Presidential Elections in Kazakhstan: A Wave of Change or Continuation of Nazarbayev’s Era?
Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta, Research Assistant, VIF

Kazakhstan’s deteriorating socio-economic situation and an increasing gap in living standards have led to the protests and demonstrations. As some reports have suggested, the Soviet era founder President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev has resigned as President on 20 March 2019 fearing a backlash against his recent economic policies. The resignation has paved the way for smooth transition of power in Kazakhstan.1 After his resignation, one of his most loyal aide Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the Chair of the Senate, was nominated as interim President. Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva was unanimously appointed the new Chair of the Senate. Even after resignation, ex-President Nazarbayev holds the most prominent positions in Kazakh politics. Constitutionally, he has been conferred the title of Elbassy (the Leader of the Nation) which grants him and his family immunity against any criminal proceedings. He is the leader of the the ruling Nur Otan Party and Chairman of the all-powerful Security Council.

Soon after the ex-President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s protege Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took charge as the interim President, his first task was to rename the capital city Astana to Nur-Sultan, which reflected his loyalty. Tokayev’s appointment as interim President has sparked protests as many consider him as Nazarbayev’s handpicked successor to lead the country till the Presidential election took place. These anti-government protests led the interim President to announce snap presidential elections scheduled to be held on 9th June 2019. Although the Western media had speculated that Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva will be nominated from the ruling Nur Otan Party, instead, Nursultan Nazarbayev nominated the interim President Tokayev as the presidential candidate.

Kazakhstan went to the polls on June 9, 2019, amid mass protests and demonstrations. Calling the elections rigged, protesters, mainly the youth, came on streets holding placards and voicing slogans such as ‘Wake up Kazakhstan’, almost 500 protesters were detained.2 Presidential candidate, Tokayev after casting his vote in the capital, Nur-Sultan, commented on the ongoing protests regarding the unfair elections and said, “It was the people’s choice to protest, though elections should not be a battlefield.”3 Soon after the polling, exit polls unanimously indicated a win for for Nazarbayev's protégé and the interim President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Furthermore, Kazakhstan’s Central Election Commission announced that there was around 77 per cent voter turnout out of which, Tokayev received 70.96 per cent; his nearest challenger from the opposition, Amirzhan Kosanov has received 16.2 percent.

Kazakh Police have updated the number of people they detained during recent anti-government protests to 4,000. Newly elected President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has promised that new legislation will be drafted to allow for peaceful protests. In an interview to a news channel, he stated that those who wished to protests could do so under the proposed arrangement for which they would file for permission to demonstrate and that space would be set aside for them.4

The new Prsident Tokayev took oath as the President of Kazakhstan on 12 June 2019. Soon after his re-election, he outlined ten priorities for Kazakhstan-

  1. Increase the population’s income,
  2. Eliminate corruption,
  3. Reform the judicial system and law enforcement,
  4. Create new jobs,
  5. Create affordable housing,
  6. Improve social policies and pursue human capital development,
  7. Develop Kazakhstan’s regions and strengthen local government,
  8. Continue to implement the ‘Modernization of Kazakhstan’s Identity’ programme,
  9. Continue a constructive, balanced, multi-vector foreign policy,
  10. Support youth and create opportunities for them.5

Although, these priority areas do take cognizance of continuing dissatisfaction among the Kazakh population, but it totally depends on its deliverance. Improvements introduced in the aforementioned areas will lead to a better future of Kazakhstan and it will also validate the postion of President Tokayev, along with promoting the agenda of Soviet-era President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Challenges Ahead

Cooperation in Central Asia needs to be maintained for regional development and growth. Kazakhstan being the most developed economy in the region has the potential to increase the current level of cooperation between the Central Asian Republics. The problem of unemployment and gaps in living standards should improved and should be the priority for the new President. It will further pacify the mass resentment in the Kazakh population especially, the youth, which was evident during the country-wise protests before and during the elctions. Revamping of Kazakhatan’s economy and foreign policy are going to be major challenges for the new President.

Founder President Nazarbayev’s role can not be ignored in the public and political affairs of Kazakhstan but it is essential to ensure that his intervention does not eclipse the image of new President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

India-Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is India’s largest trade, investment and economic partner in Central Asia. From 2005 to 2018, India’s flow of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the Kazakh economy was estimated to be around 317 USD million. India-Kazakhstan bilateral trade for 2018-19 is 851.91 USD million, which registered a decrease from 1,032.81 USD million in the year 2017-18. Both countries have convergence of interest in political, economic, and security arena. Kazakhstan has supported India’s permanent membership Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). India-Kazakhstan bilateral cooperation has increased during the Nazarbayev’s period and it will continue to be so during the tenure of new President.

Kazakhstan has invested in Amirabad Port and a member of Ashgabat Agreement and International North South Corridor (INSTC). Therefore, for India, Kazakhstan may play an important role in bridging the gap of its Central Asia connectivity. Indo-Kazakh trade is still below the potential which could be increased through subsequent achievements in these connectivity projects.

China factor remains tricky for India’s engagement in the region but building more advance synergies with Russia, which still has an upper hand in the security and politics of Central Asian republics, could bring out substantial outcomes such as early operationalization of INSTC and other connectivity related projects. All Central Asian countries along with Russia, have endorsed the Chinese Belt and Road Initiatives. However, India has been politely refusing to attest to this project citing a violation of its sovereignty (China Pakistan Economic Corridor lies in the disputed area between India and Pakistan) which will also have implications for India’s connectivity with Central Asia.

To summarize, one can accept that Kazakhstan, being an oil and gas rich country is adorned with a strategic location at the crossroad of East and West. President Nazarbayev’s strict regime has brought out tremendous amount of development along with raising some alarms among the Kazakh population, therefore, his resignation and coming up of new President is mooted to have some positive changes. New President will have twofold tasks. First, he has to take care of the issues that have been raising in the recent past along with maintaining the pace of growth and development. Secondly, sustaining its multi-vector foreign policy at the time of changing geopolitical scenarios is also a significant task for the new President.

References:
  1. Edward lemon, ‘Why Nazarbayev Resigned and What Happens Next’, 20 May 2019, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/why-nazarbayev-resigned-and-what-happens-next
  2. ‘Nazarbayev protégé wins Kazakhstan elections marred by protests’ 10 June 2019, https://www.france24.com/en/20190610-kazakhstan-presidential-election-tokayev-nazarbayev-protesters-arrested
  3. ‘Nazarbayev ally wins big in Kazakhstan election after hundreds arrested’, The Guardian, 10 June 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/09/hundreds-arrested-as-kazakhs-protest-against-rigged-election
  4. Kazakhstan: Police now say they detained 4,000, Eurasianet, 18 June 2019, https://eurasianet.org/kazakhstan-police-now-say-they-detained-4000
  5. ‘Statement by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev at the official inauguration ceremony of the elected President of the Republic of Kazakhstan’, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan, 12 June 2019, http://mfa.gov.kz/en/delhi/content-view/kasym-zomart-tokaevty-kazakstan-respublikasyny-sajlangan-prezidenti-kyzmetine-resmi-kirisu-rsimindegi-sjlegen-szi-2

Image Source: https://static.independent.co.uk/s3fs-public/thumbnails/image/2015/04/26/19/Nursultan-Nazarbayev-REuters.jpg?w968h681

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