Kazakhstan’s First Parliamentary Elections Under President Tokayev: Key Points to Know

March 19, 2023

This vote will complete the electoral cycle on the way to the "second republic"

How Kazakhstan's parliamentary elections relate to Tokayev's reforms.
Parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan are held under the auspices of the reforms launched in 2022 by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. RBC analyzed what the new parties are proposing, what the population's expectations are, and what the "bloody January" has to do with it.

Kazakhstan will hold elections to the Mazhilis (lower house of parliament) and Maslikhats (regional parliaments) on March 19. They will complete the so-called reform electoral cycle that began in June 2022. Then, at the suggestion of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a referendum was held on amendments to the Constitution, which turned Kazakhstan from a super-presidential republic into a presidential one with a strong parliament; then, in November, presidential elections were held, which Tokayev won with 81% of the vote; and two months later, in January 2023, the Senate (upper house) was partially renewed.

"The holding of early elections to the Mazhilis and Maslikhats was dictated by the logic of the constitutional reform, supported by citizens in a national referendum. As a result, our country switched to new, more fair and competitive rules for forming the representative branch of power," Tokayev said in January 2023, announcing the new election campaign. According to him, these elections will give real content to the formula Strong President - Influential Parliament - Accountable Government (Tokayev proclaimed it in March 2022 in his message to the citizens of Kazakhstan, announcing the upcoming reforms).

The reforms changed the procedure of elections to the Mazhilis: whereas previously all deputies were elected from party lists, now 70% of the lower chamber will be elected from single-member districts and the remaining 30% from single-member districts. Registration procedures were simplified for parties - now they must have at least 5,000 members instead of 20,000. In addition, the "Against All" column appeared on the ballot, while the threshold for a party to enter the Mazhilis was lowered from 7 to 5% of the vote.

The Mazhilis will elect 98 deputies - 69 in the party lists and 29 single-mandate candidates (one person from each of Kazakhstan's 29 districts). Constituencies nominated 435 candidates, 359 of whom were self-nominated but do not belong to any party. There are 223 Maslikhats in Kazakhstan, and 10,288 candidates are running for 3,415 mandates.

The Kazakhstani leadership describes the reforms initiated a year ago as unprecedented in their scale. On the eve of the elections the State Advisor of Kazakhstan Erlan Karin emphasized: "The most important thing - the reforms of the head of state marked the beginning of the renewal of the system of public values, awakened civic activity and promoted the involvement of citizens in the process of radical transformation of the country.

Three parties went to the previous Mazhilis convocation - the ruling Amanat which was established by the first President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 1999 under the name of Otan (after him the movement was headed by Tokayev who left this post in 2022, at the same time the party held rebranding by changing its name Nur Otan to Amanat); Aq Jol, which has been active since 2002 and has positioned itself as a constructive opposition; and the Socialist People's Party of Kazakhstan (SPK), which was called the Communist Party until 2020.

Along with them, two old movements, registered in the 2000s, claim for seats in the Mazhilis: Auyl, a party focused on rural issues, which has so far failed to overcome the seven percent barrier, and the Nationwide Social Democratic Party (NSDP).

Newcomers which were registered only in 2022-2023 also joined to pre-election race: these are ecological party Baitak and Respublica party (founded by business representatives who call themselves "people of new Kazakhstan, digital nomads).

As for the pre-election programs, the most varied one was the document of the Amanat - its developers touched upon the issues from housing, education, medicine and job placement to ecology, economics, revival of aul and struggle against corruption. It was underlined in the program that its authors were all those who appealed to Amanat for help and suggestions. The party considers it important to transform Kazakhstan into "the creating, producing economy", to revise the tax policy so that it is profitable for the companies to leave the raw materials in the country and invest in their processing, strengthening the brand "Made in Kazakhstan".

Aq Jol concentrated on the topic of nation-building. In its program, the "constructive opposition" repeatedly quotes Tokayev, fully supporting his constitutional reform. The movement refers to its previous proposals that didn't pass the parliament and calls for giving the Mazhilis much more power. At the same time Aq Jol still touched upon the issues of foreign policy, proposing to raise the question of Kazakhstan's accession to the European Union in the future.

NPK came out with a socialist message: power to the people, land to those who work on it, shares of state companies to every citizen. The movement stands for the introduction of a luxury tax, abolition of censorship, and registration of all political parties.

Auyl concentrated on the development of villages and agro-industrial complex. Among its proposals are revision of the Land Law in favor of the citizens, establishment of a state agro-bank, abolition of taxes for agricultural producers and introduction of ration cards for the poor. NSDP priorities are activation of political reforms, revision of all legislation, tough fight against corruption (maximum term for corrupt officials without parole), and Kazakhstan's neutrality on international arena.

The digital nomads from Respublica prioritized social and economic issues, arguing that it is necessary to change the ecosystem of schools, develop technology parks, make medical care more client-oriented, revise legislation in favor of entrepreneurs and reduce the share of the state in the economy. Digitalization is an integral point in every direction. Baitak's program is as narrowly focused as Auyl's: development of green economy and preservation of natural resources are named as priorities.

