22.03.2016 | Nazarbayev election triumph betrays concerns over stability

Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev would like his ruling party’s landslide electoral victory to be viewed as evidence of his ability to maintain stability, but with the country’s economy deteriorating he may find it harder to make such a claim in future.

On 20th March Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party won 82.15% of the vote in Kazakhstan’s legislative elections.  Two other parties managed to exceed the 7% threshold to gain a seat in the lower house: the pro-business Ak Zhol, with 7.18% of the vote, and the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan (KNPK) with 7.14%.  In other words, little has changed since legislative elections in 2012, when Nur Otan won 80.99%, Ak Zhol 7.47% and the KNPK 7.19%. 

Nur Otan’s election triumph was reported by official Kazakhstan media as a vote of confidence in the ruling party in the face of economic challenges.  But the decision to call the elections a year early suggests that Nazarbayev has little real confidence in his ability to meet the challenges ahead while maintaining stability.  

Kazakhstan currently lacks genuine political choice.  Opposition parties nominally exist, however most are openly supportive of Nur Otan.  Ak Zhol, for example, officially endorsed Nazarbayev’s candidacy in the 2015 presidential elections.  Recent election campaigns have been lacklustre, with few contestants challenging the ruling party.  The absence of any robust oppositional campaign was to a great extent due to a lack of any popular expression of discontent, despite worsening economic conditions that have resulted in currency devaluation and an inflation rate exceeding 15%.  Largely confined to Kazakhstan’s elite, political rivalry has lately been fuelled by the question of who will replace the President when he either steps down or dies.  In the wake of the elections, the absence of Nazarbayev’s influential daughter, Dariga, from a list of Nur Otan MPs may have dealt a blow to any hopes she had of succeeding her father.  Currently the deputy prime minister, she had run on the ruling party list and some observers expected her to be appointed speaker of parliament, lining her up as a potential successor. 

The succession debate is further evidence of the authoritarian nature of the state, although Nazarbayev does attempt to retain the appearance of a democratic nation.  Last June he proposed limited political reforms and defined Kazakh democracy as “making the state more accountable to the people”.  No matter what limitations he imposes on the political landscape, conducting elections is central to the image that he wishes to project.

Nazarbayev’s popularity also relies heavily on Kazakhstan remaining stable, and an economic slump increases the likelihood of social unrest.  The Zhanaozen riots in 2011 were sparked by oil industry workers striking for higher wages and better working conditions.  Clashes with the police resulted in at least 14 deaths and provoked a national and international outcry.  If an economic downturn leads to similar turmoil in the future, ‘landslide victories’ may raise awkward questions.