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Hints Of Change? Five Takeaways From Kazakhstan's Parliamentary Elections


A Kazakh voter takes part in the parliamentary elections in Almaty on March 19.
A Kazakh voter takes part in the parliamentary elections in Almaty on March 19.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Parliamentary elections held on March 19 marked the end of the first political cycle in Kazakhstan since bloody unrest killed 238 people and saw President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev emerge as Kazakhstan's preeminent leader last year.

Faced with demands for change after the state crackdown during what has been called Bloody January, Toqaev has championed a number of reforms, including to electoral laws, which he pledged would lead to a more competitive political system.

But were these elections really any different from the sort favored by the man that cast a shadow over his first 2 1/2 years as president -- his long-ruling, overbearing mentor, Nursultan Nazarbaev?

Here are five takeaways from the vote.

Even Without President, Ruling Party Leads The Way

As predicted, the ruling Amanat party overwhelmed the competition in the party-list races that account for 70 percent of the legislature's seats, although its margin of victory was more modest than in votes in recent years.

In 2021, the party was called Nur Otan and competed under the chairmanship of then-President Nazarbaev, who retained that powerful role even after stepping down as head of state and promoting Toqaev as his successor. It won that election with 71 percent of the vote, down from 82 percent in 2016.

After ruling party offices were targeted by crowds during the January 2022 unrest, Toqaev displaced Nazarbaev as party leader, oversaw its rebrand, and then quit its ranks ahead of a new constitution that forbade sitting presidents from being members of political parties.

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (file photo)
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (file photo)

Preliminary results showed Amanat with more than 54 percent, with second-placed Auyl scoring just 11 percent.

But Amanat will have to live with five other establishment parties under the same roof, as well as 29 lawmakers who won single-mandate races.

Does that mean that the party is on its way to becoming a "first among equals"?

Not really.

Firstly, of the more than 400 candidates competing for the 29 seats reserved for single-mandate races, many were Amanat representatives.

Preliminary results show that fully 23 of those races were won by Amanat members, meaning the party is likely to have at least 60 of the 98 seats in the lower house.

Moreover, as Nikolai Kuzmin, a columnist for the business publication Kursiv, noted last month, Amanat remains the only party with the nationwide machinery that the government can tap into.

"Amanat has a system of regional branches...a media holding, a sociological service, a youth wing, and a massive presence in social networks through party activists and sympathizers. In terms of the scope of opportunities to work with society, to probe and form public opinion, the party in power has no equal," he wrote.

This contributes to a situation where "the government needs the party" more than the other way around, Kuzmin added.

Dirty Tricks

Elections began with a scandal in Kazakhstan's third city, Shymkent, after documents that resembled official election results appeared online before voting had even begun.

An audio recording purporting to show officials discussing this alleged violation was also making the rounds online. This led independent candidates to make public appeals on the eve of the vote.

"We don't want a repeat of Bloody January," warned Omir Shynybekuli, as he demanded Toqaev order the suspension of the Shymkent city council and investigate the claims.

Kairbek Kunanbaev, head of the city's election commission, responded that the documents circulating online were "fakes" and a "provocation," before noting that the authorities were investigating their origins.

Other reports of violations were the sort that have haunted Kazakh elections for years, with multiple instances of apparent ballot stuffing documented on video and several claims of people voting in more than one polling station.

One clip of ballot stuffing by electoral officials in a village in the Almaty region has seen the secretary and another member of the local election commission suspended from their posts.

WATCH: Videos appearing on social media purportedly show instances of ballot stuffing and voters casting ballots in multiple locations.

Kazakh Elections Will Bring 'No Changes,' Say Voters
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But the suspicion remains that these ills are a feature, rather than a bug, in Kazakhstan's electoral system.

The International Election Observation Mission of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) "assessed counting negatively in 58 of the 128 polling stations observed due to significant procedural errors and omissions and disregard of reconciliation procedures," it said in a statement published on March 20.

