In the coming days, early presidential elections will be held in Kazakhstan. For the first time since the country’s independence, the surname “Nazarbayev” will not be on the presidential ballot. The full registered candidates turned out to be seven people, including the current president, the first female presidential candidate, a communist, two national patriots, an agricultural official and a trade union official.
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After the death of Islam Karimov, Nursultan Nazarbayev for two and a half years remained the last post-Soviet head of state, who came to power in the Soviet era. The authorities have been talking about the future transit of power for the last one and a half year, and about government’s preparation for elections since the autumn of 2018.
On March 19, President Nursultan Nazarbayev addressed the nation live, announcing the resignation of presidential powers. According to the country’s Constitution, the speaker of the upper house of parliament follows next in the constitutional hierarchy. Already on March 20, Senate Speaker Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev was sworn in and became the second president of Kazakhstan.
It should be noted that, according to the Constitution of Kazakhstan, the president, who took the position in case of the predecessor’s resignation, “stays up” the entire term of the forerunner. The next elections were to be held on December 6, 2020, and Tokayev could have been president until that time.
However, on April 9, by now president Tokayev was broadcasting live to the nation. He reported that he made a decision to hold an early presidential election on June 9, 2019.
The election campaign began immediately. In Kazakhstan there is no right to self-promotion, only political parties and republican public associations have the right to nominate candidates for the presidency. The relevant amendments were made to the Constitution a few years ago.
Nomination of candidates
The ruling “Nur Otan” party, led by ex-president Nazarbayev, has nominated Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev.
The right-wing “Ak Zhol” party decided not to nominate its chairman and held the primaries, where Daniya Espaeva won with 49% of the votes.
The leader of Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan also did not go: the Communists nominated the secretary of the party, Zhambyl Ahmetbekov, who has already been running for presidency before.
Party “Auyl” nominated former deputy minister of agriculture Toleutay Rahimbekov.
At the same time, the opposition United Social Democratic Party at its congress voted to boycott the elections and its new chairman Yermurat Bapi was forced to withdraw his candidacy.
Furthermore, public associations went into action. The Federation of Trade Unions of Kazakhstan has nominated its chairman Amangeldy Taspihov, the movement “Uly dala Kyrandary” nominated Sadigbek Tugel. By the main event of the campaign on nominating candidates became – support of the figure in opposition Amirjan Qosanov by “Ult tagdyry” movement. Former deputy of parliament Zhumatai Aliyev also wanted to join the list of candidates, but he could not pass the state language proficiency test.
The candidates had time until May 10 to collect 120 thousand signatures in their support. All coped with the task ahead of time. On May 10, candidates began the pre-election campaigning. By the way, it is allowed only in these few weeks before the vote, to start campaigning a day earlier would be a violation for which one could lose the status of a presidential candidate.
First of all, candidates published their election agendas. After reading them, there is a feeling that the pre-election field is specially designed to reflect the classic political situation with some Kazakhstani special aspects.
So, the construction is as follows: communist Akhmetbekov on the left, candidate from the party of entrepreneurs – Espaeva on the right, the current president – candidate from the ruling party Tokayev acts as a centrist. The candidate from “Auyl” Rakhimbekov appeals to the rural areas, the trade union candidate Taspikhov appeals to the working class. There are two national-patriotic candidates: the moderate liberal opposition leader Qosanov and the quite radical supporter of the “steppe democracy” – Tugel.
The “Magnificent” seven
To begin, let’s talk about how the candidates for president of Kazakhstan position themselves. The current president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, positions himself as a faithful ally and successor to the cause of ex-President Nursultan Nazarbayev. It is easy to believe that in three decades of joint work, Tokayev understood and accepted the first president’s value picture of the world. In his program, Tokayev places special emphasis on the continuity of government and following the strategic course of “Elbasy”. That is why, by his first decree in a new position, Tokayev renamed the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana, to Nur-Sultan. Under Nazarbayev, many different strategic documents were adopted for the years ahead. Tokayev intends to preserve and implement all these programs. The only thing that distinguishes him from Nazarbayev so far is the requirement not to put his portraits on the streets of Kazakhstan cities. Tokayev was nominated by Nazarbayev’s party “Nur Otan”, Nazarbayev himself at the pre-election congress urged party members to rally around the Tokayev figure.
Amirjan Qosanov, at one time was the press secretary of Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who at the turn of the century was forced to leave Kazakhstan. Qosanov stayed in the country, engaged in journalistic and civic activities. He was a member of the opposition United Social Democratic Party, however, as a result of an internal conflict, was expelled from it. Qosanov is popular in national-patriotic circles, and he does not hide his sympathy for some ideas of the national-patriotic movement. Qosanova is positioned as the main opposition candidate who should become the spokesman for the protest electorate.
