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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Democracy With a Kazakh Twist

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Until now, Kazakhstan, which has generally been viewed separately from other Central Asian republics, stood on its own in the political sense as well. But with the recent parliamentary elections there, which President Nursultan Nazarbayev called "the final act of constitutional reform and a reference point for the new political history of Kazakhstan," any distinctions between Kazakhstan's political system and those of its neighbors have become a thing of the past.

The elections give a clear picture of where Nazarbayev is going with his political reforms. Rather than redistributing some of the president's authority to the parliament, he has only further concentrated power in his hands. The elections did not strengthen the political system at all. They created a regime of almost absolute personal authority that may appear successful in the short term but poses a dangerous risk of destabilizing the country in the medium and long term.

How does Astana's political system look today? Nazarbayev is the head of state and holds all of the nation's executive authority. He was first elected to that post in 1990 but has been in power since 1984, when he first became the chairman of the Council of Ministers and later the first secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party during the Soviet period.

The parliament consists of two chambers. The first is the Mazhilis, the lower house. It is formed on the basis of a proportional system of representation consisting of 98 deputies appointed by the ruling Nur Otan party, which Nazarbayev heads. In addition, the Mazhilis consists of nine deputies from the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, a 366-member organization that has constitutional status but is really only a decorative body whose main function is to represent the nation's various ethnic groups. The assembly members are appointed by the president, who serves as its chairman for life. According to recent constitutional changes, the mandate in the Mazhilis lies not with the deputies, but with the party. If a deputy leaves or is thrown out of the party, he loses his mandate. Thus, the deputy's authority is totally dependent upon the president.

The Senate is the upper house of parliament, and the president appoints one-third of its members directly. The other two-thirds of the Senate are appointed by the regions (two representatives from each region), but Nazarbayev also influences this process indirectly because he appoints the governors of each region.

In addition to these bodies, the country has a Constitutional Council, which is appointed by the president, the Senate and the Mazhilis in equal proportions. It also has a Supreme Court, which is elected by the Senate based on the president's recommendations.

If you look at each individual element of Kazakhstan's electoral system, it is not all that unique or terrible. After all, many countries have a proportional system of elections -- some having higher thresholds than others for parties to gain seats in the parliament. Some countries conduct elections by closed party lists, so that the final election results are determined not by the voters, but by party functionaries. The absence of an imperative mandate, which prevents deputies from changing parties, is nothing new, nor is the domination of the parliament by a single party -- although the complete absence of other parties is unusual. Taken separately, any one element would not be alarming. The problem, however, is that when they are combined, this leads to an increase in political risk. This is because there is no dialogue between the citizens and government, power is concentrated in one person, there is a fundamental lack of checks and balances, and not all of the country's political and ethnic groups are represented in the government.

Let's take a closer look at one of the political risks connected with the radical reconfiguration of Kazakhstan's political system. This risk derives from the lack of communication between the deputies and the voters. It also derives from the fact that regional clans and ethnic minorities have been shut out from the process of forming the central government. Kazakhstan, much like Russia, is one of the most multi-ethnic countries of the former Soviet republics, and it is widely recognized for its harmony and peaceful relations among various ethnic groups. For quite some time now, the country has successfully developed the concept of a single people without regard to individual ethnicity.

Under the previous majority electoral system, about 30 percent of the seats in the second Mazhilis were held by Russians, the second-largest ethnic group after the Kazakhs; this breakdown mirrors their proportion of the general population. When the Mazhilis switched to a mixed election system in 2004, the number of Russian deputies fell to 20 percent. Under the current proportional system, even if every Russian on the Nur Otan party roster were to become a deputy, they would make up just 14 percent of the lower house of parliament; in reality, the percentage would be even lower. More important than the ethnic aspect of the issue, however, is that the interests of the voters are not taken into account when political decisions are made. This is a much larger problem for the country.

One of the biggest controversies hanging over the recent elections involved the issue of whether they met international standards. But the discussion concerning the honesty and fairness of the elections is somewhat of a moot point. More apropos in this case is a saying by Lenin, "Everything is correct in form, but when you get down to the substance, it is a mockery." Asking international election observers to monitor such a farce is like asking a world-class referee to judge a boxing match between a heavyweight fighter and a featherweight. The result is a foregone conclusion.

At issue is not whether the parliamentary elections were conducted fairly. The most serious problem is that this is not a parliament at all, just a consultative body that serves the president.

Many Russian observers have taken some jabs at the elections, sarcastically describing it as democracy with a Kazakh twist. The problem, though, is that Kazakhstan is in many respects a copy of Russia, albeit in a more parodied form.

In the past, Kazakhstan served as a center for political innovations of sorts: New political ideas and mechanisms were developed that later spread to other former Soviet republics. For example, harsh laws regarding nongovernmental organizations and political parties were first introduced in Kazakhstan. Not long ago, Nazarbayev, who is also chairman of the Commonwealth of Independent States, advised his younger colleague President Vladimir Putin to stay on for a third term and to disregard any subsequent criticism that would undoubtedly arise from abroad.

The only thing left to do now is to hope that the State Duma elections in December, which will be based for the first time on a proportional representation system for all deputies, will not develop according to Kazakhstan's scenario.

Nikolai Petrov is a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center.