Kazakhstan holds legislative elections

The first elections in the world in 2021 take place in Kazakhstan in a few days – and much is expected from them. The elections are for the Majilis, the lower chamber of the Kazakh Parliament consisting of 107 deputies who are elected for a five-year term (the upper house is the Senate of Kazakhstan, with 47 members).

The previous elections for the 107-seat Majilis were held in March 2016 and, currently, the Nur Otan party has a majority of 84 deputies in the Majilis, while the Ak Zhol and the Communist People’s party have 7 deputies each. In a departure from custom, the date falls at the end of the legislature’s five-year term.

The election marks the first to be held under Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s presidency (and the first since 2004 to be held on schedule).

Following an official invitation from the Kazak government, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) which has deployed a Limited Election Observation Mission. The ODIHR has observed 10 elections since 1999 in Kazakhstan, most recently the 2019 early presidential election.

President Tokayev says that the electoral and political process has been liberalized to allow for more involvement from civil society.

Tokayev refers specifically to the parliamentary opposition bill – a piece of legislation that he approved in June. Under this change to the law, non-ruling parties will acquire a greater say in setting the legislative agenda.

This is seen as being important in the context of the Mazhilis and, as such, the president says the vote this month will marking a turning point for his land-locked country.

Tokayev said another positive change is the mandatory 30 percent quota on party lists for women and youths (for the purposes of this requirement, a youth means anybody under 29-years-old).

He says, “The overhauled parliament and local representative bodies will focus on high-quality legislative support for socio-economic reforms.”

Tokayev also notes that Kazakhstan is in need of effective anti-crisis measures in light of the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

Several registered political parties in Kazakhstan will contest the poll, including Nur Otan, which has as its figurehead the former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. The other two forces in parliament are the pro-business Ak-Zhol, which bills itself as the “constructive opposition,” and the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan, or KNPK.

Nur Otan is the clear favourite, evidenced by a poll (in which 7,000 people were questioned) that showed 77 percent of respondents plan to cast their ballot in its favour.

Aigul Kuspan,the Kazak ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg, and head of the Mission to the European Union and NATO, says the participation of 30 long-term observers and 300 short-term observers, who will closely monitor the election proceedings, underscores Kazakhstan’s commitment to transparency and learning from its European partners.

“President Tokayev has remained consistent in his belief that Kazakhstan needs to foster open debate and a plurality of opinions in determining the course of the country’s direction.In this regard, a number of major reforms have been implemented which were once initiated by Europe and which Kazakhstan seeks to emulate.

“Despite the obvious challenges of holding elections during a pandemic, our government is committed to giving our citizens a voice. I am confident the election will only strengthen the cooperation between the EU and Kazakhstan, and usher in an era of mutual benefit for decades to come.”

Also looking ahead to the election, MEP Andris Ameriks, Vice-Chair of the Central Asian delegation in the European Parliament, told this website, “The results of the elections are highly important for Kazakhstan.”

He adds, “They are important  as Kazakhstan is a  key Central Asian region and they are important also for the EU as it is a close partner of the Kazakhstan. Therefore, I hope that people of Kazakhstan will be active and responsible in deciding who will represent them in the Majilis during the next 5 years.

“At a time when the whole world is struggling with a pandemic that has caused great social turmoil and provoked national governments, it is vital that these elections provide a real example of mutual trust between the people and the authorities.”

Further comment comes from the experienced Fraser Cameron, a former senior official at the European Commission and now director of the EU Asia Centre in Brussels.

He told EUReporter:  “The elections should mark another step forward in Kazakhstan’s steady progress towards a more open and democratic society. It is important to allow more parties to compete than was the case during the last parliamentary elections.”

Elsewhere, Peter Stano, EU spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, also spoke to this site about the poll, saying that the EU welcomes the invitation extended to OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and members of the European Parliament to observe the parliamentary elections.

Stano added, “In light of the ongoing reform and modernisation processes in Kazakhstan, in particular the adoption of laws on elections and political parties (May 2019), the EU expects the elections to be conducted in a free, open and transparent manner, fully respecting the freedoms of expression and assembly.”

