Why Is Kazakhstan’s Snap Presidential Election Considered Undemocratic?

Following the resignation of Kazakhstan’s former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in March, a snap presidential election was called to determine the country’s future leadership. But election day, held on 9th June, was met with unprecedented levels of popular resistance for a country where legislation delegitimises freedom of protest. Around 100 protestors were reportedly arrested and detained by anti-riot police, along with several accredited journalists who had been covering the demonstrations. Whilst central authorities deny these accusations and their implications for freedom of expression in Kazakhstan, human rights organisations have supported protestors’ claims that the election was ‘neither free nor fair,’ something which runs contrary to official statements.

Interim president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev promised a ‘just, transparent and fair’ election, whilst Nazarbayev suggested that the election would bring in ‘a new generation of leaders’ to better represent the people. According to Mihra Rittmann, of Human Rights Watch, despite official suggestions that the election would be free and democratic, ‘the prospect of a genuine transition is an illusion.’ Even though Nazarbayev has stepped down, he remains an integral part of the leadership, something evoked by his lifelong title ‘Leader of the Nation’ and lifetime role as Head of the Security Council. Alongside this, Nazarbayev has designated Tokayev – the most well-known figure on the ballot – as his political successor. ‘Under Tokayev the country is likely to remain as authoritarian as it was under Nazarbayev’, explains Diyar Autal of the Harvard Davis Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

Protestors consider the presidential election undemocratic in part because of its nature as a snap election. Tokayev is a high-profile political figure, already known as the interim president and the would-be successor of Nazarbayev. The other candidates are comparatively unknown, and all support and are supported by the current establishment, apart from opposition leader Amirzhan Kosanov, whose participation has been widely criticised by supporters. Given that Nazarbayev’s resignation had been planned years in advance, the snap election must be considered a tactical choice to limit the potential for radical change and maximise Nazarbayev’s chances for behind-the-scenes control. It has limited the ability for opposition members to get their names heard through well-planned and well-informed election campaigns.

What was not expected by central authorities was the extent of public resistance, as anti-riot police were only gathered in Nur-Sultan and Almaty after intentions to demonstrate were made clear on social media. Although protests remained peaceful and the police response did not escalate to the level of violence, there is clearly the potential for conflict if the establishment continues to resist calls for change, instead detaining protestors and blocking internet access. A lesson could be learned from Algeria, where similar attempts to preserve the post-independence establishment have led to continued displays of defiance and increased pressure on central government officials to resign.

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union and Kazakhstan’s declaration of independence in 1991, Nazarbayev became the first President of Kazakhstan. Much like the former president of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Nazarbayev should be expected to guard – or make attempts to guard – his waning power in the coming years. As the clandestine nature of his power increases so too will the potential for conflict. However, with election results to be declared on the 10th of June, the more imminent prospect of escalating violence must first be considered.

Philippa Payne