Kazakhstan’s leader is pushing political reforms that critics say are designed to consolidate power a year after deadly protests in the Central Asian country, so he’s holding snap parliamentary elections on Sunday.
At seven in the morning, polling places opened to the public (0100 GMT). There are about 12 million eligible voters whose ballots must be cast by 8 o’clock tonight.
The large oil producer is stuck between its former Soviet master Russia and the rising economic power of China in Central Asia.
A “modernization” drive, announced by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev months after protests over fuel prices erupted in January of last year, led to the early election. They were crushed so severely that 238 people were reportedly killed.
In 2019, Tokayev, a career diplomat, was chosen by his predecessor and mentor Nursultan Nazarbayev to take the helm following Nazarbayev’s nearly three-decade rule. Nonetheless, after the protests, Tokayev eliminated any remaining evidence of that time period.
He dissolved parliament in January, saying early elections would “give new impetus to modernization,” and he followed through on his promise to reform government institutions.
Even though there are more people running for office in the ex-Soviet country, some in Almaty are skeptical of the changes.
Will I vote? “No, to be honest… because I hardly believe in fair elections in Kazakhstan in general,” Aset Smagulov, a 21-year-old IT specialist, told AFP before the vote.
For the first time in almost 20 years, independent candidates will be able to run for seats in parliament. Previously, the lower house was made up of three pro-government parties.
Women, young people, and people with disabilities now have a 30% quota, and the threshold for entering the 98-seat legislature has been lowered to 5%.
According to political scientist Dimash Alzhanov, the ruling elites are still able to manipulate the voting process.
“The new voting system appears to provide voters with more options. Alzhanov told AFP that in reality, the president and his administration are holding onto the vote tally.
Politicians here hold elections to ensure they remain in office. In an authoritarian state, elections are just like that, he said.
Tokayev was re-elected in a snap presidential vote in November, winning with a landslide despite the lack of competition that many saw as the cause of the riots that erupted from peaceful demonstrations against a fuel price hike.
The country’s nearly 20 million people are suffering as a result of persistent inequality, pervasive corruption, and skyrocketing inflation.
Almaty, the economic center of Kazakhstan, had posters of candidates adorning restaurant windows, scaffolding, and even street lamps.
Candidates’ lackluster political platforms are reflected in their equally vague campaign slogans.
Some young voters, however, were excited about the change.
This is the first parliamentary election in which I have witnessed the emergence of new parties and independent candidates. “It’s brand new to me,” Adia Abubakir, a 20-year-old graphic designer, told AFP.
There will be seven different political groups running for office. Only two of the opposition parties were allowed to register in recent years, and many others were outright banned.
“I’d like to believe that my voice can make a difference,” said Akbota Silim, a 21-year-old journalist.
As for how many parties will be represented in parliament after the election, political analyst Andrei Chebotarev of Almaty put the number at four or five.
He assured AFP that “loyal parties” would be represented in parliament and that the presidential party, Amanat, would maintain a majority of seats.
The diversity of parties, he continued, “will have an impact on the acceptance of the election results, both for the population and internationally.”