30 september 2020

Central Asia news

Ajdar Kurtov: Expulsion of the opposition: abridged history

27.08.2007 09:34 msk

Feruza Jani

Analytics Kazakhstan

Nur Otan's total victory in the snap election of the Majilis (lower house of the parliament of Kazakhstan) on August 18 completed expulsion of the opposition from the national legislature. Ajdar Kurtov, an analyst with Asia Analysis Foundation, believes that the status quo was quite predictable and, to a certain degree, logical. The whole history of elections in Kazakhstan shows an emphasis on the regime's domination rather than on encouragement of political competition. Here is an abridged version of political evolution in Kazakhstan by Kurtov.


Preliminary estimates show Nur Otan as the unquestionable winner. What do these results indicate? First and foremost, they show that there is no actual multi-party system in Kazakhstan at all. How many political parties nominally exist does not really matter, after all. What matters is the extent to which they are permitted participation in the state power mechanisms. Multi-party democracy is only effective when political competition among parties in state structures permits them to exert influence with the state policy. In other words, when criticism from the opposition allows for correction of flaws in the laws adopted, political decisions made, and foreign policy executed. When, however, the parliament consists of representatives of one political party only, the opposition cannot have any effect on these processes.

What Kazakhstan came to was actually predictable. Launching the constitutional reforms, the Kazakh leadership pronounced some contradictory objectives but, contradictory or not, all of them boiled down to several points. Number one: the president allegedly invests some of his powers in the parliament as a resolute and major step to democratization. Number two: the said step will encourage and advance a multi-party system. Number three: all of that demonstrates Kazakhstan's democratic choice. The reforms per se and the outcome of the snap parliamentary election challenge validity of all these premises.

Some presidential powers are to be wielded by the parliament only in theory. Indeed, the Majilis will supposedly form the Cabinet now. In real life, however, nothing has changed in Kazakhstan or is about to change because President Nursultan Nazarbayev is officially the head of Nur Otan. In other words, his will alone will be decisive in formation of the government - just the way it was until now. Minor changes in the mechanism are really insignificant. These changes may have some effect at a later date, after Nazarbayev, but not at this point.

Seats on the parliament: between 50% and zero

Analysts of the whole history of elections in Kazakhstan shows an emphasis on the regime's domination rather than on encouragement of political competition. The forces that regard the president as a deity and political leader of the nation became stronger with each campaign.

Let us begin with the very first election, the campaign with some elements of genuine democracy. This election took place in March 1990, when the Soviet Union existed yet, and when the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic was electing its Supreme Soviet. The opposition had about 45% of all seats on the Supreme Soviet all through the first half of the 1990s. When President Nazarbayev asked the Supreme Soviet for additional powers in 1993, he was dismayed to find his request turned down. That was probably why Nazarbayev went against the Constitution (adopted in January 1993) and disbanded the Supreme Soviet in December 1993. A certain law adopted then invested all powers in the president for the interim period, the period that lasted for years.

The Supreme Soviet elected in March 1994 owed its election to new, thoroughly undemocratic rules and procedures. Every fourth deputy of its predecessor had been elected by the so called social action organizations. (Kazakhstan became the only Central Asian country that introduced this Mikhail Gorbachev's idea into its national legislation.) It was mostly representatives of the party nomenclature that were elected to the legislature from social action organizations then. Everything changed by March 1994. The Communist Party of Kazakhstan was no longer the heart of the political system. Nazarbayev himself had reconsidered his political options, went after the communists, and even had the Communist Party denied official registration (which precluded its participation in the election). The Kazakh authorities then invented state lists of candidates as a mechanism that permitted them to mold democracy to their own liking. In other words, approximately a fourth part of the deputies' corps was not to be nominated by political parties or social action organizations anymore. The president himself compiled the list of whoever he wanted on the parliament and the population was merely required to vote for these people. All the same, the parliament of Kazakhstan elected in March 1994 did include some opposition activists - approximately 30% of all. 1994 was a difficult year for Kazakhstan, a year of a grave socioeconomic crisis, and the parliament frequently objected to the measures the regime insisted on.

