How Victory of the Pro-Presidential Party Became a Symbol of Change in Kazakhstan

March 22, 2023

Analysts expect parliamentary debate to liven up and see changes in the approach to the elections.

A pro-presidential party will again hold the majority of seats in Kazakhstan's Mazhilis. But experts have seen some changes: the government did not chase turnout at the elections, and there will be more bright politicians in parliament.

How the ruling party's positions have changed
Preliminary results of the March 19 Mazhilis elections (lower chamber of parliament) were released by the Central Election Commission of Kazakhstan in the evening of March 20, the day after the elections. The elections were held under a mixed system: 70% of candidates were elected by party lists (69 places in Parliament) and 30% - by single-seat constituencies (29 places, one for each constituency).

By party lists, the pro-presidential party Amanat was in the lead with 53.9%. Until 2022, the party was called Nur Otan and invariably received a majority of seats in parliament. They are followed by Auyl (10.9%), Respublica (8.59%), Aq Jol (8.41%), the People's Party of Kazakhstan (6.8%) and the National Social Democratic Party (NSDP - 5.2%).

Thus, out of seven participating political associations six passed into parliament, three of them - Auyl, Respublica and NSDP - for the first time. Ecological party "Baitak" could not overcome the threshold of 5% of votes, it had 2.3%.

Representatives of "Amanat" are also leading among the candidates - they get 22 out of 29 seats. The self-nominated candidates will take the remaining seven seats. Thus, the ruling party can take 62-64 seats, or nearly two-thirds (constitutional majority). This is less than in the previous Mazhilis, in which Amanat had 76 mandates.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called the vote ‘a serious step in the advancement of all our reforms.’ "These elections were a worthy continuation of large-scale changes. In other words, a new milestone in the political development of the country has begun," he said March 21 at an event celebrating Nauryz.

The outcome of voting was also commented in Russia - the Ministry of Foreign Affairs considered "the confident victory" of the Amanat party as "the obvious evidence of wide approval of the president course by the people of Kazakhstan" and reforms, launched by him. Referring to the Russian observers who took part in the observation missions of some organizations (OSCE, CIS and CSTO), the ministry noted that the voting was open and passed without any serious violations.

The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) report also notes that "election day took place in a calm and organized manner. However, "due to significant procedural mistakes and omissions, as well as disregard for the reconciliation procedures," its experts assessed negatively the vote counting procedures at 59 out of 128 polling stations observed. Also, the report stated several times that the number of voters and preliminary turnout figures diverged, so the actual turnout could be lower than the officially announced figure.

Should we expect a change in domestic politics?
Experts generally gave a positive assessment of the voting process. "Never before in any country of Central Asia <...> has there been such a situation, when the authorities dared to find out the real interest in the elections, and even more, the real level of trust of the population in the authorities. We're talking about an extremely low voter turnout for the region - 54%," Arkady Dubnov, political analyst and expert on Central Asia, wrote in his Telegram. According to him, "only the low voter turnout allows us to treat the other results of the vote with confidence.

The turnout of 54.19% in the current voting was the lowest in the past ten years. In other words, according to the official figures, just over half the voters turned out to vote - about 6.3 million out of 12 million.

Dubnov told RBK that he was disappointed with the results of the vote count, they turned out to be somewhat shady. According to his assessment, despite the obvious desire of the authorities to hold elections in a different way than during the presidency of Nursultan Nazarbayev, it turned out to be difficult - good initiatives are hampered by the system itself, which on the ground works the same way as before. "It does not allow the possibility of transparent observation of the elections; in single-mandate districts it works for the strongest candidate, who usually comes from a pro-government party," Dubnov explained his point of view. As a result, despite the central government's very serious efforts to ensure fair elections, their credibility has been undermined.

But there is no great drama in this, the expert continues, it is part of a process that is inevitable in an electoral autocracy. "The authorities are still trying to keep everything under control. But changes for the better are obvious," Dubnov said.

Most parties in their election programs advocated deepening the constitutional reform that Tokayev launched under the "Strong President - Influential Parliament - Accountable Government" formula, insisting that parliament have much more power. Nevertheless, according to Dubnov's assessment, the current convocation of the Mazhilis will not be a source of democratic change. "The Amanat faction in parliament will be very strong, and it is likely that people of the old formation will play a significant role in it. That is why I am quite skeptical that the Parliament will become a conductor of progressive reforms. That can only be possible under very serious pressure from above," concluded the expert.

At the same time, according to Kazakhstan political analyst Eduard Poletaev, there will be more discussions among lawmakers. "First, the number of parties represented has doubled. Secondly, even the qualitative composition of the parties has changed - there are people from the previous convocations, but in general, 70-80 percent of them are new people. Earlier, there was much criticism that many MPs sat in parliament and did nothing much; there were few headliners. Now there will be more of them," the expert noted in an interview with RBK.

As for turnout, his expectations were higher: according to Poletaev, he and his colleagues expected a turnout of over 60% - "it's a spring day, the weather is nice, and for the first time in a long time, the single-mandate voting is taking place. There were not many people who came to vote. This was unexpected, but on the other hand, the cities of national importance, such as Astana and Almaty, traditionally show low turnout, said the expert. "The results were predictable in any case, that the ruling party would take more than 50% of the seats, and that the parliament will expand at the expense of the lowered threshold. But we have a traditional leader-type state, and our main emphasis is on presidential elections.