Kazakh People’s Overwhelming Endorsement

Kazakh People’s Overwhelming Endorsement

The results of the presidential elections in Kazakhstan on November 20th have demonstrated widespread support among Kazakh citizens for President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s leadership and reforms. Standing against five other candidates (including two women – for the first time in the country’s history), each of whom polled in the single digits, Tokayev won more than 81% of the vote, with a turnout of 69.44%. Over eight million citizens participated.

An unequivocal mandate

This unambiguous mandate is particularly important during nowadays turbulent period regionally and internationally. And indeed, in response to the Presidential elections’ results, the European Union stated, “We welcome their efficient preparation as well as wider political and socio-economic reforms initiated by President Tokayev after the tragic January events. The development of resilient democratic institutions and a strong civil society is key for Kazakhstan’s stability and development.”

The elections were the culmination of a dramatic year for Kazakhstan’s political landscape. The catalyst came in January 2022, in the form of violent protests aimed at uprooting the lingering influence of Tokayev’s predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled the country since independence in 1991. Despite no longer being President, Nazarbayev retained the title of “Elbasy” – “Head of the Nation,” and remained head of the national security council. The name of the capital city, Nur Sultan, was dedicated in his honor. As a result, “Old man out!”, was the dominant cry at the January protests.

Tokayev, who became President in March 2019, subsequently removed Nazarbayev from the security council and restored safety and stability in Central Asia’s largest country. The capital’s name was returned to Astana. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan’s parliament repealed a law granting Nazarbayev and his family immunity from prosecution; in September, one of his nephews was sentenced to six years in prison for embezzlement. Even more importantly, Tokayev has defied the expectations of those who expected him to follow in the authoritarian footsteps of Nazarbayev – he, instead, quit the ruling Amanat party and embarked on a busy year of reforms aimed at forging Just and Fair Kazakhstan.

These unprecedented reforms, in Kazakhstan’s part of the world, allow for greater democratization, modernization, and an improvement of checks and balances between the branches of state authorities. This includes the redistribution of powers from the President to the parliament, the establishment of a Constitutional Court, simplified procedures for registering political parties, increased citizen participation in the governance of the state, and greater protection for human rights.

These sweeping reforms, which required amendments to one-third of the country’s constitution, were endorsed by 77% of the voters in a nationwide referendum on June 5th, with a turnout of 68%. The Presidential elections were originally due to be held in 2024, but Tokayev called them earlier after stating that a new mandate was needed to maintain the momentum of democratic reforms, following the referendum. “The authorities will improve the well-being of citizens,” and added, “To realize all these goals, we need unity”.

Independent foreign policy

Tokayev has also been busy in the foreign policy arena, where he has worked to enhance Kazakhstan’s geopolitical status, protect the country’s independence and sovereignty, and promote its national interests. Most significantly, he has distanced Kazakhstan from its longtime patron Russia. Kazakhstan has not given public backing to Russia’s war in Ukraine and has refused to recognize the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk as sovereign states. Kazakhstan under Tokayev’s leadership has taken in hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens, who fled the two countries’ 7,400km land border after President Vladimir Putin issued a mandatory conscription order in September. “Kazakhstan must conduct a multi-vector foreign policy,” Tokayev stressed. “I have said many times that Kazakhstan should be committed to the United Nations Charter and pursue a peaceful foreign policy.” 

Ongoing democratization process

The elections were monitored by 641 international observers, including 350 observers from the ODIHR/OSCE. Foreign states noted the high organizational level of the election and none of the observers reported any violations in the election’s conduct, although some criticized the lack of preparation time offered to candidates (the election was called in September). However, democratization is not achieved in a day, and it would be wrong for Western observers to expect these important changes to be implemented in one fell swoop.

It’s not by coincidence, that more than 69% of Kazakhstan’s citizens took the hassle to exit their heated warm living rooms and made their way to the polling stations at minus 10 Celsius (14 Fahrenheit). I am not sure that 69% of France’s or Italy’s citizens would have ventured to the polls in similar weather conditions. Instead, more than 82% of Kazakhstan’s citizens who came to the polling chose to express trust and confidence in Tokayev’s leadership for the coming seven years. The people of Kazakhstan had also the option of voting “Against All”. However, just 5.8% voted “against all”.

The endorsement provided by Kazakhstan’s citizens for Tokayev personally, and for his foreign policy and domestic agenda, on 20 November 2022 – was unquestionably overwhelming. People entrusted political mandate to the President-Elect for further political, social and economic reforms.

Next: parliament and district elections

The next stage in Kazakhstan’s democratic process is the parliamentary and district elections in 2023, with the dates to be announced by the end of the year. “New parties will receive registration, this process is underway,” Tokayev explained. “We cannot artificially register parties, violating the law. Of course, we are creating favorable conditions. I believe that before the start of the parliamentary elections, several parties will be able to fulfill the proper conditions and get registered. I think it’s in our best interest.”

Meanwhile, Tokayev will now serve a seven-year term without the right to reelection. “The most important thing is that there will be no monopoly on power in our country,” he noted. This is the first time a Central Asian country has adopted a term limit of this kind; it marks a sharp contrast to neighboring countries, where leaders stay in power for as long as possible, condemning their countries to an endlessly sclerotic and authoritarian future.

Elsewhere, Tokayev has explicitly stated that his key objectives include decentralization and distribution of power across the world’s 9th largest country, strengthening the parliament, the judiciary, and rule of law, and providing equal opportunities for every citizen. Taken together, these are meaningful changes that will transform Kazakh society. Particularly at a time when illiberalism and authoritarianism are spreading globally, and geopolitical tension pushes democracies inwards. 

Therefore, it is vital that Western countries support Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s democratic reforms and engage into development efforts by Kazakhstan and in the region, particularly considering Tokayev’s stance on Russia and his multi-vector foreign policy.


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