Democracy — Kazakh-Style

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No election in Kazakhstan's 16 years of independence has yet been seen as free and fair by Western observers. If they expected a better showing at the elections for the Majilis (the lower house of the Kazakhstan parliament), held by Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev yesterday, they should have known better. The Nazarbayev-led Nur-Otan (Light of the Fatherland) party carried 88.05% of the vote — and all the seats in that legislative body. All expectations for at least a token opposition presence in the much touted "new parliament of reform" flopped. Neither the All-National Social-Democratic party (ANSD), nor the Ak Jol (The White Way) party emerged with a seat. And this was after Nazarbayev's presidential staff appeared to encourage some opposition participation, if only to help with the country's image among Westerners.

They should have known better themselves. Nazarbayev's staff indeed had been preparing for a token opposition presence in the new Majilis, according to Victor Kiyanitsa, until recently a senior government official and now an independent political analyst. But, he explains, "It's not even they who decide the returns, it's the regional authorities." Nazarbayev's staff targeted 77% for Nur-Otan, Kiyanitsa says, but regional governors zealously competed to show loyalty to the President and over-fulfilled their quotas. Sometimes, authoritarianism can't help itself.

The west has very self-interested reasons for Kazakh democracy. Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic in central Asia, is a major supplier of hydrocarbons. No less vital is predominantly Muslim Kazakhstan's unique potential as a stable, modernized and religiously tolerant secular state in a volatile region threatened by Islamic extremism. For 16 years, Nazarbayev has been using unlimited powers to vigorously pursue liberal economic reforms and achieve economic stability — much at the expense of political freedoms. However, the regime has grown too rigid and politically bottlenecked to ensure long-term stability and further growth. Both Kazakhstan and Western politicians have long been emphasizing the need for democratic political reform to keep Kazakhstan on a steady course.

Indeed, Nazarbayev had been forcefully advertising this election as a strong signal that long-awaited reform is under way. The new Majilis will operate under a packet of constitutional changes which will let the legislative body confirm the Prime Minister and most Cabinet members. But the changes also allow Nazarbayev to become President for life, should he so choose. His supporters argue that he must have that option in order to remain as a supervisor for the budding and still fragile democracy. With the election results, however, the new Majilis is now as totally controlled by the President, as the old one was. The victorious Nur-Otan party will fill 98 of the 107 seats, with nine remaining vacancies will be filled by the Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan — a consultative body under Nazarbayev, chaired by Nazarbayev.

Though much different in form and design from previous ones, this new Majilis election still failed to resolve the basic issue that worries the Kazakhstan elite and the West — whether Nazarbayev will pursue long-promised meaningful political reform and start delegating many of his unlimited powers to the Majilis, cabinet and the judiciary. The question now is whether his failure to do so will reverse the country's progress and lead it toward political stagnation and breakdown — the time-tested way that authoritarianism misfires.