Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Most Un-Anticipated Election in Kazakhstan’s History Approaches…Will Anybody Notice?

Nursultan Nazarbayev has a skill for calling timely elections. Over the years, he has called numerous shot-gun elections that prevent opposition groups from preparing and often catch the international community off guard. This week’s parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan, however, may be the best example of this phenomenon to date. With the future of Ukraine being decided through an election around the same time, the bizarre story of Rakhat Aliyev’s fall sending confusing messages to everybody, and the summer vacation season in full bloom, very few people seem to be taking notice of Kazakhstan’s elections this weekend. Most importantly, very few Kazakhstanis appear to be interested. As one person told me recently after meeting with opposition politicians in the country, people (even the politicians) most of all want the elections to be done and over…to just go away.

On the surface, the news circulating around the elections appears to be business as usual. The opposition is complaining about its lack of access to the media. “Nur-Otan” is predicting total domination of the electorate. And, there are, of course, the usual legions of domestic and international observers. Despite this air of competition and “democracy,” however, people do not seem to be engaged.

In my opinion, the lackluster attitude towards the elections is a product of the Rakhat Aliyev scandal, which already marks a significant victory for those often thought to be funding the “marionette-like” democratic battles in Kazakhstan. In many ways, therefore, these elections mark the end of an era that began in 2000-2001 with the first Rakhat Aliyev scandal and the rise of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK or, as it is called in Russian, DVK). This period has seen the emergence of unprecedented political competition within Kazakhstan’s elite and even within the Nazarbayev family (especially between the president’s son-in-laws). With Rakhat, the supposed root reason for the rise of this competition, now completely ostracized, there is question whether political competition in Kazakhstan will now be almost non-existent.

While such thoughts of political harmony are likely to bring Fukiyamaesque thoughts of never-ending prosperity and peace to the minds of Kazakhstan’s elite and middle class alike, I think it would be very pre-mature to declare an “end to Kazakh political history” with this election. The opposition, of course, hopes to make a “deal” as usual for seats and get their cut of the spoils, but will this be a mere seven seats or even less? With Rakhat now gone, many might think that such a deal could be enough to prevent future political discord in the country, at least until the passing of the Great Leader. It is more likely, however, that it will merely mark a new stage in political competition – a lull before battles heat up again.

As elite configurations are being re-worked and the spoils of the Rakhat/Dariga empire are being divided, there will undoubtedly be new groups of interest developing. The real results of this weekend’s election, therefore, will only be clear over the course of the next year as such interest groups develop more clearly and consolidate.

In the meantime, the country will need to deal with two other issues over the short to medium term. The first is the elusive question of OSCE chairmanship. While a quiet and less-dirty election might help the bid, the recent disclosure of documents allegedly outlining officially orders to Kazakhstan’s Committee for National Security (KNB) to undermine the monitoring efforts of OSCE/ODHIR during the 2005 presidential election are likely to create a problem in this area. Furthermore, the fact that these documents have been leaked suggests that not everything remains so copasetic within Kazakhstan’s elite. The second issue is that regardless of elite harmony, Kazakhstan’s quickly growing economy will continue to encounter very real problems ensuring that a wide spectrum of the population enjoys the fruits of the country’s development. Interestingly, the advertisements created by the opposition Social Democratic party for this election, despite their populist simplicity, portray the heart of this problem quite vividly. Since these advertisements apparently had little play in Kazakhstan, I wanted to present them here courtesy of YouTube. Even if these campaign ads did not have much bearing on this election, they might be prophetic of things to come.

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