Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was reelected on Sunday (20 November), building on hopes and promises of democratic reforms in a country ruled for almost 30 years by a predecessor who concentrated too much power.
According to the early results of the snap elections called in early September, Tokayev gathered votes from 81.31%, or 6.8 million of the 11 million registered voters, according to the latest data from Kazakhstan’s central election commission (CEC).
None of the other five other candidates got a result that could threaten the incumbent leader.
With a turnout of 69%, the elections took place “peacefully”, according to the international observers present in Astana on election day that EURACTIV met.
In the beginning of 2022, few people would have predicted a peaceful end of year in Kazakhstan as the country experienced intense riots and revolts in January 2022, namely due to an increase in fuel price, added to an overall discontent with the government and very high-income inequalities.
In the wake of these events, Kazakhstan held a constitutional referendum in June, where 77% voted in favour of comprehensive amendments to its Constitution. They include, among other things, the limitation of presidential powers and the strengthening of the Parliament, the establishment of a Constitutional Court and a unique presidential seven-year term in a region where presidents tend to serve several decades.
According to Astana-based analyst Issatay Minuarov, the riots indirectly contributed to implementing constitutional reforms.
“There is definitely a major shift that can be regarded as a response to the January events”, he told EURACTIV, adding that “after his re-election, there will be a new government formed – mostly made up of younger, reform-minded technocrats. It is part of his wider strategy foster young people in public service.”
For Kazakhstan’s Secretary of State Erlan Karin, however, “The Constitutional referendum is not a direct response to the January events. Reforms were ongoing already”, he told journalists during a briefing in Astana before the elections.
He added that already in June 2019, a National Council of Public Trust was founded at the initiative of President Tokayev, the conclusions of which were widely used in June’s constitutional referendum.
“The objective of the reforms is to operate a final transition from a super-presidential regime towards a presidential Republic, with a better redistribution of power and an increased participation of the people”, Karin said.
He was echoed by Georgian international observer and professor at the Caucasus International University Maisai Varkhtang, who told journalists at a press briefing that “the reforms that were adopted by the referendum, and especially the one-time seven-year term, will prevent the concentration of power” which characterised the Kazakh regime under former president Nursultan Nazarbayev.
When asked what could happen if Tokayev were to refuse to step down after his seven-year term, a member of Kazakhstan’s CEC answered that, given the current reformed Constitution, “he will simply not be able to do that”.
The Kazakh elections were closely monitored by 641 international observers, including 35 states and 10 international organisations, including the OSCE, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
Earlier in October, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) mission declared the work of Kazakhstan’s CEC “transparent” as international observers were deployed throughout the whole country.
The reports, however, emphasised the need to address other ODIHR recommendations related to candidate eligibility and registration requirements, urging to make them “less restrictive.” So far, only 40-year-old candidates, members of a party or a republican organisation that have served five years in public administration, can run for president.
Asked about this, international observer Tiberio Graziani reminded that the Republic of Kazakhstan is still a relatively young country that got its independence in 1991 and that building a functioning new state is a long-term endeavour. However, he called for the realisation of the reforms promised by the Kazakh executive.
“If President Tokayev is reelected, by the end of his mandate, he will have been ten years in power, which is enough to carry out some reforms.”, Graziani said, adding that now was the time to move from the “intentions and the promises” and to focus on the “actions and the facts.”
An ‘encouraging symbol’ for women
The founder of “Alternative” research centre and International Observer, Tatul Manaseryan emphasised the encouraging symbol that these elections were for Kazakh women, as two female candidates, Qaraqat Äbden and Saltanat Tursynbekova, ran for office.
“For the first time in Kazakhstan’s history, two women ran for the presidency, which is proof of progress, especially for the region, and that Kazakhstan will go further in that regard.”, Manaseryan said.
“For Central Asian countries, a woman candidate to the presidential elections is very unusual”, said Tursynbekova, a Kazakh attorney and civil rights activist who talked to the foreign press ahead of the elections. In her words, female candidacies were a sign that things were changing in Kazakhstan.
She pointed out, however, that much remained to be done and that she hoped that the promised reforms would go far enough in light of the gender ceiling still existing in Kazakhstan. So far, the Kazakh Parliament, primarily male-dominated, has a 30% quota for “women and young people”.
“The gender balance is legally applied in Kazakhstan, but the 30% quota limits the representation of women”, she said, adding that, even if the new reforms should address this issue, others deserve no less attention, such as the alarming increase of violence against women and children in the country.
In 2022, Kazakhstan ranked 65th among 146 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report, an improvement of 15 positions compared to 2021.