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Kazakhstan - 1999 Election

The Constitution of Kazakhstan concentrates power in the presidency. President Nursultan Nazarbayev is the dominant political figure. The Constitution, adopted in 1995 in a referendum marred by irregularities, permits the President to dominate the legislature and judiciary, as well as regional and local governments; changes or amendments to the Constitution are nearly impossible without the President's consent. President Nazarbayev was elected to a new 7-year term in a 1999 election that fell far short of international standards. Previous presidential elections originally scheduled for 1996 did not take place, as President Nazarbayev's term in office was extended in a separate 1995 referendum, also marred by irregularities. Parliamentary elections held in October 1999 were an improvement on the presidential election but still fell short of the country's commitments as a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

During the campaign for the January 1999 presidential election, many members of the independent media reported Government pressure not to cover opposition candidates. Media coverage of the campaign for the October 1999 parliamentary elections was extensive and featured all candidates. A nationally televised 2 1/2 hour live debate on Khabar state television featured representatives of the nine registered parties that were participating in the party-list section of the vote.

Despite these improvements over the presidential election, independent media around the country reported official pressure to give the majority of their parliamentary election coverage to the propresidential Otan party. They also reported that government authorities told them to limit coverage of, and to focus on negative news about, the RNPK and Azamat opposition parties, as well as the Orleu ("Progress") opposition movement. Some television editors claimed that they were told categorically not to cover certain opposition candidates. An RNPK candidate, Twenty-First Century newspaper editor Bigeldy Gabdullin, charged, correctly, that his free broadcast was not shown in his home constituency of Talgar.

President Nazarbayev won his current term in office in a 1999 election held nearly 2 years earlier than previously scheduled. The previous October, the President and the Parliament passed in 1 day, without any prior public notice, a series of 19 constitutional amendments that enabled them 1 day later to call the early presidential election. Among other changes, the constitutional amendments extended the presidential term of office from 5 to 7 years and removed the 65-year age limit on government service. (President Nazarbayev would be 65 year of age before the end of his current 7-year presidential term.) The Constitutional amendments also extended the terms of members of Parliament from 4 to 5 years for the lower house (Majilis) and from 4 to 6 years for the Senate. Government opponents and international observers criticized the short-notice call of early elections because it did not leave enough time for the government to implement promised electoral reforms and for intending candidates to organize effective campaigns.

The Government imposed onerous requirements on candidates seeking to qualify for the presidential ballot. Candidates were required to submit petitions with approximately 170,000 signatures collected in equal proportions from at least 11 of the country's 16 regions (the 14 oblasts plus the cities of Almaty and Astana). They also were required to pass a Kazakh-language test and to make a nonrefundable payment of 1,000 times the minimum monthly wage (approximately $30,000), although an equal sum was then provided to each registered candidate for campaign expenses. Although three candidates, in addition to President Nazarbayev, qualified for the ballot, two of them, then-Senator Engels Gabassov and then-Customs Committee chairman Gani Kasymov, were known as supporters of the President and widely believed to be running at government behest.

In October 1998, less than 1 week after the early presidential election was called, the Government resorted to a provision of the presidential decree on elections, passed in May 1998, that prohibited persons convicted of administrative offenses from running for public office within a year of their conviction. A district court in Almaty summoned on less than 24 hours' notice 5 leading government opponents--former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, former Social Democratic party leader Dos Kushim, Pokoleniye Pensioners Movement leader Irina Savostina, Azamat movement co-chairman Petr Svoik, and Tabigat ecological movement leader Mels Yeleusizov--to face charges of participating in the October 1998 meeting of an unregistered organization called For Fair Elections.

The court convicted all five. Despite the judgment against him, Kazhegeldin, the most widely known opposition figure, applied for registration as a candidate in the presidential election. The presidentially appointed CEC disqualified his candidacy under the provision of the presidential decree on elections that then served as the election law. The Supreme Court upheld the disqualification. The CEC also used the election law provision to disqualify the presidential candidacy of Amantai Asylbek, leader of the Attan antinuclear testing movement, because of a 3-day jail sentence that he received in February 1998 for participating in an unsanctioned demonstration.

