Democracy Still Elusive in Kazakhstan

Democracy Still Elusive in Kazakhstan

On June 21, 2019, Posted by , In Europe, With Comments Off on Democracy Still Elusive in Kazakhstan

By Marren Haneberg

Police detain a demonstrator in Kazakhstan prior to the June 9 election. Source:

Kazakhstan held elections on June 9. For the first time in the former Soviet country’s history, the ballot did not include Nursultan Nazarbayev, who reigned as president since Kazakhstan’s 1991 creation. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev won the election with 70.9% of the vote. Amirzhan Kossanov, the main opposition candidate, came in a distant second at 16.2%, and Daniya Yespayeva, Kazakhstan’s first female presidential candidate, came in third at 5.05% (Vesterbye).

Government Quashes Dissent

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which observed the election, reported that “it was tarnished by clear violations of fundamental freedoms as well as

pressure on critical voices” (OSCE 1). Police arrested over 4,000 demonstrators who protested against the election (“Kazakhstan: Police now…”). Kazakh officials claimed that no protestors were hurt, but on the contrary, protestors hurt police with shields and clubs. Video footage released by the Prosecutor General’s office on June 12, however, showed police carrying shields and clubs. The Prosecutor General’s office then claimed that demonstrators stole police weapons, contradicting its initial claim that police had no weapons to begin with.

On election day, police detained and questioned journalist Assem Zhapisheva when they spotted her observing a protest in Almaty. Questions police asked her included why she wanted to “destroy the country” and “why do you help foreign journalists show Kazakhstan in a bad light?”. Zhapisheva is a member of youth opposition movement Oyan, Qazaqstan (Wake Up, Kazakhstan), and these police questions imply that the government views Oyan, Qazastan as a threat to its grasp on power (Lillis).

The police shut down a number of demonstrations before the election. On May 1 alone, police arrested 80 protesters in Nur-Sultan and Almaty. In a separate incident that day, police detained and questioned a protester holding a blank sign (Kennedy). Online, officials blocked news and social media pages critical of the election, including Kazakhstan’s Bureau for Human Rights. The government blocked other sites and social media networks including Facebook, YouTube, Telegram, and numerous news sites (“Kazakh Protesters Detained…”). The government blocked these sites to prevent opposition leaders from organizing protests before the election. Once the election had passed, the government restored access to all of these sites.

Election Administration Improvements…

The government made some improvements to its election administration. The government improved its voter list system, compiling it on a state civil register, rather than in multiple locations. The Central Election Commission (CEC) released public information in “a timely manner” and carried out “an extensive voter education programme” (OSCE 1).

…And Areas for Improvement

However, Nur Otan dominated lower-level commissions in the CEC, giving little room for other political movements to have a voice in the process. Holes the government has not addressed in the voter registration system allowed voters to cast their ballots twice. If voters could prove residence in a precinct but had not registered, they were added to a list on election day and could then vote in two locations.

Challenges for Candidates

Candidates faced significant barriers to joining the pool, as they faced steeper requirements of “education,” including a language test, “residency, and experience in the civil service or elected government office” (OSCE 1-2). One candidate withdrew after failing the language test, which lacked specific criteria. To hold a public event, candidates had to get official permission 10 days prior, rather than simply provide notification, a policy which breaks OSCE’s international standards. Public officials told public sector employees and students to vote for Tokayev and attend his events. The media gave much more coverage to Tokayev’s campaign than to other candidates, making it difficult for voters to make an informed choice.

While other candidates faced such significant barriers to candidacy, Tokayev faced more relaxed requirements. On April 25, the Kazakh Constitutional Council interpreted a constitutional residency requirement for candidates in Tokayev’s favor. The requirement said that candidates had to continuously reside in Kazakhstan for 15 years. Tokayev, the Council declared, was an exception because his time abroad was for government positions (“Tokayev qualifies to…”). Based on the strict requirements other candidates faced, and the dominance of Nur Otan in the Kazakh government, it is unlikely that the Council would have made the effort to decide whether or not a candidate other than Tokayev was eligible. They would have tossed out a candidate with any questionable background.

