National Picture of Elections: Why Non-Indigenous Ethnic Groups are Underrepresented in the Mazhilis

March 17, 2023

On March 19, the citizens of Kazakhstan will elect deputies - their legal representatives in the Mazhilis and maslikhats of all levels. For the first time in many years there will be candidates not only from party lists but also self-nominated from single-mandate districts. tried to figure out what the proportion of the various ethnic groups populating the country is.

According to the 2021 census, Kazakhstan's population grew by 3.2 million to almost 19.2 million compared to 2009. Due to the ongoing process of urbanization, the number of urban dwellers in the population of Kazakhstan increased by 5.1%. Men accounted for 48.6% and women for 51.4% of the country's population. There were also changes in the national breakdown for 11 years: the share of Kazakhs in the country's population grew by 7%, to 70.3%.

For many years there was a quota of 9 seats in Mazhilis of the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan (APK). In a March State of the Nation Address, the President announced that it was reduced to 5 seats and transferred to the upper house, the Senate.

"The lower house of Parliament should reflect the entire electoral landscape of the country without giving artificial preferences to anyone. Thus, we will abolish the APK quota in the Mazhilis, which in my opinion is correct from the political and legal points of view," said Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

There's another new feature in this election: single-member districts, which were abolished in the early 2000s and reappeared in 2023 at the hands of President Tokayev and the parliament that backed him. studied the lists of registered candidates in the elections to understand what composition of the candidates with one-mandate and how the peoples of Kazakhstan are represented in the party lists, and asked the political analysts to comment on the electoral picture.

What is the ethnic makeup of the single-mandate candidates?
In the upcoming elections, 29 seats will be given to deputies from single-mandate districts and 69 seats from party lists. used the first lists of all registered candidates on February 18. During the month many candidates were withdrawn from the race for violations (mainly for filing of declarations - editor's note), but it is very difficult to keep track of all the changes that are taking place to this day. A number of candidates have been removed from the lists, and some have been reinstated.

In general, one can note some chaos that prevailed during the election campaign to Mazhilis, including on the portals of local territorial election commissions. The resolutions were difficult to understand even by experienced researchers, not to mention simple voters. The figures obtained were rounded for ease of perception; fractions of percent do not play a significant role.

Taking into account that in Kazakhstan almost one third of the population is still not ethnic Kazakhs, there will be questions in representation in Mazhilis. Only 7 percent of single-mandate candidates are not Kazakhs. Political scientist Daniyar Ashimbaev does not see anything supernatural in this.
"Many don't want to run because they are afraid their opponents will play the nationalist card against them. And we have quite a few national-radicals participating in the election campaign. The campaign has already begun very dirty, and it will be even worse near the finish. Many non-Kazakhs simply didn't risk taking part, so as not to inflame unhealthy passions. And there aren't too many non-Kazakh politicians.

Kazakhstan lacked statehood for decades, and Kazakhs constituted a minority in the country, said Tolganay Umbetaliyeva, director of the Central Asian Foundation for Democracy Development. The lowest proportion of Kazakhs was in the early 1960s, when they made up less than a third of Kazakhstan's population. The great Asharshylyk famine in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when inept collectivization resulted in the death of more than half of the Kazakhs, contributed greatly to this. On the eve of the collapse of the USSR, the proportion of the indigenous population was lower than that of other ethnic groups, according to the 1989 census - 39.69%. Thirty years after independence, the situation has changed dramatically.

"The feeling that other ethnic groups are also citizens of the country and have the right to lead the country - in our society this idea has not yet established itself. It exists in intellectual circles, but they do not yet prevail in society. The prevailing idea is that Kazakhs should finally lead their country. There is still a disadvantage for the Kazakhs, that we are a little bit moved away, and our interests", - says Umbetalieva.

Meanwhile, the law requires only the president of the republic to speak the state language. All candidates for this post pass the appropriate exam, but to hold high position and not speak Kazakh is mauvais ton.

