Politics

Voters Go to Polls in Kazakhstan

Feature 27 July 2021
Voters Go to Polls in Kazakhstan

Voters in Kazakhstan's rural districts went to the polls at the weekend in keenly-awaited local elections that are seen as a further step in the country’s road to a fully functioning democracy.

For the first time ever, people in villages, settlements and small towns got the chance to elect  local leaders, or akims (mayors).

A total of 2,297 candidates competed for 730 mayoral seats. The final list was reduced from an initial 2,582 candidates. The formal results are expected to be announced later this week.

Under a new system introduced by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, any citizen aged 25 years and over could run for the post of local mayor.A total of 878 of candidates, or 38.2 per cent, represented one of the country’s mainstream political parties but, crucially, more than 60% of the candidates, a total of 1,419, ran as independents rather than with the backing of a political party.

According to experts, the most active residents were from the East Kazakhstan and Zhambyl regions, where the voter turnout exceeded 90 percent. Whereas, the lowest number of voters was in Almaty region. The voting was monitored by more than 2,000 observers. However, they did not report any serious violations.

Observers say that the elections have created additional opportunities for active citizens to realize their potential and that the presidential political reforms have sparked keen interest in Kazak society.

The elections are seen as a key step in efforts to gradually liberalise Kazakhstan's political system, which has for almost three decades been dominated by the presidency.

Tokayev came to power in 2019 after the surprise resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev who had run the nation of 19 million since independence and the elections honour a key pledge he made at the time.

A well placed source at the Kazakhstan embassy to the EU told this website the elections of rural akims was “a very important moment which opens a new stage of political modernization in our country.”

The election campaign had partly focused on both the health and economic implications that arise from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Much of the campaigning took place online on social media, as the current situation is subject to pandemic restrictions. But it is also hoped that this can give a real new impetus of digital political democratisation for the young generations as half of the Kazakh population is under the age of 30.

The president announced the initiative to hold local elections in his address to the nation last year and less than a year has passed to this becoming a reality.

The Kazak source went on: “The elections of rural akims opens up new opportunities for citizens to directly influence the development of their settlements. They form new long-term principles in the functioning of the public administration system and qualitatively change the nature of relations between state and society.”

The election campaign had reportedly aroused wide interest among citizens and cultivated increased political competition. The high number of independent candidates was particularly notable.

“In general, these local elections will contribute to the further democratization of the country,” added the source.

The source stressed the “strategic importance” of the elections, saying they marked “serious institutional changes” in the system of local government in the country.

“Along with the adoption of a new law on peaceful assemblies and the liberalization of legislation on elections, the introduction of direct election of akims contributes to an increase in the political culture and political participation of Kazakhstanis.”

It is also hoped, he said, that the elections will also pave the way for a new generation of civil servants and improvements to the state apparatus.

“All this together will provide positive impetus to the further development of the local government system and is a progressive change in the country.They clearly show that the president’s initiatives and decisions are gradually being implemented and enjoy broad support in society.”

He points out 10 new laws on political reforms have already been adopted since the president came to power and several more are in the pipeline.

Further comment comes from Axel Goethals, CEO at the Brussels based European Institute for Asian Studies, who believes the elections  “will continue the steady progress towards a more coherent democratic structure in the nation”.

Goethals told this site the elections should be seen as a process of ‘controlled democratisation’ and it was encouraging to see “signs of improvement” which include a “fledgling multi party system and the move towards more complete representation and political competition”.

Goethals added: “Kazakhstan under President Tokayev has also made very positive inroads into increasing general representation and civil society participation in its democratic process.This election and voting process must be considered in a broader context of a country still evolving. As a former Soviet state, Kazakhstan is slowly moving towards a more open democratic system. This is a process which cannot happen overnight and requires a more gradual approach to avoid abrupt or forced changes which could result in instability, as it is also part of a learning curve of democratisation for the voters, the candidates, the political parties as well as for the institutions in Kazakhstan.

“President Tokayev has shown real commitment and determination in order to improve the socio-economic fabric of Kazakhstan through political modernisation. This has been built upon by the legacy and reforms initiated by his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.”

Elsewhere, MEP Andris Ameriks, Vice-Chair of the Central Asian delegation in the European Parliament, told EU Reporter:  “The results of the elections are highly important for Kazakhstan.

“At a time when the whole world is still struggling with a pandemic that has caused great social turmoil and provoked national governments, it is vital that these elections provide a real example of mutual trust between the people and the authorities.”

Fraser Cameron, a former  European Commission official and now director of the Brussels-based EU/Asia Centre, agrees, saying that the elections “should mark another step forward in Kazakhstan’s  steady progress towards a more open and democratic society”.

This article was republished from EU Reporter.

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