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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Vote Will Test Kazakhstan's Democracy

ReutersAbilov waving to vendors as he campaigns in a market in Almaty ahead of Saturday's parliamentary elections.
ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Parliamentary elections will be held in Kazakhstan on Saturday in a test of its leader's commitment to democratic reform, a commitment he may have already undermined by seizing the right to remain in office for life.

The vast Central Asian state's economy is booming on crude oil and metals exports while its well-regulated banking sector has attracted emerging market investors. But in politics, shedding Soviet practice has come much slower.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in power since 1989, tends to win elections with 80 to 98 percent of the vote. The last parliamentary poll awarded the opposition just one seat.

There is widespread doubt that Saturday's election will allow in any genuine opponents to Nazarbayev.

The vote is being held two years early, partly to embed constitutional reforms that added seats and powers to the parliament, but also to give Nazarbayev the right to be re-elected indefinitely. The reforms did little to move major decision-making powers from his hands.

"Investors understand that most decisions that affect their interests are not made in parliament," said Tanya Costello, an analyst in London for political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

Seven parties are contesting the vote, but the two to watch are the runaway favorite, Nur Otan, chaired by Nazarbayev, and the All-National Social Democratic Party, or ANSDP, the party of Nazarbayev's most outspoken critics.

The nearly total defeat suffered by the leaders of ANSDP, then grouped in a party called Ak Zhol, in the 2004 parliamentary vote has produced an opposition campaign fluctuating between populist pledges and predictions of vote rigging.

Potentially confusing voters, Ak Zhol will again be on ballots but in a form now much less critical of Nazarbayev.

"In the last 16 years, concepts like the people and democracy have lost their true meaning," said Bolat Abilov, an ANSDP leader. "Enough fraudulent elections."

Highlighting the nuanced reality of Kazakhstan's politics, he was free to make that point in a televised debate with Nur Otan, but other parts of the recording were censored, his party says.

"There's real uncertainty as to whether the opposition parties will get in at all," Costello said.

A Western diplomat in Kazakhstan said he believed the ANSDP could poll 15 to 20 percent in a free vote, but would not reach the 7 percent hurdle to get into the parliament in official tallies. Instead, Ak Zhol would gain seats as a token opposition.

The opposition's principal hope may be the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a 56-member body that deals with human rights and security and monitors elections.

A cleaner bill of health on electoral conduct would weaken U.S. and British opposition to Nazarbayev's frequently expressed desire to chair the organization in 2009.

The Western diplomat said domestic politics might take priority, noting a docile parliament would ensure that Nazarbayev, 67, had room to maneuver if he decided to anoint a successor.

Historically, the opposition has failed to summon big crowds of protesters after flawed votes, and, given Kazakhstan's huge and partly untapped oil wealth, foreign criticism is usually muted.

"Even if there's a degree of criticism from the U.S., it's not actually going to change the relationship," Costello said.

OSCE election monitors have already noted Nur Otan's dominance of favorable media coverage ahead of the election.

Bakytzhan Zhumagulov, Nur Otan's first deputy chairman, said he expected to win all of the seats. Asked how he would react to a negative assessment by the election monitors, he said, "As for the OSCE's opinion, I couldn't care less."

The Nazarbayev File

The Kazakhstan parliamentary elections on Saturday are likely to be dominated by a party chaired by President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Below are five key facts about the Kazakh leader.

• Born in 1940, Nazarbayev became a steelworker and rose through the ranks of the Communist Party, becoming a Politburo member in 1990, just before the Soviet Union collapsed.

• After independence, he won kudos in the West by voluntarily giving up the country's nuclear arsenal. Abandoning efforts to re-integrate the economy with Russia's, he appointed reformers who are credited with creating a strong financial system.

• He has three daughters -- Dariga, Dinara and Aliya -- and no sons. He has five grandchildren and two great grandchildren. The daughters and most of his other close relatives enjoy significant influence in the oil-rich country on the Caspian Sea.

• U.S. prosecutors have charged his former consultant, James Giffen, with corrupt practices and identified Nazarbayev as accepting more than $60 million in bribes from oil companies. Giffen says he is innocent and Nazarbayev has called the charges a setup.

• The opposition in Kazakhstan has accused Nazarbayev of cracking down on dissent, appointing members of his family and allies to key jobs in government and industry, and stifling media freedom. The country has never held elections that were judged free and fair by international observers.

-- Reuters

A Kazakh Election Primer

Some key facts about Saturday's election for the Mazhilis, Kazakhstan's lower house of parliament.

• A regular parliamentary election had not been due until 2009, but Nazarbayev called a snap poll in June to cement constitutional reforms he sees as a step toward democracy.

• The reform package raises the number of members of the Mazhilis to 107 from 77 and gives the chamber additional powers, including picking the prime minister.

• Ninety-eight deputies will be elected through party-list proportional representation, and nine legislators will be nominated by the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, an unelected body appointed by Nazarbayev to represent ethnic groups.

• Parliament is elected for five years. Parties have to pass a 7 percent barrier to win seats. The Central Elections Commission will publish initial results within 5 days.

• Kazakhstan has never held an election judged free and fair by international observers. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which is part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, will deploy hundreds of election observers to monitor the vote.

• The following seven parties are vying in the election.

1 Nur Otan, chaired by Nazarbayev, is the front-runner and likely to win a majority.

2 The All-National Social Democratic Party (ANSDP) is the main opposition party, hoping to gain a third of the vote.

3 Ak Zhol styles itself as an opposition party but is attacked by the ANSDP and others for not criticizing Nazarbayev.

4 The Patriots party is a small party with links to army veterans.

5 The Auyl party is another small party representing rural areas.

6 The Communist People's Party is Kazakhstan's second communist party. The main communist party is boycotting the vote.

7 Rukhaniyat is a small party garnering most of its support from social workers.

-- Reuters