kazakh Service this week reported that some of those reregistered candidates have now been struck off for a second time after electoral authorities triumphed in seesaw court cases.

One former city council candidate, Zhanar Dzhandosova, told RFE/RL that her campaign team has been affixing sticky tape reading "excluded for honesty" across her now-redundant campaign posters, after electoral authorities succeeded in their appeal against her reinstatement.

Zhandosova, who runs a think tank called Sandzh, said their initial objection was due to her disclosing information about a down payment that she made on an apartment in a building under construction.

But she added that their real motivation might be her think tank's track record of highlighting budget irregularities and overspending by Almaty's city government -- the very background that made her want to compete in the elections to begin with.

"Officials are terrified of any sort of public scrutiny," Zhandosova told RFE/RL. "If they hadn't excluded me for that they would have found something else."

LISTEN: Joining host Bruce Pannier to discuss the upcoming election and more are Paolo Sorbello, the English-language editor at the Kazakh independent media outlet, and Darkhan Umirbekov, digital editor at the Astana bureau of RFE/RL’s Kazakh service, known locally as Azattyq.

A Look At Kazakhstan's Upcoming Parliamentary Elections
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Another candidate excluded for a second time is Aigerim Tleuzhanova, whom prosecutors have criminal charged with the seizure of Almaty airport during the deadly events in January 2022, when at least 238 people died across the country.

Tleuzhanova, a recognized civil activist, has denied any role in the taking of the airport.

January's Long Shadow

It is the events now known as Bloody January that represent the before and after in Toqaev's presidency, both strengthening demand for political change and giving authorities even greater reason to fear dissatisfaction spilling onto the streets.

Beginning as a socioeconomic protest in the western province of Mangystau, the unrest spread across the country and saw protesters calling for the end of the regime that was most closely associated with Toqaev's overbearing, authoritarian predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev.

The shift from peaceful demonstrations to violent chaos appeared to coincide with a struggle for power in Kazakhstan that led to Nazarbaev ceding his remaining official positions to Toqaev and publicly backing his protege.

But if the elite battle solidified Toqaev's power, giving him the confidence to call and win snap elections last year, it has not ruled out the possibility of further social ructions, said veteran Kazakh political commentator Dosym Satpaev.

Satpaev argues that the upcoming vote offers little evidence that Kazakhstan is ready to move away from "electoral authoritarianism" or turn parliament into more than what he calls "the legal department of the presidential administration."

Kazakh police detain a protester during a rally on the day of the Kazakh presidential election in Almaty on November 20, 2022.
Kazakh police detain a protester during a rally on the day of the Kazakh presidential election in Almaty on November 20, 2022.

"Toqaev wants the system that he is familiar with -- he is frightened of major liberalization measures because he believes he might lose control," he said.

"But that is another kind of trap for him, because while a part of the population is relieved that Nazarbaev has faded, there is also a part that blames Toqaev for suppressing the protests, where there were so many victims. As regards the population as a whole, there may not be that much patience to use up," Satpaev added.

The geopolitical environment has grown more complicated in the meantime.

Northern neighbor Russia demonstrated its backing for Toqaev during the 2022 crisis by dispatching troops to Kazakhstan as part of a short-term mission of the Collective Security Treaty Organization -- an intervention seen by many as vital in restoring stability.

But Russian politicians close to President Vladimir Putin have not hidden their anger at Kazakhstan's proclamations of neutrality in the Ukraine war, while war-related issues have affected the Central Asian country that shares the world's longest continuous land border with Russia disproportionately.

"The war in Ukraine has added to awful inflation, which is hitting Kazakhs' pockets hard," said Satpaev. "This was one of the main triggers for [Bloody] January."

'Back To The Future'

The limited reforms pursued in Kazakhstan over the last year have been accompanied by a process that observers have called de-Nazarbaevization -- shorthand for a dumbing down of the legacy of the man who stood at the top of the tree in Kazakhstan for more than three decades.

The most obvious example of the trend is the return of the capital's name to Astana, after over three years as Nur-Sultan, an unpopular rebrand that Toqaev himself proposed when he took office in 2019 under the gaze of his powerful predecessor.

Another is the renaming -- at Toqaev's initiative -- of Kazakhstan's ruling party, Nur Otan, whose offices were attacked by crowds along with government buildings during the January events.

Toqaev has quit his membership of that party, now called Amanat, after championing a constitutional change preventing presidents from having party affiliations. But the party is still central to the political establishment and expected to lead the vote.

Isaacs of the University of Lincoln argues that none of the six other parties competing for the 69 seats available to them can be considered opposition and instead they largely represent "an attempt by the system to cover different parts of the electorate."

In this vein, Respublica, a newly registered party, appears to be clearly geared towards youth, with a mostly young campaign team decked in black t-shirts with small Kazakh flags on their sleeves at campaign events.

A robot read out parts of the newly registered Respublica party's manifesto at a March 15 campaign event in Astana.
A robot read out parts of the newly registered Respublica party's manifesto at a March 15 campaign event in Astana.

On March 15, Respublica staged a flashy technology-focused "metaforum" in Astana, where a robot called REleader read out parts of the party's election campaign. Respublica's pro-change platform has not extended to criticism of Toqaev or his policies.

Isaacs said that for all the effort to distinguish the March 19 election from those held under Nazarbaev, the vote mostly recalls elections in 1999 and 2004 when single mandate and party candidates also competed together as part of a mixed system.

Despite the tweaks to the system, they have never kept the government from getting the loyal parliament that it wanted, he added.

"To me, this election looks like a bit of a Back To The Future election," said Isaacs, referencing the famous Hollywood movie.

Written and reported by Chris Rickleton with reporting by Kazakh Service correspondent Yelnur Alimova
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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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    Yelnur Alimova

    Yelnur Alimova is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.