Little change expected in Kazakhstan's election

AP News
Posted: Jan 14, 2012 5:37 AM
Little change expected in Kazakhstan's election

Since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan has enjoyed economic prosperity and stability that have made it the envy of its Central Asian neighbors. But it hasn't known multiparty democracy, and that isn't likely to change during Sunday's election.

The party of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the only leader that independent Kazakhstan has known, is all but guaranteed to retain its crushing majority in parliament.

In the last such election in 2007, every seat in the lower house went to his Nur Otan party, a reflection both of Nazarbayev's wide popularity and how he has maneuvered to marginalize other parties and intimidate critical news media.

He portrays himself as committed to democratic reform in this vast and strategically important country. For that reason he oversaw a small concession to pluralism under a new election law: whichever party gets the second-highest share of the nationwide vote will be given two seats in the 107-member lower house, if it does not clear the 7-percent share that is the threshold for proportional allotment of seats.

The reform was adopted after parties complained that the 7-percent level was an insurmountable obstacle, effectively turning the country into a one-party state.

Before Sunday's vote, opposition parties that may have had the potential to pose a robust challenge to Nur Otan have either been disqualified from competing or largely neutered.

The Ak Zhol party, which is pro-business and avoids confrontation with the government, is seen as the most likely to be the runner-up.

The prosperity and stability of Kazakhstan _ mainly driven by its vast reserves of oil, gas and minerals _ account for much of the support for Nur Otan and the president. However, this national election will occur in the shadow of an unusual outburst of discontent and violence.

In December, a long-term protest in the town of Zhanaozen by oil workers who had been fired after striking for better pay degenerated into clashes with police who opened fire. At least 16 people were killed and the bloodshed set off a riot in another town where police killed one person.

Nazarbayev was clearly concerned, even though the violence didn't seem likely to spark a sizable protest vote against Nur Otan. He visited Zhanaozen after the violence to express solidarity with the workers.

This week Nazarbayev declared at a cultural event that the parliamentary election should help foster unity in the face of global instability.

"Tranquility and peace, and the fulfillment of tasks we have set ourselves for current and future generations, will depend on what the parliament we elect," he said.

The prospect of instability in Kazakhstan is of concern to the West.

Kazakhstan is becoming increasingly important as a supplier of oil and gas, and the country is key to the northern delivery route for supplies to the U.S.-led military operation in Afghanistan.

In the days ahead of Sunday's vote, attention focused on several candidates, including Nazarbayev's billionaire daughter, Dariga, and star cyclist Alexandre Vinokourov.

Dariga Nazarbayeva, 48, the oldest of the president's three daughters, was once touted as a possible successor to her father. Her prospects were severely dented after her ex-husband, Rakhat Aliyev, fled the country and was then accused of plotting to overthrow the government. Her return to the political limelight has raised new speculation about her future.

Any hope that Nur Otan would face concerted opposition was snuffed out with last month's suspension of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan and the refusal to register the Alga political movement as a party.

Meanwhile, the All-National Social-Democratic Party had two of its most high-visibility candidates _ leader Bulat Abilov and colorful media commentator Guljan Yergaliyeva _ disqualified from running over alleged irregularities in their financial declarations.