A farcical election campaign

anceschi_thumbDr Luca Anceschi

E-mail: l.anceschi@latrobe.edu.au

This opinion piece first appeared in the National Times on 8 April 2011.

Late last January, the Constitutional Council of Kazakhstan rejected legislation plans to extend the mandate of the country's long-serving president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, until 2020. Such legislation plans were supported by a petition signed by 5 million citizens, about a third of the population of Kazakhstan – the world's ninth largest country. The fundamentals principles of democracy – perhaps for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union – appeared then to have been applied in Kazakhstan.

Superficially, Kazakhstan's check-and-balance mechanism appeared to be working: plans for a non-constitutional fourth term by an apparently popular (yet corrupt) leader had been blocked by the guardians of the Kazakh constitution. In reality, the farcical election campaign that followed was nothing more than a dramatic way to give in to pressures from the West.

Shortly after the decision of the Constitutional Council, the Kazakh Parliament called for a snap presidential election, to decide who will lead the country between 2012 and 2017. Four candidates were accepted for the polls on April 3.

President Nazarbayev was running against three largely decorative opponents, of which one, environmental "activist" Mels Eleusizov, went as far as stating his intention to vote for the incumbent president. Genuine debate was largely absent from the electoral campaign. Candidates simply did not travel to rural Kazakhstan, campaigning was essentially limited to Astana and Almaty – the country's current and former capital cities. Nazarbayev – who enjoys unchallenged control of Kazakhstan's media – decided not to campaign at all, banking on his institutional persona to "attract" the votes of the Kazakhs.

The farcical essence of the electoral campaign was unmasked by the decision of genuine opposition parties to boycott the election. They strategically opted to focus on the upcoming Parliamentary elections – in which the regime might have already reserved a few spots for opposition MPs.

The final results of Kazakhstan's presidential election offer a telling picture of the status of democratic practices in Central Asia. Nazarbayev – who has led the country since 1989 – was re-elected with a stunning 95.5 per cent majority. The plebiscite accompanying his re-election appears even more significant when we realise that 90 per cent of voters did actually cast their ballots. Violations of the voting system to achieve this extraordinary result reportedly included ballot staffing, where one voter receives multiple papers instead of one (so Nazarbayev gets extra votes) and forging of other voters' signatures.

As usual, external observers were divided over their interpretation of the democratic essence of the electoral consultation. Russian monitoring missions declared Kazakhstan's presidential election as being "free and fair", the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe – chaired by Nazarbayev only 12 months ago – highlighted many shortcomings (let alone widespread violations in voting procedures) across the country.

The tortuous way in which the Kazakh President obtained what he wanted – legitimating constitutionally another five years in power – raises a few questions about how Western-style liberal democracy is perceived, digested, and elaborated by Central Asian political circles. Why did Nursultan Nazarbayev feel compelled to stage such complex facade operation? What use can he now make of such blatantly manipulated electoral results?

The answers to these questions reveal the intricate international implications of the Kazakh elections. So far as the benefits that Nazarbayev can obtain from the election results, they are connected with the international image of the Kazakh regime. It was the pressure exerted from the United States and the European Union – rather than Kazakhstan's check-and-balance system – that made Nazarbayev shelve his plans for a popular plebiscite to extend his mandate to 2020. The West, rather interestingly, did not apply the same standards to comment on last Sunday's largely staged poll. Washington or Brussels only issued mild criticism of the Kazakh regime after Nazarbayev's victory.

Oil is the key factor to explain Western double standards. Kazakhstan is Central Asia's main oil exporter, and one of the major actors in the Eurasian oil trade, with proven reserves similar in size to those of Libya. The US and the European Union are eager to increase their energy co-operation with Nazarbayev, who, unlike his Central Asian counterparts, opened the door of the national energy industry to international private actors: in the past 10 years, the amount of Western direct investment poured into Kazakhstan exceeded $US14 billion. Mounting government criticism could put at risk the future access of private oil companies to Kazakhstan's resources: this might explain diluted criticisms of Nazarbayev's re-election.

So, why did the Kazakh President initially bowed to Western pressures? Nazarbayev, unlike the military junta ruling Burma or Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, constantly worries about his country's external image. Last week, illustrating the Kazakh economic boom on the pages of The Washington Post, he was at pains to show that a stronger economy is an essential pre-requisite for a healthy democracy. In this sense, Nursultan Nazarbayev wants Kazakhstan to become the new Singapore. The West – traditionally inclined to keep one eye closed when it comes to co-operation with resource-rich authoritarian rulers – does not seem to object to Nazarbayev's plans.

Luca Anceschi is lecturer in international relations at La Trobe University