ASTANA: Kazakhstan will vote on Sunday in a snap election that could see independent candidates elected to deputies, in a sign of timid democratic opening despite persistent authoritarian backlash in Central Asia’s largest country.
Polling stations opened at 7 am (01:00 GMT), AFP journalists reported in Astana and Almaty, Kazakhstan’s two main cities. Nearly 12 million voters have until 8:00 pm local time to vote.
Among the novelties in this election, non-party-affiliated candidates can present themselves, a first since 2004. The threshold to enter the Majlis (the lower house of parliament with 98 elected members) has been lowered to 5% and a 30% quota for women, youth and people with disabilities.
These changes have somewhat revived the separate political landscape of this former Soviet republic bordering Russia and China, which continues to be marked by deadly riots in January 2022.
Under the previous legislature, only three parties were represented and all of them supported President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who was easily re-elected with more than 80% of the vote in November in an election without any real competition.
“The electoral system has changed and gives the impression of choice. But in fact, the president and his administration keep the counting of votes in their hands,” political expert Dimash Alyanov told AFP.
“In an authoritarian country, elections are held to retain power, not to replace it,” notes Mr. Alyanov.
These elections, which also concern local parliaments, are taking place, following the 2022 constitutional reform led by Mr. Tokayev, who has been in power since 2019.
The 69-year-old leader is showing his desire to “reset state institutions” and “pursue the modernization” that began last year in this resource-rich country.
Because severe inequalities and corruption have not disappeared and because inflation exceeding 20% has eroded the purchasing power of nearly 20 million Kazakhs.
Mr. Tokayev also broke with his mentor and predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in power for three decades, after the January 2022 riots.
These demonstrations against the high cost of living had set the country on fire, and Almaty was the epicenter. Their repression officially killed 238 people.
After a sluggish presidential campaign in November, Almaty seems to be waking up shyly for elections, which coincide with the arrival of spring in this city nestled at the foot of soaring mountains.
“I am 20 years old, this is the first time that I see new parties and independent candidates in parliamentary elections, it is new for me,” graphic designer Adia Abu Bakr told AFP.
The desire to “believe in it”
On restaurant windows, building barriers or lampposts, election posters have blossomed in chaotic fashion.
Unclear programs are often accompanied by vague slogans such as “Order is where the truth is”, “With me there is no chaos” or even “I do not abandon the people”.
In total, seven parties are participating in these elections, including two new parties that were registered in a short time. However, many opposition parties and independent candidates remain banned.
“I would like to believe that my vote can change something, even if many do not believe in this modernization of the electoral system,” says Akpota Selem, a 21-year-old journalist.
Almaty-based political analyst Andrei Chebotarev estimates that “at the end of these elections, four or five parties should be represented in Parliament.”
“This is beneficial to the authority, because parties loyal to (the president) will be present in parliament, and the presidential Amanat party will retain the majority of seats,” he told AFP.
“On the other hand, the diversity of the parties will have an impact on the acceptance of the election results, both for the population and at the international level,” concludes Mr. Chebotarev.
Despite this relative openness, Mr. Tokayev has already warned that “those who sow discord in the country will be severely punished.”
“Food trailblazer. Passionate troublemaker. Coffee fanatic. General analyst. Certified creator. Lifelong music expert. Alcohol specialist.”