Kazakhstan Parliamentary Elections: An Important Step in Kazakhstan’s Path to Democratization

by Alberto Turkstra, Project Manager, Diplomatic World Institute

21 January 2021

On the occasion of the 2021 parliamentary elections, Diplomatic World Project Manager Alberto Turkstra visited Nursultan (Kazakhstan) from January 8 – January 11. In Nursultan, the author met with representatives of the various political parties participating in the elections, members of the Central Election Commission, the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies and the National Council of Public Trust. On the day of the election, several polling stations were visited in addition to the press briefings of international observers.

Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and severe winter weather conditions, Kazakhstan successfully organised its legislative elections in strict observance of all sanitary requirements. The first parliamentary elections since President Tokayev came to power following the 2019 presidential election, they represented an important occasion to elect a new parliament which will help guide the future direction and further reforms of the country in all spheres.

The lower house of the Kazakh parliament (Majilis) is comprised of 107 deputies, 98 of them elected by a proportional electoral system according to party lists, while the remaining nine deputies are elected by the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, an advisory body whose members are drawn from organisations representing major ethnic communities living in the country.

The exit polls showed that the ruling Nur Otan party had obtained 72 percent of the votes, AkZhol Democratic Party around 10 percent and the People’s Party 9 percent. The other two parties (Auyl and Adal) failed to meet the 7 percent threshold for parliamentary representation.
Local elections (maslikhats) were held concurrently and incorporated for the first time an important innovation as they were held based on party lists (as opposed to the single-member system employed previously). In party list systems, seats in parliament more proportionally match how many votes each party receives, a move that President Tokayev says will “enable parties to strengthen their position in the country’s political system” and at the local level.

These parliamentary elections were also the first of their kind since the implementation of a package of constitutional and subsequent legislative reforms starting in 2017 designed to increase further the openness and transparency of Kazakhstan’s electoral system following a variety of recommendations from international actors, most notably the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE ODIHR). These legislative changes include voter registration reforms, the inclusive participation of people with disabilities, the lowering of the threshold to register a political party, among a variety of other amendments. For the first time in the Kazakh parliamentary practice, a 30 percent quota in party lists for women and youth was introduced, which will contribute to their increased participation in the political life of the country of these societal groups which heretofore had played a more marginal role in national politics.

A total of 312 candidates stood from across five parties. The candidates included 90 women (this represents a 9 percent increase compared to the previous parliamentary elections), and 19 people under the age of 29. All five parties nominated candidates from national minorities, including, according to data presented by the Central Election Commission at the January 8 press briefing, some 13.8 per cent ethnic Russians and 6.4 per cent from 10 other ethnicities - reflecting the diverse, inclusive and multi-ethnic nature of Kazakhstan.

Televised debates were yet another step toward the development of a robust political culture in Kazakhstan. For the first time a live debate was held among representatives of the five political parties on December 30 (in 2016, there was a televised debate, but it was pre-recorded). In another example of civic activism, the Trade Unions of Kazakhstan recruited thousands of observer applications and created a centre for the non-party observation of elections and the training of observers.

Meetings with representatives of political parties were useful to learn the main issues and themes dominating this election. Broadly speaking, common themes resolved around the sustainable and resilient recovery from the effects of the pandemic; social policies for the vulnerable sectors of the population; improvements health care system; support to businesses and particularly SMEs; environmental issues; the role of women and youth in political life; and anti-corruption efforts.

All parties conducted extensive national surveys in order to design their electoral programmes and better target their programmes to the needs of the electorate. Furthermore, in conditions of the pandemic, all parties embraced new technologies and communication channels (social media, Youtube, etc) to conduct their campaigns and engage with citizens, but without leaving traditional communication methods behind.

Nur Otan’s party programme “The Path of Changes: A Decent Life for Everyone” highlights the need to improve citizens’ quality of life, promote social justice, and an accountable state. Specific proposals include an increase in medical workers’ and teachers’ salaries, improve the quality of student housing, and reorientate the economy from raw materials to manufacturing.