The Government harassed President Nazarbayev's opponents throughout the presidential election campaign. According to credible reports, government agents repeatedly pressured managers of conference facilities to deny access at the last moment to government opponents who had arranged to use the facilities for meetings and press conferences. When opposition meetings and press conferences did take place, electricity at the facilities often was interrupted. Government attempts to disrupt opposition meetings appeared to have extended beyond national borders when the management of a Moscow hotel withdrew permission at the last moment for a December 1998 opposition congress.

Communist Party leader Serykbolsyn Abdildin, the only candidate from the ranks of the preelection opposition who qualified for the presidential ballot, publicly complained that local officials loyal to the President impeded his attempts to hold campaign rallies and meetings. As recently as November, authorities used the State Secrets Law to confiscate the passport of RPNK official Amirzhan Kosanov as he tried to travel to the United Kingdom.

Assaults on two of Kazhegeldin's advisers appeared to have been politically motivated and, government critics charged, sanctioned by the Government. In addition, Kazhegeldin claimed that two gunshots were fired at him on the eve of the press conference at which he announced his presidential candidacy. Unknown assailants beat one of his public relations advisers, Yelena Nikitenko and beat his press spokesman, Amirzhan Kosanov. Several days before the attack, officials of the al-Farabi National University in Almaty forced Nikitenko to resign from the faculty because of her political activities. Government officials alleged that the Kazhegeldin campaign staged or invented all three attacks.

Following the announcement of Kazhegeldin's candidacy, the then first deputy chairman of the KNB held an unprecedented press conference at which he made admittedly unsubstantiated allegations of financial malfeasance against Kazhegeldin. The tax authorities brought an action against Kazhegeldin during the campaign and, according to credible reports, threatened actions against other government opponents. At a news conference, Kazhegeldin supporters showed videotape of police repeatedly pulling over Kazhegeldin's car for unspecified "inspections." Kazhegeldin also claimed that border control officials at the Almaty airport tried to prevent him and his family from taking a flight out of the country.

An attack on a Kazakhstani employee of a foreign embassy also appeared to be motivated politically and, human rights observers believe, sanctioned by the Government. In December 1998, three men beat the employee outside his apartment as the employee returned home. The employee suffered a cracked rib, some internal injuries, and required stitches to close wounds near both eyes. The attackers stole the employee's briefcase but did not try to steal his wallet and other valuables. The absence of robbery as a motive and the fact that the employee's responsibilities included assisting diplomats in making contacts with political opposition and human rights figures suggested that the attack was motivated politically. Law enforcement authorities closed the investigations into all of these cases without arrests. A suspect was identified in the Nikitenko case but no charges were brought, allegedly because Nikitenko had left the country and was unavailable to identify her assailant.

The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the OSCE announced in December 1998 that it would not meet the Government's request to send a presidential election observation mission. In its public explanation, the ODIHR cited concerns about the exclusion of two opposition candidates, unequal access to the media, and coerced support for President Nazarbayev. The ODIHR sent a small election assessment team to report to the OSCE on the full election process. The assessment team concluded that the presidential election fell "far short" of Kazakhstan's commitments as an OSCE participating state. It cited in particular the exclusion of candidates, the short duration of the election campaign, obstacles to free assembly and association, the use of government resources to support President Nazarbayev' s campaign, unequal access to the media, and the flawed presidential decree that served as the election law.

To participate in elections, a political party must register with the Government. The Government registered 3 new parties in addition to the 10 registered to participate in the 1999 parliamentary elections. At least three parties registered in 1999 were widely viewed as opponents of President Nazarbayev. Under current law, a party must submit a list of at least 3,000 members from a minimum of 9 oblasts. (The cities of Almaty and Astana count as oblast-equivalents in addition to the 14 oblasts for this purpose.) The list must provide personal information about members, including date and place of birth, address, and place of employment. For many citizens, the submission of such personal data to the Government is reminiscent of the tactics of the former Soviet KGB and inhibits them from joining parties.

Under the law, members of unregistered parties may run for elected office as individuals but not as party members. The party affiliation of candidates does not appear on ballots for candidates in single-mandate parliamentary constituencies. Since the 1999 elections, 10 members of the lower house of Parliament (Majilis) are elected on the basis of proportional, party-list voting. Two registered opposition parties, Azamat and the RNPK, increased their organizational activities. They participated in training seminars, were active in public political debates, and held press conferences.

