Can Kazakhstan’s Upcoming Elections Bring Meaningful Change to Its Parliament?

February 27, 2023

Kazakhstan returned the opportunity for citizens to be nominated in single-mandate districts. An average of 15 people will be competing for one seat. Such fierce competition could "disperse" the electorate, observers said. They also expect disappointment among the electorate after the elections and do not rule out new protests.

The election campaign in Kazakhstan began on February 18, 2023. Early parliamentary (Mazhilis) and local (maslikhat) elections will be held March 19. The main innovation this year is the return of a mixed electoral system. Kazakhstan will elect 69 Majilis seats from party lists and 29 from first-past-the-post districts.

Demand for change
Two years ago, citizens were passive about the election to the Mazhilis and maslikhats. In 2021 the official voter turnout barely exceeded 63%, and data from the independent research center Sandzh showed 44.7%. But this didn't mean at all absence of request for political participation - the people weren't satisfied with existing system and rules of the game, which were decided to change in January 2022 at mass protests. In March 2022, Tokayev presented a plan for political reform.

"The most interesting thing is that they made the percentage in elections between party lists and majoritarian districts 70 to 30. 70 for parties and 30 for single-member districts. All these changes, which many people call cosmetic, are presented by the authorities as significant. But will they lead to big qualitative changes or will they remain just an attempt to lower the temperature after January?" - says Farhad Kasenov.

New unknown parties
Party diversity is lacking in Kazakhstan. Nur Otan's monopoly in the parliament for many years, partly divided with the two not-so-opposition parties Aq Jol and the People's Party of Kazakhstan, significantly reduced the interest of citizens to the party system. This year, right before the elections, two new parties were allowed to register Baitak, which presents itself as a green party, and Respublika, a party of bloggers and young businessmen. Political scientist Viktor Kovtunovsky notes that it is too early to talk about real party competition, even with the new two parties.

"I can't judge how independent these new registered parties really are, and how their program and position will differ from the Amanat party. It was already known six months ago that early elections would take place, but I have not observed any signs of electoral activity from the old and new parties. They behave the same way they behaved under Nursultan Nazarbayev. Hence the impression that their activities are strictly controlled by the political bloc in Akorda (Presidential Administration of Kazakhstan - Ed. note)", says Viktor Kovtunovsky.

A total of seven parties will participate in the upcoming elections: Amanat, Respublika, Aq Jol (party of businessmen), Baitak (green party), Auyl (party of farmers), PPK (former Communist Party) and PSDP (Social-Democrats).
The leaders of the initiative group on creation of opposition party "Alga, Kazakhstan" applied ten times for registration of political association, but never received it. Therefore, the organizing committee put up its candidates in single-mandate districts. Marat Zhlanbayev, a well-known marathon runner, civil activist and member of the Alga Kazakhstan initiative group, said. Marat Zhylanbayev says he doubts the fairness of the elections and the vote count, but for him it is important to take part as a candidate for the Mazhilis, to see for himself how the opportunities for civil and political participation presented by the authorities work in reality.

"Why did our organizing committee decide to go? To expose (if there are violations of the law - Ed). New parties were registered recently, and we did not even know they existed. On their lists are entrepreneurs, artists, naturally they were missed. When I applied as a single-mandate candidate, there were three more candidates, and they were all former deputies. I think that the authorities send their own people who didn't make it on party lists," Marat Zhylanbaev suggested.

Opinion leaders are going to the election
Despite the background skepticism that usually accompanies the electoral process in Kazakhstan, the opportunity to nominate a candidate in the majoritarian districts in these elections caused a political buzz, especially among those who previously discussed politics only on social networks and whom President Tokayev recently disparagingly called couch experts. Now the social networks are full of self-nominated candidates' electoral advertising. An experienced candidate, politician Ualikhan Kaisarov, is also running in these elections. Previously he ran for president and several times he was a candidate for the parliament.

"Previously, elections were by party lists, and they were one hundred percent under the control of the government. Now the elections are majoritarian, the control of the government is out of hand, now the people will vote. That is why we are deploying a network of independent observers, who have already demonstrated their ability to defend votes and legitimacy at polling stations. No candidate is going to give up that easily. Independent candidates have a fairly high chance of winning these elections," says Kaisarov.

Analysts, however, are not inclined to share the optimistic expectations. Only 29 of 98 seats in the Mazhilis are open to single-seat candidates. The Central Election Commission reported 435 candidates (15 per seat) registered for the 29 electoral districts.

"The biggest competition was 41 and 42 candidates per seat in Astana, as well as 37, 33, 34 candidates in Almaty. The smallest was five candidates in Turkestan Oblast constituency №25. 359 candidates (82.53%) were self-nominated and 76 (17.47%) were nominated by political parties," according to a February 19 CEC press release.

Disappointment and protests
High competition for office might present a problem in this election because the law does not provide for a runoff. Political scientist Kazbek Beisebayev said the popular vote will disperse among the candidates, and in the end, whoever gets the highest percentage of the vote will win, though support might be minimal.

"In normal countries in elections there is a second round, where the two candidates who received more votes than the others go out. Then the voter chooses one of them. There is a suspicion that such a large number of candidates, in the absence of a second round, was made on purpose in order to scatter the votes among all the candidates," Beisebayev wrote on his social networking page.

Competition for seats in the maslikhats is much lower. The CEC registered 10,288 candidates, with an average of three to four applicants per seat.
"There has always been a struggle for financial flows in the maslikhats, as deputies approve the budget. Competition for a mandate there has always been backstabbing and quite fierce. I don't think the intensity of the fight will decrease now. Experts should not look at the elections to the Majilis, but to the elections to the maslikhats. Unfortunately, the measurement mechanisms that can be trusted there haven't been worked out yet," said political scientist Farhad Kasenov.

The excitement at these elections is likely to give way to disappointment, experts say. According to Victor Kovtunovsky, the real conditions for the realization of civil society demands have not been created in the country, because all of the restrictions that were created under the former Yelbasa (leader of the nation - this was the status Nursultan Nazarbayev had until February 2023) remained unchanged. The presidential administration still has the ability to manipulate both the voting process and the election results.

"It seems to me that the authorities are playing with fire. The demand for change, which is obvious and which was demonstrated by the January events, has gone nowhere. If the authorities continue to only imitate competition, and continue to determine domestic and foreign policy autocratically, if institutions of feedback from civil society are not established, it will eventually lead to an explosion," says Viktor Kovtunovsky.

Farhad Kasenov also mentioned the likelihood of more mass protests due to the authorities' unwillingness to democratize the entire political system. In his opinion, even if truly independent and professional deputies get into the lower house of parliament, they will not have much influence.

"Our system is an inverted pyramid that stands on its top. The level of professionalism of both the previous parliament and the current one is very low. Parliament is called a notary office of the presidential administration. I do not think that anything will change after the elections. Yes, at the expense of single-mandate candidates, the Chamber may become brighter, we will have new talking heads. But against the backdrop of high-powered party figures, it will be very difficult for a single-mandate member to distinguish himself by his effective legislative work," concluded the expert.