Recently, plenty of work has been put to make Nur-Otan party more mobile and responsive including the simplification of membership criteria and a new system of primaries. During the last primaries conducted in October 2020, approximately 11,000 members were registered as candidates.

The Auyl People’s Democratic Patriotic Party, for example, has a strong focus on improving living conditions in rural areas (where 42 percent of the Kazakh population lives) and includes in its election programme initiatives on rural infrastructure and development projects.

The Adal Party has been a strong advocate of industry and the digitalisation of government services. Through the party’s new website, for example, people can report a problem or a complaint, suggestions on a dedicated portal, which can then easily reach regional party representatives.

Lastly, the People’s Party of Kazakhstan, for its part, emphasised sustainable and affordable housing and reduction of the retirement age.
On the day of the election, a very high degree of preparedness was observed in the polling stations in terms to voting procedures and their adherence to the sanitary norms. Mitigating measures against the COVID-19 were generally in place (temperature controls), and personal protective equipment (masks, hand sanitizer) widely available in all polling stations visited for both observers and voters.

The stations also made voting easy and accessible for the elderly and people with disabilities (in every polling station visited, one wheelchair-friendly booth was always reserved for people with disabilities; it also included a magnifying glass for people with poor eyesight). There was a minor violation where voting booths were not covered with curtains in order to protect the privacy of the voters. Social distancing was not always respected inside voting premises, there were minor instances of overcrowding, and these issues were echoed by other observers in their press briefings. These minor incidents, however, did not in any way impact the outcome of the election. Apart from this, voting procedures were generally followed at polling stations. Even though in Kazakhstan the turnout in parliamentary elections is traditionally lower than in presidential elections, the interest of citizens was quite high from the early morning hours, and local observers from all contesting political parties were present in the polling stations visited.

I conclude with the following thoughts:
• Many countries are having doubts and are considering postponing the organisation of elections or similar democratic processes. Kazakhstan has shown that it is possible to conduct an election during a pandemic in safe and secure conditions with all guarantees.

• It may be the case that some international observers and actors are not fully satisfied with the elections. The EU, for example, claims that the parliamentary elections were “a missed opportunity to demonstrate efficient implementation of political reforms & modernisation”. But piecemeal democratization has suited Kazakhstan’s national circumstances and interests well. We cannot compare Kazakhstan to countries with long traditions in multi-party governance.

• In addition, a strong presidential system has been a necessary feature to secure the country’s independence and its place among the community of nations. With the consolidation of post-independence state institutions, Kazakhstan is now in a position to gradually devolve some powers from the president to the parliament (following the concept “A strong president - an influential parliament”), resulting in a clearer separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government.

• During my stay in Nursultan, many of my interlocutors were open about the fact that democracy is a long-term objective, as is the increased role of the legislative branch and representative bodies, thereby bringing Kazakhstan closer to international standards. Let us not forget that in 30 years as an independent nation, Kazakhstan has managed a peaceful and voluntary transfer of power, religious and ethnic harmony, substantial economic progress (being in a strong position to reach the top 30 most developed countries in the world by 2050), gradual political reforms all the while avoiding instability.

• As a young nation, Kazakhstan has room to grow and reform further, but each election introduces new improvements in the legislation compared to the previous one, making the political space in Kazakhstan gradually more open, and more inclusive to all segments of the population. The more active participation of the population in politics and a more demanding attitude towards the work of the state institutions will make these more responsive to the people’s needs. These new dynamics are at the core of the “listening state” concept that has been one of the hallmarks of President Tokayev presidency and which finds concrete institutional expression in the National Council on Public Trust, an inclusive dialogue platform bringing representatives from all walks of life to discuss the country’s reform agenda.

• The newly elected parliament will now help guide the direction of the country for the next five years, on the basis of a new package of reforms which President Tokayev outlined in his speech to parliament on 14 January. These include measures for further political modernisation (through the reduction of the mandatory threshold from 7 to 5 percent for political parties to be able to obtain parliamentary representation), and other measures to modernise social policies, education, healthcare, the labour market and pension system.