Despite the different rhetoric and order of priorities, there are common points for all programs. One of them is to strengthen the Kazakh language, all citizens of the republic should know it. NPK proposes to create free courses for its study, Respublica - to introduce mandatory dubbing of foreign films and more actively translate world literature into Kazakh.

All parties also advocate that Kazakhstan should sooner or later become a parliamentary republic, and support the development of civil society and the abolition of blockades and censorship.

The president of Eurasia World Public Foundation, the Kazakhstani political analyst Eduard Poletaev, analyzed the parties' programs, and came to conclusion, that Amanat (13 directions and 221 measures), NPK (13 directions and 129 measures) and Aq Jol (13 directions and 86 measures) presented the most diverse documents. "All the parties proposed mainly declarative measures. On the general background, Amanat and the NPK stand out for the better, with every sixth proposed measure having at least some numerical or temporal indicator," Poletayev notes.

What are the expectations of the voting

If you don't know that the election campaign is ending in Kazakhstan, you can't feel it even in the central districts of Almaty and Astana, there are no rallies or large-scale agitation. There are banners and posters, as well as the party advertising aired on street monitors alternately with chewing gum and bookmaker's office advertisements.

Everyone, from taxi-drivers to employees of large companies, whose correspondent of RBC in Almaty had an opportunity to talk to, either waved or grinned skeptically when asked whether they would vote.

According to a joint survey by Demoscope, an express public opinion monitoring bureau, and the PaperLab research center, 59.6% of voters are going to vote. At the same time 62.5% say that none of the parties represents their interests, most also are undecided whom they will vote for, but 54.9% admit that the forthcoming elections are a real step towards democratization of the republic. Amanat" has the most supporters - 20.8%, followed by Auyl and Respublica (3.3% each), NSDP (2.5%), NPK (1.5%) and Baitak (1%).

Kazakhstani newspaper Vlast analyzing the election campaign, pays attention to the fact that it was lasted for only a month, and "opposition will be played by those who yesterday nominated the candidacy of the current president, doing it in one burst". The paper notes that there is still cause for optimism: at least some of the independent candidates who "understand the importance of election-day monitoring and are ready to fight for the votes of their voters" have made it onto the ballot. "And this lesson in democracy will not prove useless, even if the new parliament is not so new next week," sums up Vlast.

How Bloody January Impacted

It is not known whether all these reforms would have happened if not for the January 2022 protests. They began in the small town of Zhanaozen in the southwest of the country after a sharp increase in the price of liquefied gas, and soon spread to Almaty and other major cities. The protests were accompanied by pogroms and violence - for example, in Almaty, protesters set fire to the akimat (city hall) and the former presidential palace, which are closed to this day. These events were later called Qandy Qantar (Bloody January).

The protesters moved from economic demands to political ones, in particular the resignation of the government and the departure of Nursultan Nazarbayev from politics. With the entry of CSTO forces and a wave of arrests among the protesters, the unrest was put to rest. After that, Nazarbayev resigned as head of the Security Council and stopped leading Nur Otan.
Soon people from his inner circle began to be detained, and members of his family left government positions. The head of the National Security Committee (NSC), Karim Masimov, a key member of Nazarbayev's team, was removed from office and is being investigated for treason under top secret.
During the uprising, Tokayev said 20,000 terrorists "were well trained and organized and directed from a special center. "My opinion is: no talking to terrorists, we have to kill them," he wrote in the midst of the events on Twitter (the recording later became unavailable). In June, after the referendum on the Constitution, Tokayev explained that the figure of 20,000 was given to him by the heads of law enforcement agencies.

They are still talking about kandy kantar in Kazakhstan. According to the December poll of Demoscope, these events were the most significant for 54% of Kazakhstanis in 2022. A joint study of Demoscope and PaperLab, published in February 2023, showed that 71.1% of citizens disapprove of the president's order to shoot to kill protesters, while 11.3% support this decision. At the same time there is no unanimity in Kazakhstani society as to the reason of Qantar: 37.9% of questioned are sure that it was a provocation arranged by some political forces for seizing the power; 27.7% consider what happened to be a peaceful protest which grew into disorder; 14.6% say that the country was attacked by terrorists. As for the high-profile decision to invite the CSTO forces, opinions were also divided: 43.6% do not support the move, while 36.8% approve of it.

"Indeed, the Qantar problem is a lasting trauma for the Kazakhs. They still expect Tokayev to finally dot all the i's - who was the initiator and who played what role in this," says political scientist and expert on Central Asia Arkady Dubnov in his talk with RBC. The trial seems to have begun, and Karim Masimov is the main defendant. But there is a belief that he is more of a scapegoat. People are dissatisfied with thisб it seems to them that Tokayev is either hiding something or is afraid to name the main beneficiary. According to the expert's assessment, it was thanks to Kantar Tokayev that he was able to legitimize the power given to him by Nazarbayev, having reconfirmed it in the elections. "But that's not enough for the people. They're asking tough questions, because a large number of Qantar's victims remain unavenged. And this becomes Tokayev's personal problem," summarized Dubnov.

Source: RBC