Interestingly, only in one of the most international cities - Almaty, the lists for single-mandate districts indicate the nationality of candidates. In other regions no such thing was found. Why Almaty TEC indicates the nationality of candidates among the service list is not very clear. This is not a mandatory requirement for Mazhilis elections. The share of single-mandate candidates of non-indigenous ethnic groups is only 6%, given the fact that they constitute 35% of the population of the largest megalopolis. Approximately the same picture is in the capital.

How ethnic groups are represented in party lists
The party lists have a slightly more diverse palette. Seven parties of different orientation participate in the March 19 elections. At the same time, the graph shows that "non-Kazakhs" are not so numerous in lists of candidates. Their share is no more than 12% across the country as a whole.

The largest share of non-indigenous candidates is in the AMANAT and the Auyl - more than 16%, at that the dropped out and restored candidates were not taken into account as well, these are shares in percentage. The most "Kazakh" is the Baitak Green Party. Out of 18 candidates on the lists there is only one of other nationality. Of course, it's not about the ethnic principle, but about certain merits of this or that person, but, according to political scientist Ashimbayev, many are simply afraid to lose, including nominating single-mandate candidates from parties.

"This is due to the change in the ethnic structure of society. The number of Kazakhs is growing. There are many politicians of other nationalities, but they didn't take the risk of running for office in the districts. Again, on the basis of the fact that the population can vote on ethnic grounds", - said the expert.

At the same time the parties observe the established quotas, but they are valid only for women, people with disabilities and young people under 29 years old. In total, they must be 30% of the total number of candidates.
"A full palette of genders, ages and nationalities, but with an emphasis on Kazakh men. We proceeded from the model that the Kazakh population is larger. Even the parties were based on gender and age groups. Almost all the lists have representatives of all nationalities. But the parties in the districts nominated mostly Kazakhs. There are more Slavs in the northern regions and East Kazakhstan. But not overwhelmingly," said Daniyar Ashimbayev.

In the south and west of the country, the picture is even more mono-ethnic. But's interlocutors believe that the main factor is not the candidates' ethnicity, but the languages they speak.

Linguistic cut
As mentioned above, by law the deputies are not required to speak Kazakh, like the vast majority of other civil servants. However, it seems that language proficiency is a clear demonstration of loyalty and a sign that a people's elected representative links his fate to Kazakhstan and confirms this with knowledge of the state language, in addition to other skills and life experience.

"We have Russians, who are Kazakhs by passport, and Kazakhs, who are Russians by passport. Note, among the Slavs nominated on party lists, a very large number of Kazakh-speakers. The insurance, as they say, from all sides. Many of the representatives of other nationalities made video presentations in Kazakh. Someone knows the Kazakh language, someone from memory, someone by prompter, in general, they try to show that they know the Kazakh language, so that this issue will not come up for discussion", Daniyar Ashimbayev says.

At the same time, the expert stresses, if the population of the country has become more "Kazakh," the situation in terms of language has not changed very significantly. Despite the official data that more than half of the country's population has mastered the state language, in fact the sphere of its use is limited to certain regions and spheres, including the civil service. Election campaigning is actively carried out in two languages.

"Now the development of the Kazakh language is going on. We finally feel ourselves as a people building our own state. And in leadership positions will be dominated by Kazakhs. Also one of the main issues is language. People who know Kazakh can be nominated from other ethnic groups. This is not a law, but a political rule. You will have to speak in Kazakh in parliament.

Kazakhs, it seems to me, will welcome it", - says Tolganay Umbetaliyeva.
At the same time, political scientists, as well as the majority of the society, believe that division by ethnicity in the 21st century is an anachronism, which must be eliminated from public consciousness, and that it is a necessary factor for building of a modern developed state.

"Despite the fact that the government and the governing staff are predominantly Kazakhs, but people think they are Russian-speaking Kazakhs, and don't think they are defending their interests. People want Kazakhs who speak Kazakh, and they think that they will protect their interests. Of course - it is a stereotypical thinking, that if a person knows Kazakh, he will be on the side of the people, but it is still dominant", - says Tolgynai Umbetalieva.