After the announcement of early presidential elections, it was supposed that the chairman of the opposition parliamentary party “Ak Zhol”, Azat Peruashev will be nominated. However, Peruashev refused to participate and held primaries. In the first round, 49% of the votes were taken by Dania Espaeva. The leadership of “Ak Zhol” decided not to hold the second round of the primaries, by giving Espaeva a victory “for a clear advantage.” One of the main tenors in Espaeva’s nomination is that, – she is the first female presidential candidate in the country’s history. However, the party program was adopted at the “Ak Zhol” congress before the nomination: everything is mainly about protecting the entrepreneurial class and developing small and medium businesses with a minimum of redistribution of wealth through taxes and social assistance.
It was expected that, the people’s communist party will be nominated by its parliamentary leader, Aikyn Konurov. But Konurov, who is not characterized by a good knowledge of the state language (at the election congress he made a brief speech exclusively in Russian), refused to run for presidency. Party secretary, Jambyl Akhmetbekov, was nominated. He has already run for presidency in 2011, back then scored 1.36% of the vote. He claims that in this cycle he hopes for the best, since over the past years he realized a lot, he became better; including achievement of black belt in karate.
Toleutai Rakhimbekov, nominated by the “Auyl” party, previously held the position of deputy akim in Karaganda region and vice minister of agriculture. In other words, he is quite an experienced business manager specializing in the development of agro-industrial complex. Positions himself as a defender of the rural areas’ interests, where 42% of the population of Kazakhstan lives.
“Laborite”, Amangeldy Taspikhov also has a specific specialization: he intends to protect the rights of the working class. As head of the Trade Unions Federation, he intends to introduce an extensive list of measures into the labor legislation, which will increase labor safety and ensure fair pay for it.
Sadibek Tugel on his political orientation is closest to Amirjan Qosanov. However, he is not shy about promoting the ideas of the national-patriotic bias. It offers rather radical measures to restructure Kazakhstan and turn it into a socially just ethnocracy.
Programs of the candidates: each about his own
Let’s consider candidates’ programs, comparing them on a few key directions. First: economics and taxation.
Dania Espaeva is clearly putting forward the right program: lowering business loan rates, lowering VAT, simplifying tax administration, and abolishing fines for entrepreneurs if they have not caused damage to the state. This block houses the core of the “Ak Zhol” party program, developed by the party for its future candidate long before nomination process.
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev proposes a moratorium on the creation of new state-owned companies, thereby freeing up space for private business, promises to optimize taxes and issue investment loans to new enterprises.
Amangeldy Taspikhov requires enterprises to take better care of workers’ safety, intends to give priority to hiring Kazakhstani specialists.
Jambyl Akhmetbekov proposes to make corporate income tax progressive, first of all it must be paid by enterprises that receive super profits.
Qosanov proposes to ensure that the controlling stake in commodity companies belongs to the Kazakh state; Tugel in turn requires the full nationalization of all strategic assets owned by foreigners.
Rakhimbekov does not speak about the repartition of property and support of various sectors of the economy – the focus of his attention is exclusively on agriculture, and the emphasis is placed on – state support, subsidies, and infrastructure.
Social Policy and Ecology
Tokayev has a comprehensive social support plan for this issue: a single social card for all families, construction of rental housing, increased spending on education and health care.
Tugel promises to double social benefits for mothers with many children and provide young people with a preferential mortgage.
Akhmetbekov proposes to recalculate the level of poverty, as well as to increase the demand for local goods, thereby, reducing prices and increasing incomes of the population.
Taspikhov believes that it is possible to improve people’s life quality by moving them from labor-surplus to labor-deficient regions.
Rakhimbekov continues to talk about the rural areas, offering the development of rural infrastructure and providing rural youth with work.
Qosanov’s program includes a ban on the construction of atomic power stations in Kazakhstan, improvement of the situation in Aral and Semey, as well as reducing the regional development gap.
Espaeva, as a representative of the rightist party, does not touch on the topic of social support of the population at public expense in her program.
Fight against corruption
Only three candidates state realistic fight against corruption: Tokayev, Qosanov and Espaeva. Amirjan Qosanov proposes to disclose information about the income and expenses of civil servants, to confiscate the property of corrupt officials, abolishing for them the right of amnesty and reappointment to public office.
Dania Espaeva proposes to improve the public procurement system, protecting entrepreneurs from harassment by officials. In addition, she promises to introduce the responsibility of managers for corruption violations of their subordinates, as well as to limit those convicted of corruption in the freedom of movement and management of their property.
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev intends to involve the non-governmental sector in anti-corruption expertise of draft laws, as well as to ensure the transparency of government decisions with the participation of Parliament, NGOs and the media. In addition, in his speeches as president, Tokayev demanded that officials, whose subordinates are convicted of corruption, are obliged to submit their letter of resignation.
Sadybek Tugel is approaching the fight against corruption with Chinese thoroughness – he proposes lifting the moratorium on the death penalty for corrupt officials.
Meanwhile, Akhmetbekov and Taspikhov promise to achieve the return of all the capital assests stolen and exported from the country, without specifying how they will do it, and Rakhimbekov does not touch this topic at all.
Political reform and development of democracy
Only four out of seven candidates spoke about the need for political system reform. Communist Akhmetbekov, the trade union leader Taspikhov and the agrarian Rakhimbekov, do not particularly worry about democratization if to read from their program.
