Will “Ak Zhol” finally decide to occupy its one seat in the Kazakhstan parliament, and does it matter?
Will Alikhan Baimenov be the seventy-seventh deputy in the Kazakhstan lower house of parliament?
When Kazakhstan had its last parliamentary election in 2004, there were great hopes that Kazakhstan would provide an improved environment for more competitive and fair elections than it had in the past. Initially, there were signs that this might be taking place, as a variety of opposition parties with substantial funding were allowed in the week prior to the election to broadcast campaign advertising and participate in televised debates along with the numerous pro-presidential parties that participated. The opposition party that showed the most promise during the short campaign period was Ak Zhol, the leaders of which were Alikhan Baimenov, Bulat Abilov, Oraz Zhandosov, and the late Altynbek Sarsenbayev. Ak Zhol, or the “Brite Path” party, campaigned on a pro-business platform that also promised to spread the wealth of Kazakhstan’s oil revenues among the public. After the dust had settled from the elections, however, not one representative of Ak Zhol took a seat in parliament.
While the Kazakhstan government hailed the elections as great progress towards multi-party democracy, selectively citing the comments of a certain segment of the international observer community (particularly from the CIS but also including Fred Starr of Johns Hopkins University), the OSCE observer mission extensively criticized the implementation of the actual election day. Furthermore, the local Kazakhstani organization, the Republican Network of Independent Monitors conducted a parallel vote count that demonstrated, beyond the violations in the voting process, that the counting appeared to have been tampered with at higher levels in several critical races. The result was that the parliament that began its sessions after the elections did not reflect a broad spectrum of political parties and ideas. The Ak Zhol party, which had gained significant popularity in the city of Almaty, for example, won no single mandate seats and was left with one party-list seat that was supposed to be occupied by Alikhan Baimenov. In protest of the shortcomings of the election, the Ak Zhol party decided not to occupy that seat.
Since that time, the Ak Zhol party has split into two separate parties, one of its leaders has been killed, and another leader has been convicted of crimes that prevent him from running for elected office. Essentially, the Ak Zhol that ran in the 2004 parliamentary elections no longer exists. The party that ran, however, is still registered and is now led by Alikhan Baimenov without the involvement of his former partners-in-leadership. It is in this context that one party activist, Janna Nauryzbayeva, has written a public letter advocating that Ak Zhol should now occupy the seat it won in the 2004 parliamentary elections. Nauryzbayeva suggests that, given the recent merger of Dariga Nazarbayeva’s Asar party and the President’s Otan party, Ak Zhol’s participation in the parliament now is critical to preventing the parliament from being consumed by a mega-party not dissimilar from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. She has also suggested that Baimenov occupy the seat. Without a doubt, the Kazakhstan parliament would benefit from at least one dissenting voice in its parliament, but it is also clear that Baimenov no longer represents the majority of those in the country who support opposition parties. Furthermore, can one person make a significant impact in a lower house of parliament made up of seventy-seven seats? And, given Baimenov’s ambiguous political career, would the acceptance of him into parliament merely be perceived as an attempt on the part of the Kazakhstan government to appear “more democratic” on the heels of President Nazarbayev’s trip to the United States? One thing is for sure--if Baimenov takes his seat in the parliament, he will need to work hard to earn back the respect of many of those who voted for Ak Zhol in 2004.