However, as examples show, between "speaking Kazakh" and "understanding people's aspirations" is far from always an equal sign. A very vivid example was the ex-mazhilisman Azamat Abildaev, who publicly supported Russian invasion into Ukraine and expressed his support to Vladimir Putin, for which he lost his deputy chair in January 2023. At the same time, his "demotion" was not persecution for conviction, political scientist Ashimbayev is sure.

"He was removed not because he supported Russia, but in order to prevent others from participating in this kind of discussions. Kazakhstan has official neutrality, and it is clear that the speech of officials, even deputies, on the positions in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is not welcome."

Do other nationalities need quotas in the Mazhilis?
As stated earlier, they existed, but were abolished and moved to the Senate of Kazakhstan. Political scientist Umbetalieva is categorically against the resumption of quotas. And here is why.

"We need to get actively involved ourselves. We can't expect the presidential administration to write a program and say: here we have seats, let's join us. Yes, we have a multiethnic state, it created the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, and it has shown its respect. In politics you have to work with your elbows and push the competition, that's how it is done.

Daniyar Ashimbayev believes that in some regions, clan and clan factors are much more important than ethnic factors. He recalls how, in one southern region many years ago, the akimat supported not a candidate from the all-powerful Nur-Otan party, but an oppositionist, a relative of one of the region's leaders.

"It is clear that the ethnic factor will affect somewhere, but the degree of its evaluation is little calculated by someone. It seems that before the start of the election campaign there was no time to understand what the population breathes, to take measurements. No one cared about this",
Ashimbayev said.

All candidates' slogans are fairly uniform and lack creativity. The Mazhilis candidates use posters to promise the public schools, kindergartens, solutions of environmental problems and new roads. The promises are simple enough and therefore populist. The budget will not be significantly expanded by the arrival of new faces to the Mazhilis. According to Ashimbayev, in the current campaign this demonstrates that both self-nominated candidates and new parties are poorly prepared to meet the real needs of the population, regardless of nationality.

"For the population the language issue is not of primary importance, in fact. The population is concerned about the economy, the social sphere, and communal and domestic issues, especially since the communal sphere in the country has reached a critical point.

How to involve all of Kazakhstan's ethnic groups in political life
The under-representation of other ethnic groups in political life is not a problem, but rather a fait accompli. No bright calls to infringe the rights of non-indigenous peoples in the election campaign have been observed, and, according to the political scientist Ashimbayev, not without good reason.
"The prosecutor's office and law enforcement agencies are very careful to ensure that the national factor does not come out during the elections. So that there is no politicization of ethnic issues. Although we can see that some national populists go to the elections. You can see they are eager to speak out on this topic, but they have very strong warnings, up to instantly opening a criminal case for inciting hatred," Ashimbayev said.

In addition, the way to politics is through connections, as well as the state language, which representatives of the different diasporas have not yet mastered.

"If you pay attention to the candidates, most of them are those who know Kazakh, and those who speak it poorly are not as active. Perhaps they have not matured a desire to actively participate in politics, but I'm sure that as soon as there is an appropriate request, other peoples will actively participate," believes Umbetalieva.

In general, of course, I would not like to see the emergence of parties based on nationality. It is much more actual and urgent - the emergence of political culture, both in big politics and among all Kazakhs, regardless of nationality. The habit to go to elections is only among the older generation, which was hammered into it by the totalitarian regime of the USSR.

At the same time, many people prefer to stay home on election day, thinking that nothing depends on their votes. Politics and parties, as the world experience shows, must be built on the basis of certain social and not national groups' interests; and universal human values must prevail, which Kazakhstani citizens seem not to have lost.

A little about the upcoming elections
According to forecasts of political analysts, the Kazakhstani people have to suffer pretty much with huge ballots on first parliamentary elections of New Kazakhstan. In some regions, they may be very long - with dozens of contenders for one chair in the Mazhilis. The first more or less competitive parliamentary elections may also see some bright, inspiring faces, who even despite not belonging to parties, will be able to change the balance of votes - by their shrill speech or speech in front of their colleagues. There are such examples in the world history of parliaments. However, due to the abundance of candidates, the choice of Kazakhstani people can be absolutely unpredictable and spontaneous.