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev proposes reducing the state apparatus, taking decisions on important issues based on sociological surveys, and to resolve the most acute problems. The president plans to hold referendums if elected. In addition, the requirements for judges will be tightened, and the police will be put under public control. Also Kassym-Jomart Tokayev promises to increase the participation of women in public administration.
Amirjan Qosanov promises a real political revolution. First of all, it is necessary to repeal laws on media, trade unions, elections and political parties that contradict the norms of democracy. Remove any restrictions on the registration of parties and public associations. After that, move to the real presidential-parliamentary form of government; introduce single-mandate deputies to parliament (now elected by party lists with the quota of the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan). Qosanov promises to introduce direct elections for heads of rural districts, regions and cities.
Dania Espaeva intends to expose national companies under tight parliamentary control. It will also enhance the social protection of judges, even after retirement, thus increasing the independence of the judiciary system. The most important thing is that the candidate from “Ak Zhol” wants to protect journalists from persecution for exposing publications, which, in her opinion, will significantly enhance Kazakhstan’s democracy.
Sadibek Tugel peculiarly approached political reform: he proposes to adopt a new Constitution in accordance with the norms of the “steppe democracy”. Akims of all levels will be elected directly for three years, and the parliament will be made unicameral, half of the deputies will be elected by single-member constituencies, and the second half – by party lists. All candidates at all levels will be given the right to self-nomination. In addition, Tugel offers to return the “biy court.” It is not clear yet what this institution consist of, but the candidate still noted one detail – the people will elect the judges.
Culture, language and values
The language issue is one of the most important in the political life of Kazakhstan. Sadybek Tugel in his program takes the toughest position: to prohibit access to public services to all who do not speak Kazakh language.
Amirzhan Qosanov also suggests defining a list of government posts and professions that imply compulsory knowledge of the state language. In addition, he advocates the complete de-communization and de-Sovietisation of the public consciousness, and introduction of party “Alash”values. Dania Espaeva also protects de-communization and desovetization, as well as “alashization” of Kazakhstan, she only emphasizes in her program that all other languages and cultures should be respected in the republic. However, Espaeva will grant citizenship of Kazakhstan only after passing a special exam on knowledge of the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Kazakh language and history of Kazakhstan.
Toleutai Rakhimbekov proposes to educate young people in the spirit of traditional values, without specifying which values he considers traditional.
Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev proposes to maintain a course on trilingualism, while emphasizing the study of Kazakh and the preservation of Russian language, reducing the rush around the English language.
Communist Akhmetbekov proposes to abandon the influence of Western values, in favor of internationalism, Eurasianism, promotion of Kazakh and world classical literature.
Foreign policy, migration and security
Former minister of Foreign Affairs, and now president Tokayev, intends to continue the policy of his predecessor Nazarbayev, advocating a multi-vector policy. He will develop relations with Russia, China, the USA, with the countries of Central Asia, the states of Asia and the Middle East.
His supposedly main opponent, Amirjan Qosanov, on one hand, proposes “to return to a multi-vector policy,” on the other hand, he calls the “focus on the European Union” the main vector of his future administration. He also proposes to renegotiate agreements with transnational corporations. Zhambyl Akhmetbekov also proposes to continue focus towards economic integration within the framework of the Eurasian Economic Union, as well as the Chinese megaproject “One Belt – One Road”.
The only thing that worries Amangeldy Taspikhov outside of Kazakhstan is the uncontrolled incoming migration, which takes away jobs from the citizens of Kazakhstan. The remaining candidates are not very concerned about foreign policy and national security.
So, after 30 years at the helm, Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned. Instead, according to the constitution, the presidency passed to the Speaker of the Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who decided to hold early elections in order to strengthen his mandate by popular vote. Tokayev was nominated by Nazarbayev’s party “Nur-Otan”. Apart from him, six more candidates participate in the pre-election race: the national-patriotic liberal Amirjan Qosanov, decisive national patriot Sadybekov Tugel, Communist Jambyl Ahmetbekov, defender of businessmen and the first female candidate Dania Espaeva, a supporter of the development of agriculture Toleutai Rakhimbekov and trade union elder Amangeldy Taspihov.
All areas of society’s life are covered only in Tokayev program, in some moments even creating a sense of redundancy. Qosanov prioritizes democratization and soft nationalization. Tugel demands a transition to the Kazakh version of the steppe democracy. The rest are exclusively directions: Espaeva in her program leads measures to protect business, Rakhimbekov – on the development of agriculture, Taspihov – on labor protection and the rights of the working class, and Akhmetbekov calls for integration with neighboring countries and improving the living standards of the poor.
Regarding predictions: the victory is likely to go to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Amirjan Qosanov will be on the second place, a protest electorate will vote for him. Dania Espaeva as the first female candidate will claim the third place. Zhambyl Akhmetbekov may well occupy the last place as a symbol of unpromising, groundless communist ideology.
However, Election Day will show: a few days before the voting, something can happen that will radically change the current balance of power.
This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.