Presidential election will reinvigorate Kazakh political life, says analyst

February 14. Central Asia Newswire

By Martin Sieff

Presidential election will reinvigorate Kazakh political life, says analystWhy did Kazakhstan’s veteran leader and founding father Nursultan Nazarbayev call presidential elections in April?

Kazakhstan has been prosperous and stable, but Nazarbayev has faced criticism from the United States and Europe urging him to speed up the democratization processes. He may calculate that holding a new election will give him a renewed mandate.

Also, the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the wave of popular protests sweeping the Arab world may have led him to calculate that it is better to renew his mandate while times are peaceful and prosperous rather than risk letting the waves of protest reach Central Asia first.

Kazakhstan has a population of only 16 million – compared with 80 million in Egypt. And having attracted $120 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) in the past 19 years, its population is currently enjoying its highest standard of living since independence. It has not experienced the decades of increasing, grinding, desperate poverty that led to the popular explosion in Egypt. Nor does it have a strong tradition of underground radical Islamist extremism as Egypt has had through the Muslim Brotherhood, or Ikhwan, over the past 60 and more years.

Erlan Karin, a noted political analyst in Kazakhstan and secretary of the ruling Nur-Otan party, told the Liter daily newspaper in a recent interview that the underlying cause of the popular revolutions in Tunisia, and the unrest now shaking other Middle East countries such as Yemen, was the extent of poverty and lack of effective economic development in those nations.

“It is not a coincidence that the current national upheavals in the Arab world are called the ‘intifada of the hungry,’” Karin said. “Development in these countries has stopped a long time ago.”

“What’s worse is that the last few years these countries have witnessed an elementary degradation of governments as such,” Karin said.

“By contrast, Kazakhstan’s situation is drastically different,” he continued. “For (Kazakhstan), what’s important is not stability for stability’s sake, but specifically stable development. It is very important to continue to pursue a politics of modernization and real revitalization.”

Elections will stir political action in Kazakhstan

Karin told Liter he expects the upcoming presidential election to reinvigorate the political life of the country.

“For me, the main thing about the upcoming elections is that through real activation of the various subjects of politics …  The socio-political life of the country will (be) shaken up. And this will lead to a special demand for new political initiatives from the government,” he added.

“For a year now, I have been saying that if we are serious about systematic changes, then we must participate, that real modernization – is not just diversification of the economy and the active pursuit of innovation. Modernization as such is a multi-dimensional process. That is why the realization of a new strategy for economic modernizations requires a certain level of social and political modernization. This is understood by the government as well,” the analyst said.

Karin acknowledged that Nazarbayev would win an overwhelming victory. “Many experts have started placing their bets,” he said. “Some predict a victory of 93 percent.”

Nazarbayev’s competition

Karin said four sets of hopefuls would be running as opponents to Nazarbayev. No serious candidate has any expectation of winning, but whoever gets the largest opposition vote, even if it is only one or two percent, will then be able to claim they were the main and most credible opposition group, he argued.

“The first group, undoubtedly, are the independents,” Karin said. “They do not have wide public support, there are no parties backing them up, and for the majority of them the main motive to participate in the race is simply a desire to be more well-known.”

But this more modest goal offers some benefits to whomever wins it, Karin added. “It is true that for at least two to three years after the elections, they can present themselves as ex-candidates for the post of the president and for many of them, this is already a prestigious status,” he said.

Karin described the second kind of presidential hopefuls as already-known opponents of the government. He divided these into party leaders and loners.

“(For) party leaders …. (it) doesn’t matter who will be put forward … their main goal is to position themselves as the main opposition to the political power.”

The analyst named figures like Ualikhan Kaisarov or Zhasaral Kuanyshalin as examples of the loner category.

“They are not formal leaders of the opposition and their actions are mainly calculated to use the upcoming elections to self-affirm themselves within the opposition itself,” he said.

The third group of candidates likely to run against Nazarbayev “are the so-called Newcomers who don’t affiliate themselves with the government nor to the opposition, but will use the elections as a possibility to gain new political status. For example, the leaders of the “Green” party, who seem to want to run but haven’t yet given a clear answer,” Karin said.

“The fourth group one can call the statisticians,” he said. “They will participate in the elections just because that’s how it must be: Because the goal of any party is the constant fight for power through, of course, elections. That is how one can judge the claim of possible participation of the national communists in the elections.”

Finally, Karin said grudge factor candidates would put their names on the April ballot. He said these were individuals who would run just to irritate their old opponents and rivals.

“In politics, as in life, there is space for emotions and personal grievances. Today one can already notice connections between potential candidates who are intending to run and are considered old rivals. They have their own histories, and the elections are just a chance to settle old scores,” he added.

Presidential election candidates would be maneuvering to establish themselves as significant figures on the national political scene, Karin said.

Therefore, “potential opponents of the main candidate in the upcoming election campaign will be acting under the Olympian principle: Victory is not important, participation is. And depending on the way the campaign unfolds, they will decide on their goals, and at some moment may even turn on one another,” he said.

Nazarbayev will use his re-election campaign as a mandate of public approval for his long-term national development strategy, Karin said.

“The president has put forward a new program for the development of the country (called) Strategy-2020, (which) has a clear step-by-step plan for realization,” he said. “This sets a very high standard … It is unlikely that other participants can maintain such a scale and level of discussion.”