After the results were announced massive riots broke out in the biggest cities of Kazakhstan. People in the streets claimed that they had no real choice. Most of the other six contenders were unknown political figures and could hardly compete with the candidate of the ruling party.
Nonetheless, these elections had political and symbolic importance on different levels. To understand why, it is essential to see the broad picture of the political situation in Kazakhstan and Central Asia.
The 2019 presidential election came as the result of a decision made by Kazakhstan’s unchangeable leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, who suddenly announced his resignation in March after 30 years in power. The Chairman of the Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev consequently became the interim president according to the Kazakh constitution and was later unanimously nominated as a presidential candidate by the ruling party “Nur Otan”.
The entire process strangled any hopes for political modernisation from above that the population might have had. A moderately conservative figure with political experience both at home and abroad, Tokayev possesses a clean reputation and has never been involved in any corruption or political scandals. He is seen as an unwavering supporter of Nazarbayev, which is often mentioned as the reason for his political unsustainability.
The former president himself did not disappear from the political arena either, retaining the status of the Nation’s Leader, and the titles of the Chairman of the Security Council and the “Nur Otan” Party. Being a close friend and admirer of Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, Nazarbayev probably decided to follow Lee’s political model to ensure his personal and family safety as well as to keep his influence in the new political environment. The general idea is that a leader resigns but still keeps playing a crucial role inside the system by occupying a temporary position that allows them to monitor the political situation.
Such a model is new for Central Asia, where political transitions happened only in three forms so far. It was either a sudden death of the leader (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan), a revolution (Kyrgyzstan) or a democratic election (Kyrgyzstan).
Kazakhstan, thus, is experimenting with a new system with two power sources. Despite its predictability, the transition process and the electoral campaign demonstrated a number of interesting trends both for Kazakh and regional politics.
First and foremost, the protests in the big cities indicate that the sociopolitical self-consciousness of Kazakh society grows slowly but surely. Thus, it lays the foundation for the future democratisation of the country. The younger generation, who spent their entire lives witnessing no major political changes whatsoever, craves reforms.
The civil activists, who were arrested in Almaty for demanding free and fair elections, quoting the Constitution on a banner over the bridge, and even for holding blank placards, kept peacefully struggling for the cause of liberalisation despite the government’s crackdown. The new generation of Kazakhstanis showed unimaginable courage and willingness to stand up for their own country and the ideals they believe in.
Secondly, despite the bleakness of most of the profiles of the seven presidential candidates, there were two interesting cases that illustrate certain progressive political trends. The government for the first time in years allowed a representative of the non-systemic opposition, Amirzhan Kosanov, to run in the election. The result of 16 percent that he managed to gather is unheard of in Kazakhstan, where Nursultan Nazarbayev dominated the political arena with his over 90 percent ratings for decades.
Daniya Espayeva, a representative of the national liberal-democratic party “Ak Zhol”, became the first female candidate in the history of Kazakhstan to run for the presidential post. With gender equality and women’s empowerment being significant issues for the entire Central Asian region, such steps are only to be encouraged.
Thirdly, the Kazakh elections presented an interesting case both for other Central Asian republics and Russia. These countries will pay close attention to this new model of managed political transition in order to analyse its effectiveness. The case is particularly relevant for the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who also faces a succession dilemma in 2024.
Kazakhstan is the bulwark of Central Asian secularism and economic prosperity, as well as the main oil and gas exporter in the region. Therefore stability in Kazakhstan remains a key priority for all the significant geopolitical players in the region – Russia, China, the U.S. and the EU. Despite harsh criticism coming from Western media, the West would rather prefer working with Tokayev than dealing with yet another episode of uncontrollable political chaos in a strategically important region like Central Asia.
Fourthly, the election gave Tokayev a new five-year mandate to rule over the country. His campaign under the motto of ‘continuity’ focused on claiming that the Nazarbayev model is what the country needs. As the demonstrations (which started long before the election) show, there is a vast array of challenges to be addressed – ranging from the issue of social benefits and diversification of the economy to political liberalisation and fighting corruption.
A complex challenge for the Kazakh government is finding an approach to facing people in the streets. The newly elected president should focus on the upcoming elections to the Mazhilis, the lower chamber of the Kazakh parliament. Relaxing political restrictions and allowing non-systemic opposition parties into the parliament might be a good option for him to let the population cool off its frustration and project its opinion on the public institutions.
Further political reforms and a stable dialogue with the citizens are needed to ensure the political stability of both Kazakhstan and Central Asia. If Kazakhstan wants to become a new Singapore or South Korea, it will have to go through a political and societal transformation. The ball is now in Tokayev’s court.