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A Question For Kazakhstan

Deja vu all over again: President Nazarbaev on election day
Deja vu all over again: President Nazarbaev on election day
Outpost recently caught up with Erlan Idrissov, Kazakhstan's ambassador to the United States, and seized the opportunity to ask him about the Kazakh presidential election that took place on April 3. To no one's surprise, President Nursultan Nazarbaev won an overwhelming majority of the votes yet again.

We wondered about that. So how long, precisely, is Nazarbaev is planning to stay in power? "He answered this question himself," Idrissov responded. "He will stay as long as the people of Kazakhstan will want him to stay and as long as his health and physical and mental ability will permit him to stay." Yesterday, apparently, the people of Kazakhstan finally made up their minds -- since Nazarbaev chose the moment to announce that he will stay on in the job until 2030. Just to make things more confusing, the president declared that he was simply responding to wishes expressed by the national parliament back in the 1990s. But no matter. At age 70, he's already been in office for 21 years. Judging by his statement, he seems to feel that he's only just getting started.

We asked the affable Ambassador Idrissov whether Kazakhstan has been feeling any hints of uncertainty wafting in from the Arab world, where recent events have forced some other national leaders of comparable longevity to go into early retirement.

The ambassador ticked off a list of factors that, as he sees it, have led to popular anger in the Middle East: economic underperformance, interethnic tensions, frustrated young people. Nazarbaev, he says, has anticipated all of them and taken corresponding measures precisely to prevent the sort of popular upheaval that the world has now witnessed in the Middle East: "We in Kazakhstan are secured against this because Nazarbaev and his team have addressed these issues as part of their long-term policy."

The ambassador explains that Nazarbaev has always paid close attention to economic growth -- and especially among the young. Kazakhstan has succeeded, he says, in cutting the poverty level from 45 percent to 10 in recent years -- "an unprecedented achievement." Idrissov, pointing to the president's sky-high popularity ratings, says that the younger generation approves of his performance just as wholeheartedly as everyone else. "Therefore there are no grounds in Kazakhstan for the type of events that happened in the Middle East."

He's got a point. In this respect, perhaps, the point of comparison for Kazakhstan is less Egypt than China. Both Nazarbaev's supporters and the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party can look back on several years of solid economic growth (unlike most Middle Eastern dictatorships). Rulers in Kazakhstan and China both claim that one of the preconditions of this growth has been the "strong leadership" provided by governing elites. Tamper with that, it's implied, and you could be playing havoc with a winning formula. It is hard to argue with success, of course.

Yet there's that one nagging question that always comes to mind at this point. If Nazarbaev is so popular, why doesn't he just stand in a free election? One with no constraints on the news media, no built-in advantages for the president's political party, no restrictions on the opposition parties, no workplace pressure on people to vote?

We don't doubt that Nazarbaev enjoys a lot of genuine support. But is anyone out here seriously going to claim that the April 3 election was free and fair? The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- the same organization that Kazakhstan chaired in 2010 -- spoke of "key shortcomings inconsistent with OSCE commitments, including restrictions on freedom of assembly and freedom of expression." The opposition parties, caught off guard by a hair-trigger election schedule, barely had time to prepare. (And those were the allowed parties, mind you. One presidential candidate later said that he'd voted for Nazarbaev.) The president won with 95 percent of the vote -- much higher, as one observer pointed out, than the victory margin of Nazarbaev's counterpart in Turkmenistan.

Opinion polls and fuzzy feelings don't make much of a litmus test when you're talking about political mandates. Elections do. So let's see a real one in Kazakhstan. Then we'll know for sure how popular the president really is.

Just a thought.

-- Muhammad Tahir