Nur Otan Still Dominates

After the election, Tokayev’s advisor Yerlan Karin announced that the government was meeting with public figures and civil activists. The government is likely using these meetings for appearances to satisfy dissenting groups and create a public image showing it cares about these issues. Beyond image concerns, it is likely trying to get dissenting group leaders on board with its agenda–though these leaders might not have much of a choice, given the government’s record of throwing dissenters into prison. Dimash Alzhanov, a “notable personality” of Oyan, Qazakhstan, holds a similar view, that “[t]he complication here is that the authorities have low legitimacy and low trust among society… No one believes in dialogue with them” (Lillis).

Nazarbayev’s Transition Strategy

Nazarbayev has taken a hybrid approach to transferring his power. When a dictator dies in office, the regime has a greater likelihood of survival compared to a regime where the dictator transfers power. The problem with the first approach is that it can be messy. There might be arguments within the dictator’s circle about who the anointed successor is. Conversely, a new ruler who comes into power under the second approach might take policies in a direction contrary to the previous dictator’s rule (Standish). To get the best of both worlds, Nazarybayev placed Tokayev in power while still alive and created another office for himself, the Elbasy, which still holds significant power (Rittmann).

Schisms in Kazakhstan’s Ruling Elite?

Kazakhstan’s government could be heading for a schism between hawks and doves in Kazakhstan’s government, according to political analyst Dosym Satpayev (Lillis). If the hawks dominate, the regime will become harsh and repressive. On the contrary, if a reform wing emerges, parties such as Oyan, Qazakstan will have a say in new policies.


Tokayev’s rule will not be much different from Nazarbayev’s, as the election process demonstrated. The steep requirements candidates, besides Tokayev, had to meet to join the race, show that the government is not interested in change. This resistance to reform traces back to Nazarbayev’s transition strategy. Nazarbayev is still alive and watching to ensure his legacy and style is preserved as he passes the presidency to easily-replaceable Tokayev. Other Nur Otan officials feel similar pressure and cooperate to preserve their careers. For these reasons, the government has no interest in making the reforms called for by dissenters. Logistically, the election went smoothly for the government. But the government ignored its own constitution, which calls for “the right to peacefully and without arms assemble, hold meetings, rallies and demonstrations, street processions and pickets” (Sec. II, Art. 32). Short of a revolution by dissatisfied Kazakhs or a faction in the government gaining power, the government will continue ignoring the human rights its espouses in its own constitution.


The Constitution Of The Republic Of Kazakhstan. Article II, Section 32. English translation available at

“Kazakhstan: Police now say they detained 4,000.” June 18, 2019. Eurasianet.

“Kazakh Protesters Detained As Websites Go Dark.” May 9, 2019. Radio Free Europe/Radio Europe.

Kennedy, Nick. 2019. “Protesters Detained, and Opposition Websites Shut down as Kazakhstan’s Elections Draw Nearer.” May 17. International Policy Digest.

Lillis, Joanna. 2019. “Kazakhstan: Waking up to reform.” June 11. Eurasianet.

OSCE. 2019. “Kazakhstan, Early Presidential Election, 9 June 2019: Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions.” June 10. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Rittmann, Mihra. 2019. “The Kazakhstan elections and the transition that wasn’t.” June 9. Human Rights Watch.

Standish, Reid. 2019. “An Aging Autocrat’s Lesson for His Fellow Dictators.” June 7. The Atlantic.

“Tokayev qualifies to run for president – Kazakh Constitutional Council (Part 2).” April 25, 2019. Interfax.

Vesterbye, Samuel Doveri. 2019. “Kazakhstan’s electoral mood calls for more ties with Europe.” June 17. Euractiv.

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