A newly elected bicameral legislature took office in December 1999. The lower house (Majilis), consisting of 77 members, was elected directly in October 1999. Under amendments to the Constitution passed in 1998, membership in the Majilis elected in 1999 included 10 new seats assigned proportionally to political parties based on the percentage of votes they received nationally (with a minimum vote threshold of 7 percent). As before the other 67 seats were attributed by single mandate districts. The upper house (the Senate) consists of 39 members 32 of whom are elected directly by members of oblast and city parliaments; the President appoints the remaining 7 senators. (The number of senate seats was reduced from 42 in accordance with the Government's 1997 decision to reduce the number of oblasts from 19 to 14. Each oblast elects two senators, as do the cities of Almaty and Astana.)

Elections were held in September 1999 for 16 Senate seats. The May 1999 election law requires candidates for both houses to meet minimum age and education requirements and to pay a nonrefundable registration fee of 25 times the minimum monthly wage (approximately $500--70,000 tenge). This fee represented a 75 percent decrease over previous registration fees, which opposition figures, human rights monitors, and the OSCE/ODIHR had considered a barrier to participation. The election law does not require Majilis candidates to collect a certain number of signatures in order to be placed on the ballot; however, Senate candidates must obtain signatures from 10 percent of the members of the local assemblies in their oblasts in order to be placed on the ballot.

Political parties wishing to compete for the 10 proportionally allocated seats in the Majilis must be registered by the CEC and regional electoral commissions in two-thirds of the principal administrative jurisdictions (the 14 oblasts, plus the former and new capital cities, Almaty and Astana). The Constitution states that participation in elections is voluntary. One of the Constitutional amendments passed in October 1998 rescinded the requirement that at least 50 percent of eligible voters participate in order to make an election valid. Experts had cited the old requirement as one of the causes of fraud and vote inflation in past elections.

The legislature exercises little oversight over the executive branch, although it has the Constitutional authority to remove government ministers and vote no-confidence in the Government. The Constitution and other arrangements allow the executive branch to dominate the legislature. Although Parliament must approve the overall state budget, the Constitution precludes Parliament from increasing state spending or decreasing state revenues without executive branch approval. The executive branch used this authority to block legislation drafted by Members of Parliament. Nearly all laws passed by Parliament originate in the executive branch.

The executive branch controls the budget for Parliament's operations; it has not provided funds for Members of Parliament to hire staff, a situation generally viewed as decreasing Parliament's effectiveness. Should Parliament fail to consider within 30 days a bill designated as "urgent" by the President, the President may issue the bill by decree. Although the President has never resorted to this authority, it gives him additional leverage with Parliament. While the President has broad powers to dissolve Parliament, Parliament can remove the President only for disability or high treason, and only with the consent of the Constitutional Council, which largely is controlled by the President (see Section l.e.).

The introduction, for the 1999 parliamentary elections, of 10 new seats in the Majilis distributed by party-list vote enhanced the role of political parties, which, with the exception of the Communists, were previously very weak. The Communist Party and three propresidential parties--Otan (Fatherland), the Civic Party, and the Agrarian Party--divided the 10 new party-list seats in the 1999 parliamentary election. No candidate nominated by a non-Communist opposition party won a seat in the Parliament. One member of the opposition RNPK won a seat after running as an independent candidate. The RNPK withdrew its party-list slate after two of its candidates, Akezhan Kazhegeldin and Madel Ismailov, were declared ineligible. (They were the only two candidates rejected of more than 600 applicants for Majilis contests.) Of the more than 600 other candidates, about half who won ran as independents. Many of them were former government officials with strong presumed sympathy for the progovernment parties.

Many activities of Parliament remained outside public view. In June 1999, Parliament banned the press and other outsiders from observing the vote of confidence in the Government. Final totals in the parliamentary vote of confidence were made public, but not the votes of individual members. The Parliament invited nongovernmental representatives to observe at least four meetings. Many draft bills were held closely and published in the press only after passage and signature by the President. In 2000 the Parliament became more open by publishing important draft laws (for example, the tax code) and by meeting with NGO's on others (for example, the local self-government law).