The mission flagged concerns about limitations on the work of international and local monitors and said that "the counting process raised questions about whether ballots were counted and reported honestly."

No Country For Opposition?

With none of the seven parties competing resembling any type of opposition to the system, it was the single-mandate races that added an element of the unknown to these elections.

Self-nominated candidates were being allowed to compete for parliament for the first time in nearly two decades. But it always seemed unlikely that the authorities would allow their most ardent critics -- such as opposition activist Inga Imanbai and journalist Lukpan Akhmedyarov -- to take seats in the lower house.

Sure enough, neither won their races, with both finishing second and flagging major violations.

"Blatant falsification at a polling station in the city of Aksai, West Kazakhstan region," vented Akhmedyarov in a Facebook post featuring a video that appeared to show massive ballot stuffing.

"This is the same area where Abzal Kuspan's campaign declared a stunning victory for its candidate. Abzal, how do you like the taste of victory?" Akhmedyarov asked the winning candidate, a prominent lawyer.

Lukpan Akhmedyarov (file photo)
Lukpan Akhmedyarov (file photo)

Imanbai, whose husband, Zhanbolat Mamai, is currently facing charges relating to the January unrest, complained of "colossal ballot stuffing" in favor of famous publisher Yermurat Bapi.

Bapi has had his own career in opposition and sticks out among the names of single-mandate candidates that were elected to the parliament. But his candidacy divided opposition activists, some of whom have accused him of cooperating with the government.

Recognized government opposition and civil society figures, meanwhile, were among more than 50 majoritarian candidates deregistered ahead of election day for allegedly breaking campaign rules or having discrepancies in their financial declarations. Many observers said the disqualifications were politically motivated.

The OSCE/ODIHR mission called the punishments for the alleged violations of campaign and campaign-finance rules "disproportionate."

Apathetic Almaty And Astana?

Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city and the epicenter of the January 2022 violence, is traditionally the part of Kazakhstan where turnout for elections is the lowest. This time was no exception, with even electoral officials sensing the lull.

"We have never had anything like this -- not a single person before 7:10," said Bakytzhamal Ospanova, who oversaw voting at the national library building where she serves as director.

"Even the pensioners, our most active voters, have not come. This despite the fact that we literally handed out invitations to all of them so that they would not forget!" Ospanova told RFE/RL.

The Central Election Commission gave a turnout of 54.19 percent for the vote as a whole, with 25.8 percent in Almaty and 42.9 percent in Astana, respectively.

A voter in Almaty
A voter in Almaty

International observer Reinhold Lopatka, the deputy head of the Austrian delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, told RFE/RL that morning voting in the capital had been very quiet.

"As you can see here, now two people are voting," Lopatka said of the polling station in the National Opera House where Nazarbaev cast his vote. "But before that, there was not a single voter.... At another polling station I visited earlier, only 1 percent of the voters had voted [by the time I left]."

The OSCE/ODIHR mission said it "consistently noted discrepancies between the number of voters casting their ballots and the officially reported preliminary turnout figures."

Men Of Few Words -- For Journalists

Both Toqaev and Nazarbaev made appearances at polling stations on voting day, but neither man was prepared to face open questions from the press.

Journalists had been told to expect the president's appearance at around 9 a.m. at a polling station inside Astana's Palace of Schoolchildren.

But Toqaev cast his vote there almost as soon as the voting booths opened, at around 7 a.m., with the Information Ministry citing a "change in schedule" for the decision.

At the presidential election in November, Nazarbaev used an interview to put distance between himself and a former ally who is facing trial on treason charges as part of the government's investigation of the 2022 uprising.

But this time, after voting and wishing families in Kazakhstan a happy springtime holiday, Nazarbaev ignored the questions of waiting journalists, who were kept at bay by his personal security.

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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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    RFE/RL's Kazakh Service

    RFE/RL's Kazakh Service offers informed and accurate reporting in the Kazakh and Russian languages about issues that matter in Kazakhstan, while providing a dynamic platform for audience engagement and the free exchange of news and ideas.

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