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Kazakhstan - 09 June 2019 Election

Kazakhstan will hold a snap presidential election on June 9, the interim head of state Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev announced 09 April 2019, moving the vote up by almost a year following Nursultan Nazarbaev's resignation after 30 years in power. No date for the vote had been set but it had been expected to be held in April 2020, five years after the previous presidential election.

In a televised address to the nation, Toqaev said he would "guarantee a free and fair election," though no vote held in the Central Asian country since the Soviet collapse of 1991 has been deemed democratic by international observers. Toqaev said that he made the decision to hold an early election after discussing the issue with Nazarbaev -- referring to the ex-president as Elbasy, or Leader of the Nation, a title bestowed upon him by the loyal parliament in 2010. "In order to secure social and political accord, confidently move forward, and deal with the tasks of socioeconomic development, it is necessary to eliminate any uncertainty," Toqaev said in his address.

The early election appeared aimed at shortening the political transition period and decreasing the chances of instability following the abrupt resignation of Nazarbaev, 78, who had been president since 1990 and remains chairman of the ruling Nur Otan party and the influential Security Council.

Toqaev did not say whether he would run in the election, but he would not have been expected to do so in the speech because presidential candidates can only be nominated by nationwide organizations such as political parties. If Toqaev ran, he could benefit from public sector wage increases due in June, as well as other welfare initiatives. It was not immediately clear whether Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, Darigha Nazarbaeva, who heads the upper parliament house and has been seen as a possible successor, would run in the election.

The announcement of a vote in two months left potential opponents of a ruling-party candidate with little time to mount campaigns, reducing their chances in a country where the opposition had been marginalized and politics is still dominated by Nazarbaev, whose favorite -- whether anointed as such publicly or not -- will be virtually certain to win the presidency.

The announcement of an early election follows unusually persistent protests in which demonstrators in several cities accused the government of ignoring the needs and demands of ordinary people. The protests were spurred in part by anger and grief over the deaths of five children from a single family in a house fire in Astana, the capital, on February 4. The predawn fire destroyed a small family home in Astana while both parents were away working overnight shifts, killing five girls aged 3 months to 13 years.

The Republic of Kazakhstan’s government system and constitution concentrate power in the presidency. The presidential administration controls the government, the legislature, and judiciary as well as regional and local governments. Changes or amendments to the constitution require presidential consent. The 2015 presidential election, in which President Nazarbayev received 98 percent of the vote, was marked by irregularities and lacked genuine political competition. The president’s Nur Otan Party won 82 percent of the vote in the 2016 election for the Mazhilis (lower house of parliament). The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) observation mission judged the country continued to require considerable progress to meet its OSCE commitments for democratic elections.

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was sworn in as Kazakhstan's president on 20 March 2019, a day after longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbayev announced his surprise resignation. Tokayev, who had served as senate speaker, was the designated interim replacement according to the Kazakh constitution. He is expected to serve the rest of Nazarbayev's term until elections in April 2020.

Interim President Toqaev, if he remained in the post until next year, will certainly have a decent chance of getting Nazarbaev's nod to run in the presidential election as the Nur Otan candidate, making him a virtual certainty to win the election. Toqaev, 65, is a Moscow-educated former prime minister and foreign minister who also served as a UN diplomat in Geneva. In announcing Toqaev as interim president, Nazarbaev said the ex-premier "can be trusted to lead Kazakhstan."

Others suggest new Prime Minister Askar Mamin, 53, the former mayor of Astana who also served as transport and communications minister, could be tapped as Nazarbaev's successor. Another possible future leader of the country is Karim Masimov, 53, who was prime minister twice and also served as Nazarbaev's chief of staff.

Tokayev, 65, also pledged to continue Nazarbayev's policies and regularly seek his advice. One of Tokayev's other first steps after being inaugurated was to name Nazarbayev's daughter, Dariga, speaker of the senate. The move raised her profile as a possible presidential successor. Darigha has in the past also been mentioned as a possible replacement for her father. The 55-year-old is currently a senator and formerly headed her own political party, while also serving as deputy prime minister.

While the constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, the government limited freedom of expression and exerted influence on media through a variety of means, including laws, harassment, licensing regulations, internet restrictions, and criminal and administrative charges. Journalists and media outlets exercised self-censorship to avoid pressure by the government.

The government limited individual ability to criticize the country’s leadership, and regional leaders attempted to limit criticism of their actions in local media. The law prohibits insulting the president or the president’s family, and penalizes “intentionally spreading false information” with fines of up to 12.96 million tenge ($40,000) and imprisonment for up to 10 years.

Companies allegedly controlled by members of the president’s family or associates owned many of the broadcast media outlets that the government did not control outright. According to media observers, the government wholly or partly owned most of the nationwide television broadcasters.

