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Kazakhstan: Heading for presidential election ahead of time

Officially, the mid-term presidential election in Kazakhstan was expected to be announced on Mar 1, on the 20th birthday of the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, the authority that suggested this idea on Feb 14. But Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev decided not to wait till that date and scheduled the election for Apr 26.

On the request of the people taking the lead

“My experience prompts me that the coming years will be a time of global ordeals. The whole architecture of the world will be changed. Not all nations will get over this test. Only the strongest will survive. Being a part of the global economy and a close neighbor to the epicenter of the global tension, Kazakhstan is being affected by these processes,” Nazarbayev said in his Nov 2014 address to the nation.

This speech was followed by numerous statements by ministers, senators and MPs, who warned their people of an upcoming economic and social crisis as if preparing the people. Hard times require harsh, unpopular decisions. Only those trusted can do this. In this light, it would be hard to hold presidential and parliamentary election in 2016 – at the very peak of the predicted crisis. That’s why on Feb 14 2015 the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan appeared with an initiative to hold a mid-term presidential election. Their motive was exactly to avoid crisis-related problems.

It was clear that it was not the Assembly’s initiative – for the first who supported the idea was the presidential Nur Otan Party. Just a week later the Parliament asked the leader of the nation, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to approve the mid-term election as a mechanism to ensure continuity of his policy. Speaker of the Senate Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev said that mid-term election would foster peace, unity and accord in Kazakhstan.

“The people’s request” is already formulated, but the president has not yet decided when exactly the election will be held. According to the Constitutional Council, it is for the president to schedule the date. In his February address, the president said that he was ready to support the initiative as it was the wish of Kazakhstan-2050, a coalition of 6 parties, 18 republican non-governmental organizations and 500 regional NGOs.

Who will challenge the leader of the nation?

The major question here is whether President Nazarbayev, who turns 75 this summer, will run for one more term in office or will nominate a successor. Nazarbayev has been in rule in Kazakhstan since 1989, when he was the leader of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. During the last presidential race in 2011, he polled over 95% of the votes. Today, his rating is lower but is still much higher than any of his rivals can hope for. So, if he decides to run for presidency, the winner will be known. The core of this popularity is not only the administrative resource Nazarbayev has in hand but also his ability to balance well among different political groups and to turn economic stability into social benefits. As far as law is concerned, here Nazarbayev has no problems. Unlike his Central Asian colleagues, he has no need to change the constitution as the law allows him to run for presidency for as many times as he can.

The decision to hold a mid-term election was a surprise for the opposition leaders, whose fixed idea in so many years has been just to change the ruler. With many oppositionists hiding from the regime abroad, the opposition have little if any influence on the political processes in the country. The last bad news for them was the death of Rakhat Aliyev, Nazarbayev’s former son-in-law, whom they wished to turn into the icon of political dissidence in Kazakhstan - though some of them tried to turn this into their advantage by hinting that Aliyev’s death was not a coincidence.

The national patriotic forces were one more potential opponent, but the regime’s wise policy insured it against any charges. No sooner had the president stress the need to integrate with Russia than he hurried to inquire if there was progress in converting the Kazakh alphabet into Roman characters – something many national patriots regards as the key move away from Russia.

Many years’ experience, along with a wise policy of checks and balances, has put Nazarbayev beyond competition. In any case, the regime will not let the election be non-alternative and will put some three-four names in the voting papers.

And what if there will be a successor?

For many years already, experts have warned that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – with their old presidents having no potential successors - are becoming increasingly explosion-prone. Their key concern was that the sudden death of those leaders might trigger armed clashes for their thrones. The same concerns were expressed with respect to Turkmenistan. However, nothing at all happened when Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov died.

The point is that western standards are not applicable to eastern mentality. Here publicity is not always good for a politician if he is proclaimed a successor long before he is supposed to take office.

On the other hand, many political processes happen behind the scenes and no official successor does not always mean no successor at all. Simply, such people are kept in shadow until the time comes. New elites have grown up in Kazakhstan over the last 25 years. They have seen lots of color revolutions and they know how they end. They live in a trouble-free country, where everybody has something to lose if trouble comes. And this is the key reason why they are always ready for a compromise.

Among the key potential successors of Nazarbayev are Prime Minister Karim Masimov, Speaker of the Senate Kasym-Zhomart Kokayev, Defense Minister Imagali Tasmagambetov, mayor of Almaty Akhmetzhan Yesimov, Chairman of National Security Committee Nurtay Abykayev. Nazarbayev’s relatives Timur Kulbayev and Dariga Nazarbayeva are also in the list. But long as this list may be, all speculations about who may be the next Kazakh president are just guesswork – for all of Nazarbayev’s actions show that he is not going to retire.

Color revolution is scarcely likely

The Americans cannot but be worried that Kazakhstan is one of Russia’s closest allies and a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and keep warning that and other Central Asian (and some other) nations that their friendship with Russia might end badly for them. Nazarbayev’s last decision to de-dollarize the country’s economy was one more bad news for the US. Chaos and instability in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan would be a real gift for the Americans in their global geopolitical game and one more headache for the Russians. Geopolitical tensions and falling oil prices are having a bad effect on Kazakhstan’s economy, with many people in that country expected a slump of their national currency. All this is a good pretext for the radical Kazakh opposition to try to push people into streets in hope for a new Maidan. This scenario has no chances for success - the example of Ukraine has shown what such a coup may end in. The best the Kazakh oppositionists can hope for is local rallies.

On the other hand, the slogans of social justice are a good chance for religious extremists to enlarge their audience. Here much will depend on the regime’s preparedness to act and to be tough should anybody try to cause instability.

Nor will this be an occasion for big rallies. Nazarbayev enjoys much too strong support for anybody to be able to dispute it. As regards the next parliamentary elections, they are scheduled for the next year. And here too we can hardly expect much.

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