Notes from the Kazakhstan Elections

Richard Weitz, The Diplomat, April 11, 2011

The election in Kazakhstan was dismissed by critics as a sham. Richard Weitz reports from the country that it’s not that simple.

Kazakhstan Presidential ElectionI was one of a number of monitors invited to observe Kazakhstan’s April 3 presidential election, which was won easily by the incumbent, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Like other monitors, I met with the leaders of Kazakhstan’s major political parties, discussed the ballot with officials, visited polling stations, and talked with dozens of voters. I also exchanged views with monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which fielded the largest mission, as well as with other observer teams, foreign diplomats, and the media.

Nazarbayev triumphed easily, securing 95.5 percent of the vote. But although some critics have dismissed the results out of hand, the reality on the ground is that many officials did actually try to conduct a fair poll. At the precincts I visited in Almaty, for example, rules regarding the secrecy of the ballot and the exclusion of electioneering or other inappropriate behaviour in voting areas were followed scrupulously.

The local election boards seemed to take a responsible attitude to problems, redirecting voters who went to the wrong polling place, while denying them the right to vote if they forgot their papers. Others were correctly added to the lists when they came with the right documents (propiska). I saw a lot of these additions at the first place I visited—a polling place at the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty, where some students had only recently moved into the dormitory. For the first time, the electoral boards took care to verify the voters’ lists by sending teams to people’s homes during the two months between the announcement of the special election in early February and voting day.

One of my colleagues saw several instances in which voters who hadn’t previously been registered didn’t know they needed to bring their residency permit to register at the polling station (their general identification documents weren’t enough). The lesson here is that important changes in voting procedures need to be better publicized to avoid complicating the lives of eager voters. People lacking such residency permits are often deemed ineligible to vote—a situation one representative at a local nongovernmental organization in Astana said applied to thousands of people in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city.

There was some overcrowding at polling stations, especially in the morning, just after the precincts opened. For example, it looked like most of the students I saw at the Kazakh National University in Almaty had tried to vote as soon as the polls opened. That made the situation needlessly chaotic and potentially dangerous. This problem could be dealt with by better crowd control training for election commissioners. In addition, the rule about having seven election board commissioners for each precinct regardless of the number of voters should clearly be dropped. For the largest precincts (those with say 3,000 potential voters) there should be more local electoral board members. They could also do things like call on the police to establish a perimeter to control the number of people allowed into the building.

With Nazarbayev’s re-election expected, most local and international attention centred on the turnout figure. Many political parties, such as Azat, Ak Jol and Ruhaniyat, simply decided not to participate since their potential candidates had little hope of defeating Nazarbayev given his popularity and the limited time they had to prepare for the snap ballot. A few opposition parties went further, however, and called for a boycott, hoping to claim whatever percentage of people didn’t vote as their supporters. The Communist Party of Kazakhstan (CPK) and Alga, together with several civil society groups, formed a Narodovlastiye (People’s Power) coalition to organize the boycott campaign.

The government and its supporters, of course, were keen for a high turnout. Tactics for securing one included everything from the usual and legitimate get-out-the-vote campaigns, to what the OSCE monitors said was clear fraud, such as ballot stuffing and multiple, proxy, and group voting. A recurring problem was excessive pressure on people to cast ballots, probably due to overzealous local officials wanting to gain favour with national leaders by securing an extremely high turnout. (The fact is, nobody wanted to be the person in charge of the locality with the lowest turnout).

In any case, the effort of some officials to ‘over fulfil’ the plan undermined the good work by the many more officials who tried to run a clean election. A 90 percent victory with 80 percent or even 70 percent turnout would have been a real achievement. But although one official was fired over his efforts to boost turnout, in the future it would be better if more officials were dismissed at an earlier stage in the electoral process to prevent the misbehaviour of a few from compromising the integrity of the entire election.

That said, where we were, the official turnout was much more credible—one precinct, for example, recorded only around a 50 percent turnout. I met many people here who claimed that they didn’t vote—not because they opposed the regime or the elections, but because they were too busy, didn’t see the point, etc. They also said that while people encouraged them to vote, nobody tried to force them to cast a ballot.

I also didn’t have anyone try to deny me access to polling places or instruct me what to tell the numerous media outlets covering the voting. In our meetings with leaders of political parties and independent groups, I heard frank and comprehensive criticism of government policies, including over the election. Meanwhile, even those parties that were boycotting the current ballot intend to field candidates in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Kazakhstan’s political opposition is weak and divided—the country’s political parties are either parties of power or parties of personalities. What Kazakhstan really needs is parties of principle—those that offer the voters clearly differing platforms rather than clashing personal ambitions. Recent reforms would allow the second place party some representation in parliament, even if its vote total doesn’t exceed the seven percent threshold, but the authorities may need to lower the threshold to make parliament more inclusive. The Kazakhstani authorities also should change the registration procedures to make it easier for parties such as the All-National Social Democratic Party and Azat that want to merge.

I also met the head of the Central Election Commission (CEC) in Astana on March 31, a meeting that was broadcast on national TV. The commissioners seemed eager to run an administratively clean election and explained how they had sought to address some of the earlier criticisms made by the CEC. For example, they stopped using electronic voting after the OSCE had complained about transparency and other problems with the new technology. Many of the voters apparently also suspected the electronic system allowed the authorities to monitor, record, and report their votes, and so preferred the anonymity of a hand ballot dropped into an empty box.

Candidates for president are required to be fluent in the state (Kazakh) language and the CEC appointed a Linguistic Commission to assess potential candidates’ knowledge of Kazakh. Some of the people who failed, such as Ualikhan Kaisarov of the Azat party, seemed to know Kazakh, while some of the Kazaks I met questioned the alleged fluency of Sen. Gani Kasymov of the Party of Patriots. It’s clear, then, that the Commission needs to establish clear objective criteria for evaluating candidates’ knowledge of Kazakh. It also should make its procedures more transparent by making the results of the exam public.

The counting and tabulation of the results also needs to be made more transparent. The election authorities should post vote totals for each precinct on the internet as soon as they close the voting process, something that would allow the observers to check the totals with their own records and point out any discrepancies. It would also allow everyone to check the counting and quickly make clear anomalies, such as when two similar districts report widely differing results.

Another good idea would be public debates among candidates. Although some objected that it would be inappropriate to ask the incumbent president, who declined to actively campaign, to participate, candidates could still designate a proxy to represent them. In the case of parliamentary elections, the participants can be political party representatives, for example. In addition to covering any debates, the media needs to be allowed to provide analytical coverage of elections without having to treat such coverage as political advertising that candidates must pay for.

Last but not least, Kazakh and international experts also need to think about how the electoral procedures should treat incumbent presidents. This is obviously not just a problem for Kazakhstan. In every country, incumbents can engage in activities to fulfil their jobs that resemble what they might do as part of their campaign for re-election—meeting with constituents, attending ceremonies, etc. The special case of Nazarbayev makes the issue particularly complex since he’s treated as Kazakhstan’s George Washington—the country’s founding father. After he ceases standing for re-election, there should be provisions to account for the extra media coverage incumbents receive due to their official roles.

One of the big worries about Nazarbayev is that he’ll try to remain in office indefinitely. In 2010, the legislature gave Nazarbayev the privileged legal status of ‘Leader of the Nation’. Still, the decision, although it has been met with some criticism, at least provides a mechanism that allows Nazarbayev to eventually withdraw from the electoral process. If this happens, then elections have a good chance of becoming more free and fair, while Nazarbayev could take a cue from Southeast Asia, where Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew has maintained an influential post-leadership role as minister mentor.