On March 20, Kazakhstan will hold snap parliamentary elections. While the OSCE election monitoring mission’s preliminary report notes several systemic problems, comments from the CIS observers mission present a different picture, one without significant flaws. As with previous elections in Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Central Asia, two narratives will predictably emerge. One will cast Kazakhstan as a young democracy: ”Look, elections!” believers will say; and the other narrative will pursue a more critical line. In the election’s mercifully brief campaign, most of the parties are toting the ruling party’s line. Although new energy is promised, the likely outcome will be more of the same faces and more of the same policies.
Originally scheduled for early 2017, the early elections fall into a well-established pattern of preemptive elections. Kazakhstan’s previous parliamentary elections, in 2012, were also held early; as were the last two presidential elections. As I commented in January, “The apparent logic behind the early election is to reaffirm the government’s mandate in the face of extreme economic challenges.” With oil prices at decade lows, a general malaise has settled over the economies of Central Asia and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev may be trying to head off a political crisis to match the economic one.
Six political parties have registered candidates, though Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party is expected to sweep the polls. Nur Otan presently holds 83 seats out of 98 in the Mazhilis, and has by far the largest political apparatus in the country. The two other parties that seated deputies in the outgoing parliament–Ak Zhol and the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan (KNPK)–have been broadly referred to as pro-presidential. Joanna Lillis, writing for Eurasianet, called two of the new parties–Birlik (Unity) and Auyl (Village) People’s Patriotic Party–“political minnows” and also pro-presidential. The final party–the Social Democratic Party of Kazakhstan (abbreviated as either OSDP or NSDP)–has been branded as the only real opposition party.