Friday, 19 September 2003 Volume 7 Number 179
GOVERNMENT PRESSURE IN RUN-UP TO KAZAKH COUNCIL ELECTIONS
By Adam Albion
Kazakhs go to the polls on 20 September to vote for candidates to Kazakhstan's district, city, and regional maslihats, or councils. The powers of the maslihats are limited, and their main job to date has been to rubber-stamp decisions made by non-elected officials. This is true even for the regional (oblast) maslihats. Although they are the highest tier of elected local government in the land, in practice they are dominated by the regional governors appointed personally by President Nursultan Nazarbaev.
The government, seemingly motivated by three considerations, appears nevertheless to have made significant efforts to hamper candidates representing the opposition. First, however little power is vested in the maslihats, election victories could give the opposition a sense of momentum, or even an appearance of legitimacy. Second, seats on the maslihats could also give government opponents soapboxes from which to sound off, while local officials would prefer that councils continued to rubber-stamp decisions without generating objections or independent thought. Third, each of the oblast maslihats has the right to appoint two representatives to the Senate, and Nazarbaev surely wants a pliable Senate free of interventions and challenges by oppositionists.
Meanwhile, Senate speaker Oralbay Abdykarimov told Kazakh TV on 14 September that one of the current parliamentary session's priorities is to adopt a new election law that, among other things, would provide for the election of regional governors. He brusquely rejected the implication that a draft bill is stalled because the government prefers that this month's maslihat elections be conducted under the current law, and expressed confidence that a new election law will be in place in time for elections to the Mazhlis (lower house of parliament) scheduled for 2004.
A press conference held at the Almaty offices of the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement drew national attention to dirty tricks in the maslihat elections, alleging provocation by a "powerful and influential body," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 11 September.
The opposition's high-profile allegations pushed the authorities to respond. The chief of public relations for the Almaty city police, Colonel Alikhan Bektasov, acknowledged that counterfeit handouts were circulating, Interfax reported on 11 September. But he suggested that the opposition was exaggerating their numbers and effect, and denied that the authorities were involved. Police found only a handful of forged leaflets on the streets, and at least as many of them slandered pro-governmental candidates as oppositionists, he claimed. At the same time, he conceded that such dirty tricks were increasing as the election approached and said police set up special groups in every district to deal with them. Thus, the opposition scored a minor political victory insofar as it got the authorities to admit to some troubling irregularities in the election process. Even Kazakhstan's Central Election Commission issued a statement the same day acknowledging that the number of complaints it was receiving about fraudulent campaign practices was growing.
A deputy from the Agrarian Party, Serikbay Alibaev, detected signs of government pressure on the opposition back in July, when he told journalists in the city of Pavlodar that municipal officials and other pro-government groups were conspiring to block opposition candidates from running in the maslihat elections. Alibaev claimed that fake flyers for the opposition had started appearing -- in breach of the law, since the campaign had not officially started -- thus compromising the government's opponents. The Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) also reported that would-be opposition candidates in Pavlodar received threats, or found themselves suddenly under pressure at their workplace to quit. As the birthplace of the DVK and a potential hotbed of dissent, Pavlodar is an especially sensitive region where the regime seems determined not to let its opponents get any more political footholds.
Many analysts, feeling that the election results are mostly predetermined by President Nazarbaev's coterie anyway, expect that only one or two opposition candidates will be allowed to win per regional maslihat, in order to provide the elections with spurious cover as a democratic exercise. A similar assessment led the Republic People's Party of Kazakhstan (RPPK), headed by former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who now lives in exile in the West, to decide early on to boycott the ballot. The strategy opened a public rift between the RPPK and the DVK when RPPK Executive Committee Chairman Amirzhan Kosanov published an Internet article at the beginning of September lambasting the DVK for playing into Nazarbaev's hands by participating in rigged elections. The DVK's position, however, has been that the struggle for political power should be conducted within the system. By contrast, Kazhegeldin's approach has been more defiant, confrontational, and openly scornful of the idea that Nazarbaev will ever share power willingly. The DVK's softer political position contributes to some analysts' suspicions that the movement's prime movers are not democratic activists at heart, nor the president's committed enemies at all. Rather, it was founded by entrepreneurs and industrialists who are primarily interested in protecting their business interests from encroachments by the regime and would be willing to come to an accommodation with Nazarbaev. On that reading of the Kazakh situation, many of the key fights in Kazakhstan are about economics and self-interest cloaked as politics and principle.
One of the DVK's natural allies would seem to be the Independent Association of Entrepreneurs of Kazakhstan (IAEK), an organization founded in 2001 that claims to represent tens of thousands of businesses and lobbies for the business community. Although the association to date has professed no formal political affiliation with any side, it might be driven closer to the DVK thanks to Nazarbaev himself. IAEK's determination to muscle in on the maslihat elections has been matched by the regime's apparently equal and opposite determination to keep it out. The association chose to compete only in the former capital Almaty, the country's finance and business center, where it fielded 31 candidates. But as described by IWPR on 15 September, IAEK leader Talgat Akuov complained last month in an open letter to Nazarbaev that 25 of the 31 names were turned down for registration by election officials.
Akuov suggested that the authorities were actually scared of the IAEK. In its maiden political outing it had managed to nominate more candidates that the major pro-government party, Otan, which fielded only 26. In short, this powerful, politically unaffiliated group of businessmen found itself joining the opposition in complaining about being shut out of the political process in Kazakhstan.
If a community of political and commercial interest was forged between the DVK, stung by dirty tricks and rigged ballots, and an aggrieved IAEK, which got slammed the moment it tried to put its foot in the door, that would be a more significant outcome of the maslihat elections than the election results themselves.
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