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Kazakhstan - 2005 Election

President Nazarbayev was the only leader independent Kazakhstan has ever known. In December 2005, he was elected to a new 7-year term. Nazarbayev has repeatedly stated that he intended to follow the term limits laid out in Kazakhstan,s constitution and step down when this term ended. While genuinely popular, Nazarbayev probably did not receive 91.6% of the popular vote in December, as officially reported. A U.S.-funded exit poll put his support at 83%. Indeed, the OSCE characterized the December elections as flawed and falling short of international standards. That said, the OSCE also noted that the elections were a significant improvement over those held in 1999. Two independent challengers were able to register and remain in the race.

While the pre-electoral playing field was not level, opposition candidates engaged in a serious campaign effort that was hindered more by their inability to connect with voters than governmental obstacles. Nazarbayev chose the Kazakhstani equivalent of a Rose Garden strategy, engaging in virtually no personal campaigning after the official start of the campaign period. Opposition candidates Tuyakbay and Baymenov traveled throughout the country, but their strategy of focusing on corruption and competence failed to develop much appeal beyond their core supporters, perhaps 20 percent of the electorate. The majority of voters appeared to care most about their improving economic status and stability in the country.

Compared to previous elections, the Central Election Commission had substantially improved its performance and transparency, and had been technically focused and largely impartial. In contrast to last year's Parliamentary (Mazhilis) elections, the CEC also had a more cooperative and less defensive relationship with the OSCE/ODIHR observer mission headed by Ambassador Glover. Despite significant obstacles, the opposition candidates have gotten their message out through their own newspapers, campaign literature, 15-minute uncensored time blocs on national television, a 60-minute televised open debate, and - in the last few days of the campaign - a few prominent billboards. Government media have provided coverage of all candidates, but little of the substance of the opposition campaign has gotten any airtime. Misuse of administrative resources had been a serious issue.

Opposition candidates received 15 minutes of uncensored air time on the state- controlled television channel that is received throughout the country, and there was a live 60-minute televised debate. Although the debate was marred by the absence of Nazarbayev, it provided a real opportunity for the other candidates to lay out their programs. Opposition candidates produced and distributed campaign literature, and the opposition press increased their press runs substantially. Candidates traveled freely throughout the country and made daily public appearances.

There were also significant shortcomings. Two print-runs of opposition newspapers were seized during the early days of the campaign. State-owned media provided news coverage of the opposition campaign, but largely in a negative and not particularly informative fashion. Candidates were assigned smaller, less-central campaign venues than they requested.

Despite the numerous shortcomings in the pre-electoral environment, the fundamental fact that opposition candidates were registered and are actively participating in the campaign represented a significant improvement over previous presidential election campaigns.

After a vigorous round of regional visits in the spring and summer, Nazarbayev avoided any formal campaign appearances, choosing the Kazakhstani equivalent of a Rose Garden strategy of looking presidential. Nonetheless, his poll ratings remained consistent at around 70 percent. A USAID-funded poll that was overseen by the Gallup Organization in late September indicated that 86 percent of the respondents intended to vote for him, a figure some found implausibly high, but nonetheless, one that underscores the genuine support Nazarbayev enjoyed. Peace, stability, and ethnic accord (particularly important for the 30 percent of the population that is ethnic Russian) work strongly in Nazarbayev's favor. Voters showed little sign of wanting to change the status quo.

The CEC announced on December 5, twelve hours after the polls closed, that President Nazarbayev had been reelected with 91% of the vote. Three different exit polls showed the President winning by wide margins, the largest with 83% support. The OSCE issued a preliminary report on December 5 noting that while there had been some improvements in the administration of the election in the run-up to the voting, the presidential election did not meet a number of OSCE commitments and other international standards.

Kazakhstan had clearly made progress in the mechanics of conducting an election in an orderly and transparent fashion. The fact that Nazarbayev received such an unexpectedly high percentage of the vote has raised concerns about the misuse of administrative resources during the campaign period and the accuracy of the vote counting and tabulation process, however.

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