The law provides enhanced penalties for libel and slander against senior government officials. Private parties may initiate criminal libel suits without independent action by the government, and an individual filing such a suit may also file a civil suit based on the same allegations. Officials used the law’s libel and defamation provisions to restrict media outlets from publishing unflattering information. Both the criminal and civil codes contain articles establishing broad liability for libel and slander, with no statute of limitation or maximum amount of compensation.

There are six political parties registered, including Ak Zhol, Birlik, and the People’s Patriotic Party “Auyl” (merged from the Party of Patriots of Kazakhstan and the Kazakhstan Social Democratic Party). The parties generally did not oppose President Nazarbayev’s policies.

On June 9, Kazakhstan will conduct its first presidential election in which Nursultan Nazarbaev will not be a candidate. When the only president Kazakhstan has ever known announced his retirement on March 19, the plan for moving longtime government official and Nazarbaev ally Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev into the presidency was implemented. It was supposed to be a smooth transition of power from Nazarbaev to his chosen successor.

But some people in Kazakhstan objected to this handover of presidency, since it seemed to have all been decided without the people of the country having any say. There have been a series of peaceful protests and actions against this managed succession of power, which has clearly taken authorities by surprise and cast an unwelcome spotlight on Kazakhstan ahead of its first change of presidents. For some people in Kazakhstan, particularly younger people who want something different, this managed transfer of leadership that seems to guarantee the status quo, keeping the top people at the top and leaving everyone else where they are now, is unattractive.

The peaceful protests might not be large, but they received significant international media attention, as have the often clumsy responses of the authorities. Deputy Interior Minister Marat Qozhaev told journalists in Nur-Sultan that about 500 "radically-minded elements" were detained 09 June 2019in Almaty and the capital for holding "unauthorized protests." He said earlier that the detentions were made in order "to preserve law and order." A small group of pro-government supporters also appeared during the second wave of detentions in Nur-Sultan, but were allowed to stay.

Internet access in Nur-Sultan and Almaty was reportedly severely slowed down, preventing live streaming and making it very difficult to read social-media sites. Security measures were heavily stepped up in the capital and in Almaty, with dozens of police officers deployed in Astana Square and elsewhere in the city. The protesters in Nur-Sultan were calling for free and fair elections and were holding blue balloons, a sign of support for a banned opposition group, Kazakhstan's Democratic Choice (DVK).

Almost 12 million voters were registered to cast their ballot in nearly 10,000 polling stations across the country. Electoral preparations were efficient, and there was a record number of candidates, one of whom was a woman. However, while the number of candidates ostensibly offered political variety, there was little critical campaigning. The election took place in a political environment dominated by the ruling party and that limited critical voices. At the same time, irregularities on election day and a disregard of formal procedures meant that an honest count could not be guaranteed.

Access to websites and social networks was frequently blocked, further curbing the possibility of public discussion. The extensive media coverage of the current president and support for his candidacy by his predecessor did not provide a level playing field for all candidates. This limited voters’ ability to make an informed choice.

Kazakhstan's Central Election Commission (OSK) announced 11 June 2019 official final results of the June 9 snap presidential election, confirming an overwhelming victory for interim President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev. The OSK said that Toqaev, who was handpicked by former authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbaev to be his successor, took 70.96 percent of the ballots in the vote, which was marred by the arrest of hundreds of peaceful anti-government protesters. Former journalist Amirzhan Qosanov was a distant second in the balloting with 16.23 percent.

While there was potential for Kazakhstan’s early presidential election to become a force for political change, a lack of regard for fundamental rights, including detentions of peaceful protestors, and widespread voting irregularities on election day, showed scant respect for democratic standards, international observers concluded in a preliminary statement published 10 June 2019. The observation mission is a joint undertaking of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA).

“This election represented an important moment for Kazakhstan’s society as this was the first time that the long-serving first president was not competing. While there were seven candidates, including for the first time a woman, the election showed that there is a need for genuine democratic consolidation and significant political, social and legal reforms,” said George Tsereteli, Special Co-ordinator and leader of the OSCE short-term observer mission. “The new President and authorities should seize this opportunity, strengthen trust in the institutions and meet the people’s expectations. The OSCE is ready to co-operate closely on this with Kazakhstan to move forward.”

Despite officially stepping down as president, Nazarbaev holds many important political positions and still wields considerable power within the country and inside his political party, Nur-Otan. Nazarbaev's reign was marked by economic progress fueled by plentiful reserves of oil and natural gas, but it was largely overshadowed by despotic rule that shut down independent media, suppressed protests, and trampled democratic norms. Human Rights Watch wrote recently that Kazakhstan "heavily restricts" basic freedoms such as speech, religion, and assembly, while Freedom House calls the Kazakh government a "consolidated authoritarian regime."



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