Recently, the interim president of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, called for quick elections to help transition the country into having a new, democratically elected leader. However, the question of whether or not the first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, will continue to have a controlling influence on the politics of the country is in contention. While Nazarbayev had voluntarily stepped down from his position, he is still an incredibly large and important political figure in Kazakhstan, with many analysts believing that whoever will be elected as the new president would be beholden to Nazarbayev’s will. Because of this, I believe that even though the claim of democratic elections is being made, that this is not a true indication of a shift in power in the country, and, if anything, these elections are just hiding a strong authoritarian rule of the country.
Over the past thirty years, Nazarbayev has been the ruler of Kazakhstan, and made plenty of policy decisions. And while he has stepped down from this role, he has stated that he will become the chairman of the country’s security council, an institution that he created recently before his abdication, and would remain the head of the majority party in Kazakhstan. In this role, he would maintain watch over the next president as well as influence policy decisions made.
Since the Nazarbayev’s abdication, many protestors around the country have been calling the planned elections a farce, stating that as long as Nazarbayev is in a position of power, nothing will have changed. As an example of this, after his abdication, Tokayev changed the name of the capital city to Nursultan. This obviously did not go over well with the public, and protests started up throughout the city, yelling that Nazarbayev is just a dictator attempting to maintain power over the country.
As stated earlier, it is my belief that the elections in Kazakhstan do not indicate a shift towards a more democratic state, and instead a sly way of continuance of authoritarian power in the country.
Hi Michael, I would agree that there is definitely the possibility that the recent Kazakhstan elections may have been a façade, and that authoritarian influence from Nazarbayev will continue to exist. The current political situation seems to compare similarly to Putin in Russia; when Putin stepped down from presidency for Medvedev to come into power, Putin became prime minister of Russia within a day and thus continued to wield his influence over the Russian government. This authoritarianism in Kazakhstan seems to also be supported by assessments of democracy by the Polity IV dataset, which codes Kazakhstan as an autocracy since 2004. Since Nazarbayev publicly endorsed Tokayev for president, these elections could even be interpreted as Nazarbayev passing power to an approved “heir” to the presidency. Thus, it suffices to say that continued authoritarianism will exist in Kazahkstan.
Ever since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Kazakhstan has gained sovereignty and became independent from USSR. Since the formation of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev has been the first, and the one and only president of the country. Although, after USSR collapsed most of the newly formed independent countries were facing economic and political challenges, Nazarbayev has managed to ameliorate the post-soviet situation in the country by establishing an economy based on oil exportation and relations with the neighboring countries, particularly Russia and China. During this time of “third wave” democratic transition, many post-soviet countries were trying to move from destabilized communistic regimes to more open and promising democracy. Very rapidly Kazakhstan caught up with the economic development and reached near one of Russia. As Seymour Martin Lipset states in his work ‘Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy’ the better nation’s economy, the greater chances for democracy. Kazakhstan indeed had good economic development; however, it wasn’t enough to support and strengthen the shift to democracy. Lipset further articulates “a society without a multitude of organizations relatively independent of the central state power has a high dictatorial as well as revolutionary potential.” Even though there is a multitude of different political parties in Kazakhstan, all of them are oppressed by Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party. With such delegitimization of political opponents, the presence of various political organizations is not really effective for democratic development and consolidation.
Furthermore, according to Larry Diamond’s ‘Thinking about hybrid regimes,’ there is a great number of different types of democracies nowadays. Namely, those countries that were going through the political shift, are either succeeded in creating democracy or went off the route and became a mix of political systems with a fragment of democracy. And that is exactly what happened to Kazakhstan. From the ascending movement towards democracy, it slowly digressed to the authoritarian regime. Just by looking at the election results from 1991 to the present day, one could clearly see the signs of antidemocratic practices. Moreover, according to Freedom House Index which indicates the level of civil liberty in a country, ranging from 1 (most free) to 7 (least free) Kazakhstan falls on 6.5 F.H. points. Diamond elaborates on the result, identifying Kazakhstani political system as hegemonic authoritarian, and one clear sign of hegemony as he claims is when three-quarter or more of the popular vote is “won” by the president. Besides authoritarian rule, corruption is also a big issue in the country, in matter of fact, according to transparency.org Kazakhstan has a score of 34 on a scale from 0 to 100 (0 being highly corrupt). As long as corruption exists in a country, the possibility of achieving democracy is very low.
After the unexpected announcement of Nazarbayev’s resignation in early 2019, many have gained hope in the long waited political transition, while others find it not as simple and are speculating whether it is yet another planned move of the dictator. As Edward Lemon states in his article, Kazakhstan has seen a lot of instability in recent years; this includes terrorist attacks in the regions, suppressed protestors, instability of the currency. All of this and other factors have caused the continuous resentment of many citizens. Fearing of rebellions and political overturn by the people, and desire to end his political career safely and with a good reputation, Nazarbayev appointed his fiduciary ally as a temporary president. Although Kassym Jomart Tokayev is the new president of Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev still holds political power via the position of chairman of the security council which he himself appointed, as well as assigned title of “Leader of the nation”. With the position of chairman of the security council, both domestic and international policies will be under his control. This is very unlikely to be the long-hoped political change, rather it is a continuation of his rule camouflaged by the quasi-political change.
In spite of all, with the absence of basic requirements for democracy, that is a variety of political organizations, the legitimization of those parties, freedom of speech and assembly of the citizens, good economy, and minimum corruption, it is implausible for a state to reach democracy. Additionally, with the current situation in Kazakhstan, maneuvers of Nazarbayev, and long authoritarian regime, the change of the political authority, I would say, is merely a façade rather than a true shift towards democracy.
Larry Diamond, “Elections without Democracy: Thinking About Hybrid Regimes” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 13, No. 2, April 2002
Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1959. “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic
Development and Political Legitimacy.”