Unlevel playing field, result as expected
On 26 April 2015 presidential elections were held in Kazakhstan. Incumbent Nursultan Nazarbayev, in office since 1991, expectedly won the race with an official 97.7 % of the vote, in an election characterized by lack of genuine choice.
Nazarbayev's rivals for the presidency, both considered loyal to the regime, received respectively 1.6 and 0.7 % of the popular vote. As is not unusual in Central Asian republics, official figures cite a 95.22 % voter turnout. The elections were the fifth presidential elections to be held in Kazakhstan since independence, neither of which has ever been deemed free and fair by OSCE/ODIHR missions, and all of which has been won by Nazarbayev with a vast majority of the vote.
The Norwegian Helsinki Committee Regional Representative Office in Almaty has been closely following the situation leading up to and surrounding elections. - The weeks prior to the elections were characterized by a very low visibility of public debate and political campaigning, said Marius Fossum, the NHC Regional Representative in Central Asia. - Policy debate occupied no significant position in the media and the electorate was not sufficiently informed about political alternatives – mainly because there were no such alternatives. The other two contestants Turgun Syzdykov of the Communist Party and Abelgazi Kusainov, a self nominee from the labour union, were hardly seen campaigning at all, he added.
Fueled by substantial oil and gas resources, Kazakhstan has the largest economy in Central Asia. With more than 130 different groups and 40 different faiths, Kazakhstan is one of the world's most diverse countries. Nursultan Nazabayev has led the country since before independence. In 2010 ,he was granted the official and legally privileged status of “Father of the Nation”. In 2007 the constitution was amended to exempt the first president, i.e Nazarbayev, from term limits, thus allowing him to hold office for life.
Human rights and political freedoms generally suffer bleak conditions throughout Central Asia: unfair elections, infringements on fundamental freedoms and human rights violations occur all too frequently in the region. The 26 April presidential elections in Kazakhstan are another example of a Central Asian country failing to meet international democratic standards, said Fossum. - Freedom of speech, media freedom, freedom of assembly and association are all paramount to a vibrant civil society, political pluralism and genuine democratic public debate, without which elections cannot be considered neither free nor fair. Regrettably, we note that Kazakhstan not only fails to fully guarantee these freedoms, but that recently the government has taken steps to further infringe upon political freedoms and to curtail civil society. A 2015 amendment to the Criminal Code states that defamation is punishable with up to ten years imprisonment. The amendment furthermore prohibits involvement in unregistered associations while at the same time complicating registration procedures for associations. Additionally, leaders and members of associations are especially targeted by the Criminal Code, as they are subject to enhanced criminal liability. This can only be interpreted as a manifestation of the regime's continued disinclination to provide the grounds for democratic development, he added.
-Genuinely critical voices in Kazakhstan have been marginalized or silenced for years, said Ivar Dale, Senior Adviser in the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. – Presidential elections such as these hold little interest, because all observers realize they are taking place on a completely uneven playing field. The authorities should show greater self-confidence, and allow elections to take place with the full and fair participation of opposition and with equal access to the media, pro-government or otherwise, he said.
In light of the recent amendments to the criminal code and the ease with which the authorities amended the constitution to allow Nazarbayev unlimited terms, we take note that no changes have been made to the Electoral Law in order to address shortcomings pointed out by the OSCE/ODIHR at the previous presidential elections.
The elections on 26 April were the fourth consecutive national elections to be called early. The elections were announced on 25 February 2015, merely two months ahead of the actual vote. This posed a considerable disadvantage to the political opposition which was left with just two months to prepare. Officially, the regime cited the need to avoid presidential and parliamentary elections to fall on the same year as the reason for calling the elections early. There is however good reason to believe that the regime had economic factors in mind when calling elections early. This year the Eurasian Economic Union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan was introduced. The Eurasian Economic Union and the recent dramatic fall of the Russian rouble have led to an influx of cheap Russian products in Kazakhstan, causing considerable damage to Kazakhstani producers, who cannot compete with the low Russian prices. In order to mitigate this discrepancy Kazakhstan will likely have to devalue the domestic currency significantly. It is expected that a devaluation of the Kazakh tenge will give rise to some level of public discontent with the regime. We believe Nazarbayev's administration saw the benefits of getting the presidential elections out of the way before resorting to a much needed, but unpopular devaluation.