NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan – As the dust settles following Kazakhstan’s elections, some outside observers are concluding that the approach taken by the Kazakh government in support of a gradual democratic transition could serve as a template for other Central Asian countries in the event that, despite the arrests of protestors and a range of minor violations noted by international observers during the 9 June poll, they opt to follow Nur-Sultan’s lead and move towards a more pluralistic model of government.

Very few countries anywhere faced a situation similar to the one Kazakhstan was in, in fact, a unique situation during the election cycle as it became the only former Soviet republic in Central Asia to feature an open national election with several candidates that did not include long-serving, and now former, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had been in power since before Kazakhstan’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Nazarbayev had been expected to serve until his death, but resigned unexpectedly in March, and appointed the 66-year-old career diplomat Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as president.

Tokayev captured 70.96% of the vote in a field that included six other competitors.  The runner up, Amirzhan Kossanov, received just over 16% of the vote, which was far higher than pre-election polls had indicated. Kossanov was the only candidate in the group that was viewed as being openly opposed to the ruling Nur Otan, or Radiant Fatherland in Kazakh, party.

Political reform opportunity left untapped?

The election campaign ran for one month, a period multiple international observer groups noted might have been too short. While the election was cited as being technically efficient and transparent, it is clear that the vast majority of the population participated – turnout was 77.4% – without incident.

The international media’s attention was largely distracted by the activities of unregistered protestors on election day in the capital Nur-Sultan and Almaty, the country’s largest city and former Soviet-era seat of government, and willingly pulled its resources away from reporting on areas where systemic improvement might be needed.

Though the protests resulted in at least 500 arrests, a tell-tale sign of the progress made by the energy-rich nation of 19 million people was the inclusion, for the first time in its history, of a female candidate on the list of presidential hopefuls.

The OSCE observation mission’s leader, George Tseretli of Georgia, summed up the situation as such “This election represented an important moment for Kazakhstan’s society as this was the first time that the long-serving first president was not competing.  While there were seven candidates, including for the first time a woman, the election showed that there is a need for genuine democratic consolidation and significant, political, social and legal reforms.”

A long-term perspective is needed

When looking through the scope of the post-Soviet experience in Central Asia, where the autocratic rule has been the norm rather than the exception in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, Kazakhstan’s presidential transition in the last several months has been, in the eyes of many independent observers, a step in the right direction.

New Europe discussed the regional implications with several experts in Nur-Sultan over the pre-election period.   These included Daniel Witt and Dr Ariel Cohen, co-leaders of the six-person US Independent Observer Mission to the presidential election which included a range of regional experts, academics and former-policymakers.

Unlike the OSCE, the Independent Observer Mission considers the elections to be a step forward for political reform in a long-term evolutionary process. The Mission nonetheless provided six suggestions for modernising the electoral campaign procedures, including for example an extension of the campaign period, lengthening televised candidates’ debates, increased public funding for campaigns and dropping the requirement that presidential candidates have at least five years’ work experience in the public sector.

According to Witt, Kazakhstan’s presidential election is an important step in preparing the political system for new parliamentary elections, which could come before the current term is set to expire and will most likely include a range of new parties.

A standard for the region?

Speaking just before the election, Witt believed that the 9 June poll “would be a standout – an event spotlighting the development of a multiparty system that cannot be ignored by its neighbours.”

Amplifying this point, Cohen told New Europe, “comparing within the neighbourhood, Kazakhstan’s election is years ahead.”  He added that the elections will be seen “as a model for the other (Central Asian) countries in the hope that they could get to a competitive election” similar to Kazakhstan’s, but he noted that “Uzbekistan could not reach Kazakhstan’s current level in 1,000 years.”

Cohen’s assertion that Kazakhstan is light-years ahead of its neighbours is a sound argument. In addition to being Central Asia’s economic powerhouse – it accounts for more than 60% of the region’s GDP – it also remains a bastion of ethnic, linguistic, and religious stability in a region that has experienced a growing amount of tension between several of the Central Asia’s indigenous groups, as well as the mass exodus of its Russian-speaking, non-Turkic and non-Persian ethnic populations, following the collapse of the Soviet Union 28 years ago.

In contrast to the administration of Uzbekistan’s late leader, Islam Karimov, and the former and current leaders of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov and Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, all of who opted for a personality cult-based hermit kingdom style of rule, Kazakhstan opted for a model of engagement with the international community and laid the groundwork for being a regional heavy-hitter in its relations with the West, Russia, and China.

Unlike neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, which has had to endure two violent revolutions, the overthrow of two presidents, and ethnic strife that has left hundreds dead, all since the middle of the last decade, energy-rich Kazakhstan has shown steady economic growth, and that once a country reaches the upper-middle-income bracket as defined by the World Bank, it should normally develop a range of democratic institutions.

Most importantly, Kazakhstan did not – despite its varied ethnic mix of Kazakhs, Slavs, Jews, Ingushetians, Volga Germans, Chechens, Tatars, Uyghurs, and Uzbeks –descend into the chaos of civil war that nearly destroyed Tajikistan in the 1990s as Moscow-backed former hardline Communists led by current strongman President Emomali Rahmon battled radical Islamists for control of the impoverished mountain nation’s post-Soviet identity.

Cohen noted that not only would the 9 June election be a model for the region, but also in some aspects for China and Russia as well. The leadership’s personality and experience were also critical in supporting the democratic transition and in that regard, Kazakhstan will be in good hands with Tokayev in charge as he is a person who has lived for many years in the West and understands Western and global institutions.