Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

Nur Otan Tops Kazakh Parliamentary Election That ‘Lacked Genuine Competition’

The new Kazakh parliament will, at least numerically, look very much like the previous iteration.

Catherine Putz
Nur Otan Tops Kazakh Parliamentary Election That ‘Lacked Genuine Competition’
Credit: Pixabay

Nur Otan, Kazakhstan’s ruling party, surprised none by topping preliminary results in Kazakhstan’s January 10 parliamentary elections. According to the Central Election Commission, Nur Otan — which is led by First President Nursultan Nazarbayev — captured 71.1 percent in the election, which the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said “lacked genuine competition.”

Two other parties, both with seats in the previous parliament, cleared the 7 percent threshold to secure seats — Ak Zhol (Bright Path) and the People’s Party (formerly the Communist People’s Party).

The exact seat breakdown has not been announced, but Nur Otan held 84 seats in the previous parliament, with Ak Zhol and the People’s Party holding seven seats each. The new parliament will have a similar breakdown, heavily weighted toward Nur Otan.

The OSCE said the election campaign was not competitive and that voters “had no genuine political alternatives to choose from” as “all political parties contesting the elections supported the policies of the ruling party.”

The All-National Social Democratic Party (OSDP) boycotted the election. Askhat Rakhimzhanov, the head of the party, said the election would be dominated by the “same” political elite as always in explaining his decision to boycott. That decision, however, came after Mukhtar Ablyazov called on his followers to vote for OSDP.

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Other nascent opposition movements were not able to register for the election. While 2020 amendments to the country’s law on political parties, cast as reforms, halved the required number of members to register a party — from 40,000 to 20,000 — the OSCE notes that other administrative barriers remain in place, alongside restrictive actions taken by the government to “effectively prevent the registration of new political parties.”

Among the hurdles are financial barriers. According to the OSCE, in order to register “parties that had received less than seven per cent of votes in the previous parliamentary elections had to pay a monetary deposit of KZT 637,500 (some EUR 1,250) for each candidate on their list.” This means that any new party, if it manages to register at all, has to pay to play in a way that established parties do not.

Eurasianet reported the mood at the polling stations its reporters visited as “sedate,” noting that the excitement was reserved for the streets, where police detained some demonstrators and ominously surrounded others. Riot police physically surrounded groups of protestors for several hours, kettling them in the frigid streets of Almaty without allowing them to leave.

Observers were also hassled both before and during election day. According to the OSCE, “multiple tax investigations on NGOs [were] initiated shortly before elections;” a new resolution from the Central Election Commission provided “wide discretion of precinct election commissions in dismissing citizen observers;” and obligatory COVID-19 testing rules were introduced. As a result, some observers and journalists reported being barred from entering polling stations and others ran into difficulties receiving the necessary COVID-19 test results from authorities. 

While nationwide turnout was reported as 63.3 percent, turnout varied widely across the country. The North Kazakhstan region came in with turnout of 75.5 percent while in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city and its former capital, only 30 percent of eligible voters turned up to the polls.

The OSCE, in its preliminary findings, commented that the election, which it said lacked genuine competition, “highlighted the need of the announced political reforms.” Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev came to power after Nazarbayev’s resignation in March 2019. Tokayev has often mentioned the need for reform in the political space, but his government’s efforts to date — such as the much-vaunted reform of the laws that govern protests and assemblies — have failed to make an impact on the reality of politics in Kazakhstan.