After widespread protests in January, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s government prepares to go for early elections with a campaign promise of transforming the country’s political structure and economic system.
ASTANA, Kazakhstan — Kazakhstan will hold a snap election on Sunday and pre-poll indicators point to an easy win for current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev against weak opposition candidates.
While some believe Tokayev’s near-certain victory shows that Kazakhstan still lacks adequate democratic standards, experts with considerable knowledge of the oil-rich Central Asian state’s political history and structure view the changes brought by the president as genuine steps towards reform.
“[Tokayev] has always talked about opening up Kazakhstan’s political system,” says Uli Schamiloglu, professor and chair of the Department of Kazakh Language and Turkic Studies at Nazarbayev University.
The professor thinks that Tokayev’s reform path is partially rooted in the unrest that swept the country in January, which led to hundreds of deaths as well as significant material damage across urban centres.
“Clearly President Tokayev had to acknowledge that there were strong pockets of unhappiness among Kazakh people. Life is not easy for many people. For lower socioeconomic classes, life is very hard. Clearly he had to address certain concerns of people,” Schamiloglu tells TRT World, explaining why Tokayev says he has taken a reform path to “democratise” the country’s political system.
While the professor does not think Kazakhstan’s transformation will happen “overnight”, the snap election might help the country move forward incrementally on its path to reform.
"In order to completely implement the president’s reform programme, Kazakhstan needs Sunday’s early election to ensure that he has enough time to finish the job he started"
“The more slowly you go, the further you go,” says Schamiloglu, who was born in New York to a family that migrated from Kazan, a Turkic-populated region in Russia, quoting a Russian proverb.
Since March, Kazakhstan has gone through some major legal changes. Among them, a constitutional amendment introduced a single-term limit for the president and extended the presidential mandate from five to seven years.
Tokayev’s reform programme also aimed to turn the Kazakh parliament into a genuine legislative organ, removing bureaucratic obstacles to citizens establishing new parties, according to Schamiloglu.
As part of the reforms, some new institutions, like the constitutional court, will also be created.
Elivira Azimova, Kazakhstan’s human rights ombudsman, one of the country’s top officials who also previously served as deputy justice minister, believes the early election is a timely move to strengthen the political base of the country’s reforms.
“It’s the right decision. The implementation of the recent [June 2022] referendum, which approved constitutional changes, including sections that strengthened the country’s human rights, needs a period more than two years,” she says, referring to the fact that Tokayev’s tenure is normally due to end in 2024.
Azimova acknowledges that during the January protests, there were some human rights violations, but she also underlines that some protesters violated other people’s rights, including damaging properties that led to extensive material damage.
“In order to completely implement the president’s reform programme, Kazakhstan needs Sunday’s early election to ensure that he has enough time to finish the job he started,” Azimova tells TRT World.
Other experts agree.
A president elected for at least the next seven years will have a better chance of keeping his reforms alive, which could also be an important step for Kazakhstan to achieve political stability, according to Abzal Saparbekuly, president of Otandastar Foundation, an organisation that aims to help integrate Kazakhstan’s diaspora communities into their country of origin.
“A renewal process was needed to ensure that the structural changes in the political, economic and social fields will remain, allowing the current president to carry out his own reforms,” says Saparbekuly.
“It's not just a renewal process that the president and the state needs; the public also has such an expectation,” he tells TRT World.
The reform programme will also allow Kazakhstan to protect itself from deteriorating economic conditions across the globe and adapt to the rapidly changing political conditions in the world, says Saparbekuly.
He points to Kazakhstan’s approach towards the Ukraine conflict, in which Astana has chosen to stay neutral, as a strong indicator of the country’s carefully chosen political path.
“We did not support Western sanctions against Russia, but we have also not broken sanctions against Moscow,” he says.
Kazakhstan, a landlocked former Soviet republic, is located in a complicated geography between Russia and China, the two great powers of Eurasia.
Despite Kazakhstan’s efforts to integrate its rich oil and gas sector into world markets to export its energy sources on better terms since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, China and Russia continue to play a significant role in Astana’s political and economic path, according to many experts.
“While Kazakhstan has considerably changed and progressed in the last three decades, recent protests [in January] have also revealed serious problems, [especially those] related to the fair distribution of revenues and ensuring a fair administration,” says Fuzuli Mecidli, Vice-President of International Turkic Academy, a research centre formed under the Turkic Council.
“Under Tokayev’s leadership, the country made an important decision by launching reforms to make Kazakhstan more fair, ensuring the fair distribution of revenues. If we say with the description of the President, the new Kazakhstan period has begun,” Mecidli tells TRT World.
“In this sense, elections are very important. If people support the president, it means these reforms will continue,” he adds.
Mehmet Zahid Caliskan and Guzal Zaitova from TRT's Kazakhstan office contributed to this report