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President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakstan speaks at a stadium in Astana after winning a landslide victory in presidential polls. / Reuters

By CALLA LI  ———

CLAREMONT, Calif. — Kazakhstan’s presidential election in June presented a promising look toward democratic reform, as it was the first time since 1991 that 29-year incumbent Nursultan Nazarbayev was not running for office. But the reality has been quite different, with election day disrupted by protests and violence, and an uncompetitive election that favored the former president’s protege.

The election was called in response to 79-year-old Nazarbayev’s resignation in March following persistent protests, when he appointed Kassym-Jovart Tokayev, a 66-year-old career diplomat, as interim president. Tokayev later won the presidential election with 71% of the popular vote in what some activists charge was unfair balloting such as rigged voting and suppressed opposition.

The lack of opportunity for opposition parties prompted more than 500 protesters to take to the streets on election day June 9, leading to a violent crackdown by Kazakh police who beat, arrested and jailed protesters en masse. Some journalists covering the protests were also detained for refusing to follow police orders.

“This could have been a moment when the leadership turned a page, but instead we are seeing the same well-documented repressive tactics as in the past,” Mihra Rittmann, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Foreign Policy in a story published in June.

Tactics employed by the Nazarbayev regime have included tightly censoring media, quashing dissidents through imprisonment or other sanctions, and widespread cronyism and corruption.

Independent observers included the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which said in a post-election report that while the election “offered an important moment for potential political reforms, it was tarnished by clear violations of fundamental freedoms as well as pressure on critical voices.” Although there appeared to be a variety in ideology and platforms among the opposition candidates, all candidates had to be approved in advance by the government controlled by Nazarbayev and Tokayev’s Nur Otan party.

But some say the election achieved its goals nonetheless. The 2019 presidential voting, despite its shortcomings, demonstrated relative improvement from previous elections. Most importantly, Kazakhstan’s attempts at instituting free and fair elections, although not yet successful, could potentially serve as a model for other authoritarian Central Asian republics.

The events were “a step forward for reform in a long-term evolutionary process” and “years ahead of its neighbors,” concluded Daniel Witt and Ariel Cohen, two independent U.S election observers and members of an international six-person observation committee, in a post-mission statement in June. This progress was reflected in the 77% voter turnout as well as the first female candidate running for office.

Since its official independence from the Soviet Union in 1992, Kazakhstan, the largest in size and population among the five Central Asian republics, has been struggling to build a democracy. As of 2019, Kazakhstan was “unfree,” with a freedom index score of 22 out of 100, according to Freedom House, an NGO based in Washington D.C. that conducts research on democracy and human rights. In terms of past presidential elections, the OSCE has yet to deem any Kazakh election as meeting democratic standards.

The future of democracy in Kazakhstan is uncertain, as the state still exercises control over the media, political discourse and elections. However, the relatively peaceful transition of power demonstrated by past elections, despite their flaws and disappointments, could put Kazakhstan on the track toward democracy.

(Written by Calla Li; Oct. 2, 2019)

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