EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT IT!
I am finally in Astana, the capital and my old home. It is still winter but the sun is out and the streets, at this time of year, are more clear of snow than I can remember – maybe this year Nauryz will be a real spring, a real ‘new day’? I still wear my old army hat and winter coat as I walk across the marble clad square near Baiterek but I no longer move like a penguin. There are quite a few people around including volunteers canvassing with leaflets, baseball caps and shirts in their favoured party’s colours but they are less persuasive than those in Almaty and a biting wind has probably helped to drive away their smiles.
Away from the canvassers I amble towards my next meeting and decide to ask some people their views – a family with only a small amount of English understand what I ask and give the thumbs up – smiling and pointing at the cocoon wrapped child in a pushchair – I take this to mean that the election it is for her and the future but there may have been another meaning. A group of boys and girls were ‘hanging out’ in the lee of the trees on a bench and they were keen to talk, often all at once! They were wrapped in scarves and hoodies looking like young people from any part of the globe. Of them all, Aigerim chose her words in English carefully, stopping the others with waves of her hands so she could speak. ‘I want to say the right thing – not the right thing for the party or the government, but the correct English!’ Her friends translated and laughed between themselves. She continued, ‘I feel that this is the time for the people to make change!’ I enquire as to why she thinks this? ‘I have not been able to vote before, I have not been interested in government before, I see my parent’s friends, people I know standing in the election and I have listened to what they are saying and I believe in them – they will make a difference!’ Their friends clap in appreciation and to keep away the cold. I asked her what is really different this time? ‘Everyone is talking about it!’ I realised she is right – everyone is talking about it!
A little later, I attend the official briefings for journalists and have the open opportunity to talk to candidates from parties and independent candidates. They are full of positivity and hope. They cite the same issues that need solving, the economy, infrastructure development, health care and a unified Kazakh population – some mention foreign policy but probably because I am foreign. These are the issues that President Tokayev – I listen as they talk passionately and I wonder how the people will choose between them? In some voting regions there are over thirty candidates to choose from and it will be interesting to see the voting process in action.
As the polling stations are being prepared, blue curtained booths are being constructed and information boards erected in numerous Universities and public halls across the country, I am also conscious that such an intricate ‘new’ process may have its issues! Some of these issues have been foreseen and planned for, even down to changing the size of the voting paper so that more ballots will fit the boxes. Processes are in place for people with mobility problems and volunteers have been trained to help but what is important is that the process has to be seen to be fair. For example, there are already murmurs, on social media, about independent candidates’ lack of access to the press – these inequality problems will need to be investigated and acted upon after the election, if only so that the trust in the electoral process is maintained and the momentum of the current positivity is continued.
That evening, I join some other international journalists and we mull over the day’s meetings and share stories. For some it is their first time in Astana and their curiosity in culture and history fired up and I am happy to know they will introduce the opportunities of Kazakhstan to a new audience in their home countries. Others are more seasoned election reporters, among them there is general agreement that these elections feel different and that they are part of the pathway to a new Kazakhstan – we wearily separate to complete our copy and recharge the batteries for another full day of interviews and research.
The next day winter has returned with light snow, low grey leaden colour clouds and the biting wind. In a couple of days, polling day, more snow is forecast which may possibly cool the excitement too. There will be winners but there will be more losers and the reaction of the losers will be critical. If they feel they can lose graciously because the process was truly fair and transparent, then trust will be maintained, if not? Well ‘everybody will be talking about it!’ But for the wrong reasons!
by Gareth Stamp