Although an improvement in many ways over the most recent presidential election, parliamentary elections held in 1999 were marred by election law deficiencies, executive branch interference in the electoral process, and a lack of government openness about vote tabulations. There was convincing evidence of government manipulation of results in some cases. The OSCE mission sent to observe the elections concluded that the elections were "a tentative step" toward democracy but "fell short of (Kazakhstan's) OSCE commitments." The OSCE also expressed concern that parliamentary runoff races were conducted just 2 weeks after first-round voting, which left no time for the CEC and the courts to act on hundreds of complaints filed about the conduct of first-round voting and the campaign.

The May 1999 election law replaced a presidential decree that had served as the election law. It lowered candidate registration fees by 75 percent but failed to correct other deficiencies of the decree it replaced. The law maintained a system of territorial, district, and precinct electoral commissions subject to regional and local government authorities, who recommend commission members. It failed to incorporate suggestions for creating a more open vote tabulation process. It also maintained more than 40 administrative provisions that bar candidates convicted of administrative offenses from running for office for a year, although one offense was eliminated from the list of disqualifying offenses.

The CEC issued regulations to ameliorate some of these deficiencies in time for the parliamentary elections, but the effects were limited. For example the CEC filled vacant seats on electoral commissions by lottery among all registered political parties. However, the initiative affected only 25 percent of commissions and was limited to 1 seat per commission, each of which usually consists of 7 members. Regulations that clarified the rights of election observers significantly improved the ability of observers to monitor vote counts at the precinct level. However, observers could not, in the end, use the information they obtained to corroborate or challenge official results. The CEC ultimately released comprehensive precinct- and district-level vote tallies for only 1 of 67 single-mandate districts, despite repeated requests from the OSCE and other observers. With the exception of the one district for which comprehensive results were released, the CEC never issued the order of finish or final totals for Majilis candidates who neither won nor qualified for a run-off.

The Government, prior to the 1999 parliamentary elections, removed participation in the activities of an unregistered organization from the list of administrative offenses that potentially could disqualify candidates for public office. However, more than 40 other administrative offenses remained on the list. Among these offenses were participation in unsanctioned demonstrations or rallies, an offense that the Government has used to charge its opponents (see Section 2.b.). The Government presented rescission of the administrative offense as a measure to enable the five opposition leaders convicted of participating in the For Fair Elections meeting to run for Parliament.

Two of the five successfully registered as candidates. However, the CEC declined to register Akezhan Kazhegeldin due to a December 1998 administrative conviction for contempt of court. The conviction arose from Kazhegeldin's failure to respond in person to the For Fair Elections charge. (Kazhegeldin argued at the time that he met the law's requirements by sending his attorney.) The chairperson of the CEC publicly encouraged Kazhegeldin to seek the overturn of his contempt of court conviction 1 week before the registration deadline for the parliamentary elections. A successful appeal by Kazhegeldin would have made him eligible, according to the CEC, to run in the parliamentary election. Kazhegeldin subsequently wrote to the Supreme Court requesting that it overturn his contempt conviction, but the court ruled that his letter did not constitute a proper legal appeal.

Within a day of the CEC exclusion of Kazhegeldin's candidacy, Russian authorities detained Kazhegeldin on a pre-existing warrant issued 2 months earlier by the Prosecutor General of Kazakhstan. The Government requested the extradition of Kazhegeldin, who was living in exile, in connection with allegations that he had laundered illicit funds received while serving as Prime Minister from 1994 to 1997. Following protests from international human rights groups, the Prosecutor General dropped his extradition request, and the Russian authorities released Kazhegeldin. In July Kazhegeldin was detained again in Italy on charges of corruption, pursuant to an Interpol warrant posted by Kazakhstan. Italian authorities released him shortly thereafter. The investigation of Kazhegeldin, while possibly grounded in facts, appeared motivated politically.

The CEC barred the 1999 parliamentary candidacy of Madel Ismailov because of his February 1998 criminal conviction for insulting the President (see Section 1.d.). Ismailov had sought to register as a candidate on the RNPK party list. The election law precludes candidates convicted of criminal offenses from running for office for 3 years following their convictions.