Nazarbayev disbanded this parliament a year later, in March 1995, and again defied the Constitution in doing so. The president referred to the verdict of the Constitutional Court that denied the March 1994 parliamentary election legitimacy. It may be only added that Nazarbayev had been the only center of power in Kazakhstan in March 1994 and the election had been arranged entirely to his liking. It follows that Nazarbayev himself was responsible both for the election and for the parliament it brought into being. Anyway, the legislature was disbanded and a new structure was established in its absence. Something called Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan was supposed to demonstrate people's support of the president. It was the Assembly of the Peoples that suggested a nationwide referendum to extend Nazarbayev's presidential term without election and in the absence of the parliament. It also suggested the constitutional reforms. Ideas like that couldn't originate in the Assembly of the Peoples itself, of course. They were undeniably initiated by the presidential inner circle and presidential administration and aired by representatives of ethnic groups residing in Kazakhstan.

The referendum in summer 1995 extended Nazarbayev's term of office to five years. It was followed by another referendum that amended the Constitution. Since all of that was pulled off with the parliament absent, there could be no public discussion of the items on the agenda, much less any objections to them. The Constitution was amended to suit Nazarbayev. It invested in the president the powers inconsistent with parliamentarism, democracy, or principles of the division of powers. This latter means that laws are adopted by the parliament, a legislative branch of the government. The parliament alone passes what is known as laws. The Kazakh constitution was amended in such a manner in the meantime that some presidential decrees carry the weight of the law. And the president never hesitates to invoke this particular power. As a matter of fact, this provision remains valid even now, despite all official reassurances concerning a shift of the center of power to the parliament.

The Majilis elected in late 1995 included only 77 lawmakers. The election was organized in majoritarian districts only. The opposition ended up with 7-9% of the parliament. 1995 therefore became a year when representation of the opposition in power structures was greatly reduced.

Election of the Majilis in 1999 was arranged with all amendments to the Constitution made a year before taken into account. Ten seats were added to the Majilis, and these lawmakers were elected from the lists of candidates compiled by political parties. Establishment of the 7% barrier for the Majilis shows that the presidential administration clearly expected to make use of the administrative resource to rig the outcome of the parliamentary election. Numerous foreign observers monitoring the 1999 election detected lots of serious violations of the procedures. As a result, the opposition ended with even less seats on the parliament (4-5% only). It was logical. Nazarbayev's regime had solidified its positions by the late 1990s through numerous violations of the legislation and the very Constitution. The stable regime established in Kazakhstan was appraised by political scientists as authoritarian.

Running for the parliament in September 2004, the opposition ended up with only one seat on the Majilis. Judging by preliminary estimates, not a single representative of the opposition made it this time, on August 18, 2007.

Fifty percent to zero seats on the Majilis for representatives of the opposition is therefore the history of evolution of the Kazakh political system. Owing it to high oil and gas prices in the world market, Kazakhstan shows a more or less fine rate of economic development. Economic successes were first shown in the early 2000s when oil and gas prices soared sky-high. It apparently persuaded Nazarbayev that he could do without opposition in the parliament altogether.

There is one other nuance to be taken into consideration. Population of Kazakhstan approximately amounts to one ninth of the population of the Russian Federation but manpower requirements to political parties in both countries are identical. Whatever political party fails to meet them is denied official registration and therefore a chance to run for the parliament. It makes the Kazakh legislation exactly nine times less democratic with regard to political parties than the Russian one.

Smart solution

Nazarbayev is a smart politico indeed - a cunning, shifty, and undeniably gifted political leader. As such, he couldn't help being worried by criticism of Kazakhstan by the international community for the absence of democracy, pressure applied to the media, harassment of the opposition, and assassinations that rocked Kazakhstan every now and then. Hence the decision to establish the alleged opposition, a mere device to lessen the criticism. Several senior officials, formerly from state power structures including the presidential administration, were chosen to become leaders of parties of the so called opposition. Protest moods of the population were thus put under state control. What is happening in Kazakhstan nowadays is but an imitation of political wars between the regime and the opposition. It is but an additional insurance for Nazarbayev.

Along with everything else, Nazarbayev had all pro-president political forces in the country merge into Nur-Otan, a mega party that polled nearly 90% votes yesterday. By the way, more adult Kazakhs belong to Nur Otan than belonged to the CPSU once.

Kazakhstan now has a parliament that is but a collective talking head saying the words the president is putting in its mouth. This state of affairs has its advantages of course, but not from the standpoint of the future. The overall policy has never changed. There is one leader in the country and everything else (including the state power system, first and foremost) is molded to suit him.