Kazakhstan vote fails key democracy test, say officials

The oil-rich former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan has yet to hold an election that Western observers agree is fair, despite 20 years of democracy.

Anatoly Ustinenko/AP
A Kazakh woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Kazakhstan's commercial capital Almaty, on Sunday. Voters cast ballots Sunday in the oil-rich Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan in elections that are expected to slightly broaden democratic representation in parliament's rubber-stamp lower house.

International election observers have slammed Sunday's snap parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan as failing to meet the fundamental principles of democracy.

That verdict could be a painful blow to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who moved the voting forward after oil worker protests shook a city in western Kazakhstan. The elections were a possible effort to improve the country’s international image and avoid an "Arab Spring" type uprising in the oil-rich central Asian republic.

Mr. Nazarbayev hailed the voting as "unprecedented in terms of transparency, openness, and honesty." Although he allowed two opposition parties to gain entry to the country's parliament (Mazhilis), which had formerly been completely dominated by members of the ruling Nur Otan Party, as well as a few independents he selected.

"If Kazakhstan authorities are serious about their stated goals of increasing the number of parties in parliament, then they should have allowed more genuine opposition parties to participate in this election," OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President Joao Soares told a press conference in the Kazakh capital of Astana Monday.

According to final election results, Nur Otan won 81 percent of the vote, which will give it 83 deputies in the 107-seat lower house. The pro-government Ak Zhol Party (once led by Nazarbayev’s daughter) won 7.5 percent (8 seats), while the Communist Peoples Party gained by 7.2 percent (seven seats). Other parties failed to clear the 7 percent threshold.

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Most opposition parties were barred from participating in the elections, and several candidates who were objectionable to authorities were stricken from the ballot, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which fielded 400 observers.

Opposition party leaders said they had evidence of ballot stuffing, multiple voting, and coercion of voters, which they said they would post online.

"This election took place in a tightly controlled environment, with serious restrictions on citizens’ electoral rights," Miklos Haraszti, head of the OSCE office for democratic institutions and human rights added. "Genuine pluralism does not need the orchestration we have seen. Respect for fundamental freedoms will bring it about by itself."

The snap elections were called after at least 17 striking oil workers were killed after security forces in the western town of Zhanaozen opened fire on them last month.

International observers have complained that the area still remains tightly locked down, under a police state of emergency, and inaccessible to outsiders.

Experts express skepticism at government claims that 70 percent of citizens in Zhanaozen voted for Nur Otan.

"We can expect future unrest in the oil-rich western provinces, and in some big factories, if economic difficulties lead to a reduction in state budgets for workers in these industries," says Andrei Grozin, head of the central Asia department of the official Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. "Kazakhstan cannot muster enough police force to keep order in the tough manner it did in Zhanoazen if unrest spreads. There is a real danger that strikes will spread in the spring, and authorities will be faced with the tough choice between buying the workers off or ordering in the Army."

Nazarbayev, the only leader post-Soviet Kazakhstan has ever known, was re-elected last year for another 5-year term with a celestial 95 percent of the votes, in polls that international observers also described as deeply flawed.

Opposition leaders say that the president was trying to clean up his international image by calling the early parliamentary polls – but that he had no intention of allowing a free and fair vote.

"Nazarbayev needed to make political changes, because his health is failing and if oil prices fall there will be serious financial problems," says Pyotr Svoik, a leader of the Azat Party, which officially won 1.5 percent of the votes but claims its actual total was much higher.

"The one-party parliament was always an embarrassment, and the oil strike and its aftermath was an awful, unexpected event for the authorities. They made sure these elections would produce a better-looking parliament, but kept most genuine opposition parties from participating or winning enough votes to get into the parliament ... Now there will be protests against electoral fraud, as there were in Russia last month though probably on a smaller scale. Nazarbayev is feeling alarmed, and he has good reasons to."

Kazakhstan is the ninth-largest country in the world. It is a transit route for US supplies headed to Afghanistan, and home to the second largest oil reserves among the former Soviet republics after Russia. 

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