A flawed provision in the electoral law was used to disqualify from the 1999 parliamentary election another RNPK candidate, deputy party chairman Gaziz Aldamzharov, after he apparently received a majority of votes in an election in Atyrau. The CEC annulled the second round of the Atyrau election, as well as two other second-round elections, but gave no specific reason in its official decree. The electoral law precludes all candidates who participated in an invalidated election from running in a make- up election, regardless of who was responsible for the violations that led to invalidating the election. The CEC interpreted this provision to exclude from the 3 rerun elections all of the approximately 500 candidates who ran unsuccessfully for any Majilis seat in 1999.

Although the CEC did not formally specify the reason for invalidating the Atyrau election, the CEC chairperson said in a television interview that district and precinct electoral officials in Atyrau refused to certify protocols after a series of disturbances that the chairperson attributed to the "opposition." These disturbances included alleged bomb threats, alleged falsification of ballots, and the incursion into one polling station of four masked men who opened and overturned ballot boxes. Given widespread expectations that Aldamzharov would receive a majority of votes in Atyray, unsubstantiated CEC allegations that the "opposition" disrupted voting in Atyrau appeared contrived.

There were widespread, documented allegations that regional and local executive authorities (akims) interfered with the parliamentary elections during the campaign and in the voting process. In one case, the chief election commissioner for the Ili district (Almaty Oblast) resigned because, he alleged, the district akim ordered him to deliver a victory for the akim's favored candidate. The commissioner, like most election officials a government employee, offered to resign from his full-time government job in addition to his electoral responsibilities. A significant number of complaints filed in several regions indicated that akimats and, through them, other employers threatened supporters of opposition candidates with job loss. In one such case, the akimat of the capital city, Astana, allegedly threatened to fire more than 20 government employees for their support of a nonfavored candidate. There were also reports that tax inspectors and some KNB officials intimidated opposition candidates, their supporters, and the independent media. Akimats used government personnel and other resources, including office space, to support "favored" candidates and to distribute campaign literature for the propresidential Otan party. On first- and second-round voting days, international and domestic observers found akimat representatives "supervising" the work of putatively independent precinct electoral commissions in numerous locations throughout the country.

The failure of the CEC to release most precinct- and district- level vote tallies undermined the credibility of election results. Evidence of official vote tampering in many districts exacerbated this problem. The OSCE observation mission obtained copies of flagrantly falsified protocols (reports of official results). During the first round of voting OSCE observers found multiple vote protocols prepared in one Almaty polling station. OSCE and domestic observers reported that precinct officials frequently did not use official protocol forms to record results in the presence of observers or filled out the official forms in pencil. District election officials, especially in first-round elections, generally refused to allow observers to witness the tabulation of results from various polling stations.

Observers' access to district vote tabulations improved in the second round of voting after the CEC issued new instructions for preparing protocols and instructed district officials to cooperate with observers. Nevertheless, the district election commission in Atyrau refused initially to allow OSCE observers into the district commission office. District officials ultimately allowed the observers into their office but subsequently recommended that they leave because the commission "could not assure the (observers') safety."

Government officials said that President Nazarbayev took disciplinary actions against some local officials for interfering with the parliamentary elections but this could not be confirmed; the Government did not release any details such as the names of the officials, their offenses, or punishment.

In February 2000 a team of OSCE representatives visited Astana to discuss the final OSCE report on the parliamentary elections. Government officials agreed during the visit to an OSCE proposal for a series of roundtable discussions of the electoral reforms recommended in the report. The agreement called for broad participation in the discussions, including by representatives of the Government, all registered political parties, other political movements, and NGO's. After some delays, the first of four planned sessions took place on September 2 in Astana. Participants agreed to a future work plan with the inclusion of the OSCE and all political parties registered in 1999 in a parallel government working group on electoral reform. The remaining sessions were scheduled for 2001; the leading opposition parties and movements took part, as did approximately 15 Members of Parliament from across the political spectrum.

The CEC and representatives of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice, and Culture, Information, and Public Access also took part. Shortly after the September session, and with only a few days' notice, the CEC announced that it would organize new regional and local electoral commissions without waiting for the issue to be discussed in subsequent sessions. The CEC said it had to act because the terms of the previous commissions were expiring. Other roundtable participants criticized the CEC for failing to discuss its plans to reconstitute the commissions or to give political parties more notice that they would be invited to nominate candidates.

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