The Will for Democracy

March 20, 2023

Elections 2023: society supported Tokayev's political reforms.
Radical self-nominated candidates, who openly questioned the political system, were defeated in a competitive election. The president was given carte blanche to continue democratic reforms.

On Monday evening, March 20, the CEC announced the preliminary results of the early elections to Mazhilis and Maslikhats of all levels. Despite the low turnout in Almaty, all other regions of Kazakhstan showed quite high activity. Although the most serious competition between the candidates was observed in Almaty and their composition at all polling stations, especially in Mazhilis, was the most diverse: from representatives of the party of power to the outspoken oppositionists of various views and opinions. The pre-election campaign was the most active and vivid exactly in the southern capital: we observed both the leaks of dirt on the rivals in social networks, and open confrontations on the platforms for debates in the independent media. The elections were a real clash of points of view, not a faceless bore.

But the main thing is not so much the turnout as the fact that voters allowed representatives of six parties and several self-nominated candidates who did not represent the interests of any political party to enter the lower house of parliament. Kazakhstan has not had such a Mazhilis with motley members for over 20 years. This shows that political reforms announced by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev are positively perceived by the population of the country. First of all, the citizens, who used the opportunity to realize themselves as people's elected representatives.

This point was noted by independent experts who could hardly be reproached with bias - representatives of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) who observed the whole course of pre-election race and the elections: The 2023 early parliamentary elections took place in the context of reforms initiated to bring Kazakhstan closer to holding elections in accordance with international standards and OSCE commitments.

Amendments to the legislation took into account several previous ODIHR recommendations and expanded voters' choices, but further changes to the legal framework are needed to provide a sufficient basis for the conduct of democratic elections.

Among the most important points noted by the OSCE representatives were significant changes to the legal framework governing elections, taking into account several previous ODIHR recommendations, including ensuring the direct election of all Mazhilis deputies, allowing self-nominated candidates to run in elections, relaxing requirements for party registration and lowering the electoral threshold from 7 to 5 per cent.

We think it is not necessary to speak about how the mass media and social networks were full of news before the elections and at the moment of agitation: not only sofa critics but also citizens not interested in politics for the first time in 20 years were discussing the possibility of direct election of deputies. The best indicator that the society positively perceived Tokayev's political reforms was the huge number of self-nominated candidates to Maslikhats and Mazhilis who were not members of any political parties. The highest competition was recorded in Almaty and a number of other large cities of Kazakhstan, where 10 to 25 candidates applied for one seat. At the same time, most of the self-nominated candidates not bound by any obligations to the parties carried out the election campaign not being shy to openly express their opinion about the current state of affairs in various spheres of activity: from the political structure of Kazakhstan to the views on international events.

This important point is also noted in the preliminary report of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) on the election results: "Party platforms and messages addressed a wide range of social and economic issues, but also included, among others, calls for political and economic reforms, the rule of law, good governance, the consequences of the war caused by the Russian Federation's invasion of Ukraine, and national independence and sovereignty.

Overall, the campaign was more competitive in the majoritarian race. Some self-nominated candidates openly questioned the political system, the governing party, and the president, occasionally offering alternative programs, expanding the choices available to voters. Nevertheless, during the proportional campaign, parties generally positioned themselves as supporting the president's political vision and reform agenda.

A number of self-nominated, independent and opposition candidates who ran in single-mandate districts formed different blocs for the campaign; one of them published a joint manifesto".

Another significant point is that the political parties themselves realized that it was no longer useful to go to parliament with the old party lists. The parties needed not just new people, but truly creative individuals, whose actions would be accepted by society and would gain the trust of all segments of the population. It was evident from the composition of the main participants in the race that the parties themselves understood this. Now we can only hope that the new faces of the parties will show their active civic position and support of Tokayev's reforms by real deeds in the new Mazhilis.

It is important to note that in the short period preceding the elections there was a change in the quality of rhetoric of political parties. Standard programs and political platforms, traditionally offering voters an increase in social programs, gradually begin to transform into demands for institutional reforms. And this is due to the large amount of criticism that filled social networks and the media in this period.

The paradox is that Tokayev, having reduced the administrative pressure on political life, thereby forced politicians to give up their previously win-win roles as victims of the regime. It is indicative that the bloggers with an audience of many thousands, actively exploiting the myth of total injustice of the regime, found themselves beyond the sympathy of voters. Those parties that were able to understand the changing political agenda in time and felt the mood of the audience passed the threshold for getting into the Mazhilis.
The low rate of votes against all - 3.9% was also a good indicator of support for political reforms of the president Tokayev. Quite recently there was simply no such column in ballot papers, and citizens spoiled them if they wanted to express their disagreement with the candidates. This once again shows that those who came to the polls used the opportunity to vote for one party or another to the maximum extent possible.

Already after Nauryz we will see the new composition of the parliament and to what extent the political reforms carried out by the president are able to change Kazakhstan. The more so, because thanks to these reforms there is an opportunity to recall deputies even from Mazhilis. Any passivity and disregard for the wishes of voters will from now on be punished in the most democratic way. And the society will have to realize this experience in the very near future.

Author: Zhan Daradi
Source: NIKA Group Perspective Research Center