He goes on, “The EU welcomes that for  the  first  time  a  30  percent  quota  will  be  introduced  in  party  lists  for  women  and youth jointly. The EU encourages Kazakhstan to avail of the advice and expertise of the ODIHR and the European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission).”

n the elections of Majilis in Kazakhstan

Axel Goethals, CEO, European Institute for Asian Studies, is also looking forward to the elections to the lower chamber of parliament, telling this site it is “a move that will continue the steady progress towards a more coherent democratic structure in the nation.”

Goethals said the poll is part of a process of “controlled democratisation”.

He said other signs of improvement include a fledgling multi party system and the move towards more complete representation and political competition.

Amendments made this year, he says, emphasise the will in government for increased pluralism, such as the lowering of signatures from 40,000 to 20,000 that are required to form a new political party.

“This,” he says, “will also enhance the formation of a political spectrum of new parties and the culture of a parliamentary opposition.

He said, “Kazakhstan under President Tokayev has also made very positive inroads into increasing general representation and civil society participation in its democratic process. The introduction of a mandatory quota of 30% representation for women and youth under 29 in the party candidate lists demonstrate this well.”

The Brussels based Goethals went on, “This will be also introduced in the elections to local councils (maslikhats), which will be held simultaneously to the Majilis elections.”

Women, he says, currently hold a low participation in decision making positions. They now hold only 29 out of 107 seats (27%) in the Majilis and 9 out of 49 Senate positions, 2 out of 23 positions of government and 1 out of 17 heads of regions.

Turning to some of the key campaign issues, he said, “The election campaign is expected to focus largely on both the health and economic implications that arise from the Covid-19 pandemic, but business, environment and anti-corruption policy are likely to feature prominently.”

Most campaigning, he believes, is likely to take place online on social media “as the situation is not ideal for effective campaigning due to pandemic restrictions.”

“But this can give a real new impetus of digital political democratisation for the young generations as half of the Kazakh population is under the age of 30.”

Goethals said, “The Kazakh legislative makeup is bicameral: consisting of the Majilis, the lower chamber, and a Senate, the upper house.”

For some, the elections are also an opportunity to see how far the country has moved on issues such as human rights.

They include Viola von Cramon, a Member of the European Parliament for the Greens/EFA group, who told this website,“Unfortunately, we have seen relatively slow improvements in terms of human rights and democracy.”

But the German MEP also accepts there has been some progress, saying that since the presidential change “incremental positive steps were made in guarantying the basic right of assembly and investigating tortures by law enforcement officials.”

von Cramon, who is a member of the foreign affairs committee in the European arliament, says, “The question is now how far will the so-called “controlled democratization” go.”

The MEP went on, “In regard to the upcoming Majilis elections, having a mandatory 30% quota for women and young people as well as an increased role of opposition in the legislative process is a welcome change but it remains to be seen how these requirements will be implemented in real life. How will the rankings in the list be distributed and whether we will see truly critical opposition gaining ground in the lower house of the Parliament? We will be very closely following these changes.”

She adds, “With decreasing Russian influence and progressively aggressive China, central Asian republics, including Kazakhstan are signalling some openness to the EU. It is a positive sign but we should not overestimate its implication.

The Majilis contains 107 members, of which 98 are directly elected by popular vote for a five-year term on the basis of proportional representation. The remaining 9 members are elected by the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, an advisory body formed by the president and representing the various ethnic groups of the nation. Parties must obtain at least 7% of all the votes cast to qualify for seat allocation.

The current Majilis was elected in March 2016.

It is expected that as well as the Nur Otan ruling party, five other registered parties will contest this election, emphasizing Kazakhstan’s attempts to move toward a multi-party system. Also contesting will be Ak Zhol, the Communist People’s Party, Auyl, the Nationwide Social Democratic Party, and Adal.

More than 11 million people are expected to vote out of a population estimated to be around 18.5 million.

The Kazak president has encouraged Kazakhs to participate in the elections.

This message is both timely and pertinent as January is usually very cold in the Central Asian country, with temperatures in the capital Nur-Sultan often as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius.

It is relatively rare for elections to be held in January but, clearly, the upcoming ones in Kazakhstan are keenly awaited by many.

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