The election in Kazakhstan on Sunday 4 December returned the longstanding president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to power in a landslide victory. The preliminary figures from the central electoral commission released on Monday morning showing him winning 91% of the vote in a turnout of 77%. The two main opposition candidates, Zharmakan Tuyakbai (6.64%) and Alikhan Baimenov (1.65%) were far behind.
Polling stations in Kazakhstan's second city of Almaty – the former capital and an opposition stronghold – were busy on Sunday, as people turned out to vote in large numbers amid a strong but low-key police presence. Sustenance was on hand in the form of snacks laid out around polling stations. "We were told to come, like in the old Soviet times", said a cake-seller outside polling station Number 53 in Almaty.
What may have come as a surprise is that Nazarbayev's victory, though seen as a foregone conclusion, was in the event so overwhelming: most observers had predicted that even his campaign team aimed only for a respectable 65-70%.
How then was such a result achieved, and is it legitimate?
As Kazakhstan bids for the OSCE chairmanship in 2009, it is keen to promote a positive international image. Seeking a niche as the most prosperous and democratic country in central Asia, it does not want to blot its copybook with obvious election-day violations such as vote-rigging or ballot-stuffing.
The international election observation mission of the OSCE / Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) did note improvements in the electoral process compared to the 2004 parliamentary elections, but its head Audrey Glover told a news conference in the capital, Astana, on Monday that "the Kazakh authorities have not been able to provide equal opportunities for all candidates during the holding of the election campaign."
Meanwhile, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai's campaign team reported a string of violations on election day: the inclusion of dead people on voter lists while eligible voters were missing, and voters being encouraged to make their decision electronically rather than afforded their right to choose a paper ballot.
A president and his people
There is no doubt that Nursultan Nazarbayev enjoys huge popularity in this central Asian state of 15 million people. This is largely due to the performance of the economy, which has been growing at an average annual rate of 10% since 2000 – boosted by Kazakhstan's significant oil reserves.
Kazakh voters contrast their own relative prosperity and stability with the acute problems in impoverished neighbouring states such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Daniyar Khaysarov, enjoying the winter sunshine on a bench in the centre of Almaty, praised Nazarbayev's economic performance and said he was about to cast his vote for the president: "He has raised the country to such a level. There is no other candidate like him. We know what the country was like before."
Hatip Atkeltiruly, an ethnic Kazakh who migrated from Iran to the Caspian port city of Aktau, said that economic development was an important factor in persuading him to vote for Nazarbayev: "The economy is developing well and policies should not be changed until we reach a higher level of economic development." He also praised the president for "forging good relations with other countries", indicating that Nazarbayev's attempts to project himself as a world statesman are scoring some successes – at least at home.
Tilekzhan Bisembayev, drinking beer in the centre of Almaty, said that Nazarbayev "was the best candidate" and added that the other candidates had failed to offer convincing programmes. This very awareness of opposition to the president reinforces the government's claim that the political climate in Kazakhstan is pluralist.
But in the eyes of critics, the notion of an open political argument is deceptive. The government has resorted to some subtle means to ensure that voters make the correct choice. Opposition candidates complained of harassment throughout the campaign; a leading dissident, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, was found dead in suspicious and still unexplained circumstances; and opposition newspapers were seized. The broadcast media focused heavily on Nazarbayev during the campaign, reserving little airtime for other candidates – and coverage was highly selective in content and style.
Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests that employers put pressure on their workers to vote for Nazarbayev; some hospital staff were even told to promote Nazarbayev as they examined their patients. This over-zealous approach helped give the president a scale of victory that his best advisers may not have wanted.
Kazakh officials have encouraged the view that their country is heading for full democracy, but that western experience shows this to be a slow process that may take many years to achieve, with problems along the way. This view finds an echo among sections of the electorate who blame over-zealous officials – and Nazarbayev’s family members – for corruption, absolving the president himself.
The other Kazakhstan
The other four presidential candidates trailed far behind the incumbent: Tuyakbay, a former state prosecutor representing the opposition coalition For a Fair Kazakhstan; Alikhan Baimenov, leader of the Ak Zhol (Bright Path) party; Yerasyl Abilkasymov, a communist, judged to have won 0.38% in preliminary results; and Mels Eleusizov, an environmentalist from the Tabighat (Nature) movement, who received 0.32%.
Some of those voting for opposition candidates were happy to discuss their motives, though not to give their names. A middle-aged couple said that they had both voted for Tuyakbai, saying that a strong economy was not enough. "We want something to change as regards internal freedom – the chance to think and talk freely", said the woman.
"I voted for Baimenov", said an interpreter walking in the park with his wife and child. "My logic was to try not to vote for Nazarbayev. That is not necessarily because I don't want to, but because it would be good to depart from the kind of tradition where the result is 80-90% (for the winner). It is not so much that I am against Nazarbayev or because I am for Baimenov specifically."
The preliminary finding of the OSCE/ODIHR issued on 4 December comments that "(visually), the campaign was dominated throughout the country by billboards, banners and posters of the President" and noted "detentions of campaign staff while handing out materials or attempting to contact voters." Kazakhstan today is more democratic than it was in Soviet times, and more democratic than its neighbours; but it is still a country where the president can be awarded over 90% of the vote.
© Joanna Lillis 2005
This article was previously published by openDemocracy.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance journalist based in Kazakhstan. She previously worked for nearly four years for BBC Monitoring in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Central Asian Republics
A Balancing Act between Democracy and Islam
What role does Islam play in the Central Asian republics? What progress has been made in the democratization process and how does the EU fit into the picture? An interview with Reinhard Krumm, director of the Central Asian Office of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung
Islamism in Central Asia
In his new book, Michael Lüders focuses on the world's crisis areas in the wake of the Iraq war and, in particular, on the states of Central Asia: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. He analyses why there are radical Islamic movements in these regions and how highly flammable flashpoints come about there