Kazakhstan has elections on March 19 and for the first time in nearly 20 years, there’s a chance that candidates who are not from pro-government parties might win seats.
Polls will be conducted for regional, district and city administrations known as maslikhats, as well as for the Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament.
The Mazhilis elections will differ from the last four parliamentary polls (2007, 2012, 2016 and 2021).
On June 5, voters in Kazakhstan approved changes to roughly one-third of the country’s constitution. Some of those changes affected the Mazhilis. There were 107 seats in the legislature, but nine seats reserved for the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan—a body representing the many ethnic groups in the country and chaired by the president—were abolished. Only the 98 seats previously filled via elections remain.
The amendments also reintroduced a split system for electing deputies last used in 2004.
In the elections, 69 seats will be chosen according to party lists and 29 through voting in single-mandate districts.
In the last three parliamentary elections starting with 2012, the seats were all taken by the same three pro-presidential parties – the ruling Nur-Otan party, Ak Zhol and the Communist People’s Party.
Pro-presidential parties are guaranteed to have a parliamentary majority since only they are competing for the 69 party list seats. But the 29 seats available in single-mandate districts offer a chance for people not affiliated with pro-government parties to at least have a few voices in parliament.
Tokayev has said he'll give the people a greater say in how the country is run (Credit: Presidency of Kazakhstan).
That would be in keeping with a pledge made by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev when he addressed the need for constitutional change just weeks after the mass unrest and violence of last year’s “Bloody January” left, officially, 238 people dead.
Tokayev said the people would have a greater say in how the country is run. The constitutional amendments were thus part of the path to creating a “new” Kazakhstan.
Deputy chairman of Kazakhstan’s Central Election Commission Konstantin Petrov announced on February 19 that 435 candidates were registered to compete for the 29 single-mandate seats, with “on average 15 candidates per mandate.”
Petrov added that 76 candidates were from the registered political parties.
Since Petrov’s remarks, two dozen candidates, at least, have been disqualified, mostly for issues relating to tax or documents. A few have won court cases to reinstate their registrations.
It appears that all of those disqualified from Mazhilis or maslikhat polls are independent candidates. None of the 76 candidates put forward by registered political parties seem to have encountered any registration problems.
Some of the better-known independent candidates still in the running face a daunting race.
Inga Imanbai is running for a Mazhilis seat in a district in commercial capital Almaty and is competing against 36 other candidates.
Imanbai is the wife of Zhanbolat Mamai, the leader of the unregistered Democratic Party of Kazakhstan. He was detained in February for organising a memorial meeting for victims of the January violence and has been in jail since.
Imanbai has been an outspoken critic of the government, often appearing at press conferences. She released an open letter on the day US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kazakhstan. It referred to the detention of her husband and criticised government policies.
Other independents bidding for seats in the maslikhats have been disqualified, some because of alleged offences the committed during the January 2022 unrest, known in Kazakh as “Qandy Qantar.”
The events remain a sore issue for many in Kazakhstan. The government has not come close to disclosing the details of what appears to have amounted to an attempt to oust Tokayev from power. The turn-of-the-year unrest began with widespread peaceful anti-government protests.
Tokayev claimed “20,000 terrorists” were marauding around Kazakhstan. But his remarks quickly slipped from the official narrative of the events and there is still no compelling evidence that terrorists were involved.
Relatives of people detained, or imprisoned, in connection with the unrest continue to say their incarcerated kin have been wrongly accused. So do relatives of some of those killed in the violence, who were posthumously branded terrorists by the authorities.
Several independent candidates are being investigated for alleged roles in the unrest.
One of the most publicised cases involves activist Aigerim Tleuzhan. She was running as a candidate for Almaty’s maslikhat in district 3.
Tleuzhan was rejected as a candidate in mid-February. The district election commission had doubts about her bank documents, but the Supreme Court overruled its decision on February 27, permitting Tleuzhan the right to compete in the elections.
On February 28, Tleuzhan went to the local election commission to pick up her official candidate’s registration papers. She was detained as she exited the building on charges of being one of the people who attempted to “seize” Almaty airport during Bloody January.
On March 11, the decision to bar Tleuzhan from running for a maslikhat seat was confirmed.
There have been no genuine registered opposition parties in Kazakhstan for some 15 years, so it has been impossible for anyone not in a pro-presidential party to win a seat.
Several opposition parties have attempted in recent years to register with the Justice Ministry, but have continually been rejected, usually because of unsatisfactory registration documents.
But the Baytak party, a green party, and the Respublika party formed by businessmen, both pro-government and both previously unknown to the public, registered easily in, respectively, late November and mid-December.
So even though seven parties will compete in these elections, all are pro-government. It’s been that way for 20 years.
That raises questions about how the public will react if only a few or none of the independent candidates win seats.
The people protesting in early 2022 wanted changes in the way the country was run. They also desired more say in determining the country’s course.
Tokayev promised exactly that, but if the election results show that essentially the status quo has been preserved, it will be difficult for many in Kazakhstan to see any change at all.
Ominously, Tokayev seems to be preparing for future unrest.
On March 13, Tokayev announced a series of initiatives to modernise the government, but his comments focused on preventing “illegal activities”. He said, “People who sow discord in the country and call for disrupting public order will be severely punished.”
Tokayev added that the initiatives would be formally announced after the elections.
His words echoed comments from Interior Minister Marat Akhmetzhanov, who said on March 9 that Kazakhstan would toughen punishment for “calls to mass riots.”
One could get the impression that the authorities already believe the public will not view the outcome of the elections as a step towards creating a New Kazakhstan and are letting it be known that anyone with plans to protest at the results will be punished, just the way they would have been in the Old Kazakhstan.