In Kazakhstan, apparently more open legislative elections

Kazakhstan votes in early elections on Sunday that could elect independent candidates as delegates, signaling a timid democratic start in Central Asia’s biggest country despite persistent authoritarian vigilance.

Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (01:01 GMT), AFP reporters noted in Astana and Almaty, Kazakhstan’s two main cities. Nearly twelve million voters have until 8:00 p.m. local time to vote.

Among the novelties of this election, candidates not affiliated with parties can present themselves, for the first time since 2004. The threshold for entry into the Majilis (the lower house of parliament with 98 elected members) has been reduced to 5% and has a quota of 30%. Women, youth and people with disabilities have been introduced.

The changes have somewhat revived the volatile political landscape of this former Soviet republic bordering Russia and China, which is still marked by the deadly riots of January 2022.

Under the previous legislature, only three parties were represented and all supported President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who was easily re-elected in November with over 80% of the vote in an election without any real competition. .

“The electoral system has changed and gives the impression of choice. But in reality, the president and his administration keep the vote count in their own hands,” political scientist Dimach Alzhanov told AFP.

– “Keep Power” –

“In a totalitarian country, elections are held to maintain power, not change it,” says Mr. Alzhanov.

These elections, which also pertain to local parliaments, follow a 2022 constitutional reform steered by Mr Tokayev, in power since 2019.

The 69-year-old leader shows a desire to “reset state institutions” and “advance modernisation” in the country rich in natural resources that began last year.

Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev puts his ballot in the ballot box at a polling station in Astana on March 19, 2023 (Kazakhstan Presidential Press Service/AFP – Handout)

Because strong inequalities and corruption have not disappeared and inflation of more than 20% reduces the purchasing power of some 20 million Kazakhs.

After the January 2022 riots, Mr Tokayev also broke with his mentor and predecessor, the all-powerful Nursultan Nazarbayev, in power for three decades.

These demonstrations against the high cost of living ignited the country with Almaty as the epicenter. Their repression officially killed 238 people.

After a languid presidential campaign in November, Almaty looked fearful for these elections, which coincide with the arrival of spring in the city at the foot of the mountains.

“I’m 20 years old, this is the first time I’ve seen new parties and independents in parliamentary elections, it’s new to me,” graphic designer Adia Abubakir told AFP.

– want to “believe it” –

Election posters are chaotically displayed on the windows of restaurants, construction barriers or lampposts.

and often with vague slogans, such as “Order where truth is”, “With me, there’s no messing around” or even “I don’t spare the people”.

At a polling station in Almaty, March 19, 2023 (AFP - Ruslan Pryanikov).
At a polling station in Almaty, March 19, 2023 (AFP – Ruslan Pryanikov).

In all, seven parties are participating in this election, including two new parties which have been registered in a short span of time. But many opposition parties and independent candidates are banned.

“I believe my voice can change something, even if many people don’t believe in this modernization of the electoral system,” says 21-year-old journalist Akbota Silem.

Andrei Chebotarev, a political analyst based in Almaty, estimated that “at the end of these elections, there should be four or five parties represented in parliament”.

“It is beneficial to power, as parties loyal (to the president) will be present in parliament and the president’s party will retain a majority of seats,” he told AFP.

“On the other hand, the diversity of parties will have an impact on the acceptance of the election results by the population and internationally,” concluded Mr. Chebotarev.

Despite this relative openness, Mr Tokayev has already warned that “those who sow discord in the country will be severely punished”.

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