NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan – In any comparative context — be it the post-Soviet, Eurasian, Asian, or Muslim-World context — Kazakhstan offers a preeminent example of rapid and successful modernization. But this is a process that takes more than a generation even in a successful country.
When Kazakhstan embarked on this process some 25 years ago, it did so from a low base and with a late start.
The country’s leadership has therefore been careful to maintain a stable balance between societal change and political change. Keeping the pace of those processes in balance serves to guarantee the country’s stability.
The idea that a “presidential election is a force for political change,” as the OSCE said this election should have been, is a common fallacy of our times. The forces for political change are its deep prerequisites: societal development, rule of law, the building of political institutions. A presidential election should ensure the continuity of reform processes as a basis for evolutionary change.
The presidential election just held in Kazakhstan brings, in that sense, both change and continuity.
One change is the transition from the concept of voting as a civic obligation and patriotic duty to the concept of voting for one candidate or another—or not voting at all—as an individual choice of each citizen-voter.
Related to this change, the election just held has marked an advance from plebiscite-type voting (which had expressed amply deserved approval for Nursultan Nazarbayev) to actually contested elections. The election just held, although not fully competitive, inaugurated an era in which the outcome of presidential elections will no longer be foregone conclusions.
Another major change is the declining turnout of voters at the polls and the decreasing victory margin of the election winner. Lower turnout and lesser victory margins are the marks of a society which is beginning to mature politically.
This trend, per se, should not be a matter of concern for the government, but rather an inspiration to seek effective ways to retain the allegiance of a majority of voters. In the election just held, 77% of voters turned out, and 71% of them voted for the new president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. These are numbers far beyond the reach of European and American leaders.
Nazarbayev’s re-election scores were based on his outstanding leadership performance. He is an unrepeatable figure, and the image transfer to Tokayev could not be a full one. The newly elected President Tokayev was not yet in the position of asking voters to give him a performance-based assessment. His score reflects, rather, the hopes and confidence of a large majority of voters.
This fact lays the basis for continuity with Nazarbayev’s policies, with which President Tokayev is closely associated.
Tokayev has received a massive electoral mandate to strengthen national independence, consolidate inter-ethnic harmony, and build growing prosperity through economic policies open to the world.
That mandate for continuity includes the multi-vector foreign policies that underpin Kazakhstan’s national security and international standing. The multi-vector policy and openness to the global economy will undoubtedly remain this country’s hallmarks. These are matters neither of choice nor of virtue, but of necessity for Kazakhstan.
The national consensus, built around Nazarbayev’s policies, holds fast. Ultimately, however, the consensus is premised on the expectation of growing prosperity and is thus not unconditional.
Kazakhstan’s economic and political reforms, as in other successfully modernizing non-Western countries, are necessarily driven from above. The institution of a strong executive presidency will continue to play the key role in this regard.
The development of representative political institutions follows a process of evolution, correlated with the spread of education and civic responsibility among voters and political parties. Kazakhstan’s elective institutions—such as the Parliament—are evolving organically with the state itself, rather than as counterweights to the executive power.
Transferring significant powers from the presidency to a multi-party parliament (and, via the latter, to the government) must be a cautious, gradual process. The prerequisites in terms of institutions, practices and mentalities, need to be put in place over time in Kazakhstan. This process will necessitate several electoral cycles to be driven to its completion under less personalized, more collegial state leadership.