For the first time in their country’s history, rural voters in Kazakhstan turned out to vote for 729 municipal akims (mayors) over the weekend, choosing from nearly 2,300 candidates as part of a slate of political reforms put forward by Kazakhstan’s president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev last year. Given the rural districts in question are home to over 40% of the country’s population and saw turnout rates of at least 66.5% across the board, the electorate’s enthusiastic response bodies well for the next round of elections scheduled in 45 more populous districts before the end of 2021.
The direct vote represents a small but significant sea change in what is by far Central Asia’s largest economy, which secured its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The direct election of local officials, which until now have been appointed by provincial governors (who are themselves appointed by Kazakhstan’s president), represents part of a wider slate of political reforms introduced by President Tokayev, alongside less onerous requirements for forming political parties, a lowered threshold for minority parties to secure seats in the national parliament (from 7% to 5%), and minimum thresholds for women and young people on electoral lists.
Local elections represent just one step on what remains a long road to democratisation. That said, in the context of a region where the only fully democratic country – Kazakhstan’s southern neighbour, Kyrgyzstan – has been racked by political instability for the past three decades, observers in both Kazakhstan and Europe have underscored the importance of a gradual but steady transition to representative institutions that gives the country’s citizens time to get accustomed to political participation within a more democratic culture.
Tokayev’s reforms nonetheless represent some of the most significant political developments in the region since the European Union updated its Strategy on Central Asia in 2019, making them a matter of keen interest in Brussels.
Slow and steady
Tokayev, who took office after the resignation of Kazakhstan’s longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbayev in March 2019, has introduced his slate of changes to the country’s governing structures in response to a popular groundswell of support for reform and greater political participation. Tokayev’s initiatives have also addressed important human rights issues, with Kazakhstan joining the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2020 and abolishing the death penalty earlier this year.
All the same, Kazakhstan’s foreign minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi underscored the potential risks and obstacles preventing a rushed approach to democratisation in an editorial published by Newsweek in May. Beyond the fact their brief history as an independent country means Kazakhstan’s citizens have had less time to “develop democratic and human rights principles” in comparison to Western counterparts, there is also the factor of Kazakhstan’s “neighbours’ and regional sensitives” – a subtle reference to Russia and China, as well as regional counterparts such as Uzbekistan and Iran.
That does not make the changes taking place in Kazakhstan any less significant. By directly electing their mayors, voters in Kazakhstan are coming to appreciate the fundamental difference in a relationship where local officials depend on the support of their constituents and need to address their concerns, demands, and aspirations. While enjoying increased legitimacy, these local leaders will now be faced with a greater degree of accountability.
The view from Brussels
Greater democratic participation in Kazakhstan’s political system will also be seen as a positive step forward by the European Union, whose top diplomat Josep Borrell visited the region for the Central-South Asia Connectivity Conference held in Tashkent earlier this month. As Borrell made clear during his visit, the EU sees itself as “a major partner for Central Asian countries in their reform and economic transition process,” and that “Central Asia… has a lot to offer to European investors,” but “to fully benefit from this potential requires the region to advance with structural reforms and a better business environment.”
In the European Parliament, MEPs such as Andris Ameriks (S&D) – the Vice-Chair of the EP’s Central Asian delegation – have been even more direct, describing the local elections as “highly important for Kazakhstan” and emphasising how “it is vital that these elections provide a real example of mutual trust between the people and the authorities.” In terms of the political reform programme more broadly, MEPs such as Ivo Hristov (S&D) have also stressed the importance of Kazakhstan “following its own pace of modernisation.”
Regional analysts based in Brussels, such as Axel Goethals of the European Institute for Asian Studies (EISA), contextualise last weekend’s elections against the backdrop of a “fledgling multi-party system and the move towards more complete representation and political competition.”
Echoing the word of caution put forward by Kazakhstan’s foreign minister earlier this year, Goethals also made clear Kazakhstan’s democratisation “is a process which cannot happen overnight and requires a more gradual approach to avoid abrupt or forced changes which could result in instability, as it is also part of a learning curve” for all involved, including voters and candidates but also Kazakhstan’s ruling institutions.
That learning curve fits within the EU’s 2019 Strategy on Central Asia, which sets out “supporting the delivery of successful reforms” and “closer cooperation on promoting human rights and the rule of law” as priorities for the bloc in order to make its partners in Central Asia more resilient and to help them capitalise on the opportunities described by High Representative Borrell.
In addition to pushing Central Asian counterparts to strengthen their democratic practices, the European institutions are also keen to support economic reforms in the region. This is an area where Kazakhstan has excelled, with a no. 25 ranking in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business listing that places it ahead of EU member states including Spain, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands.
If President Tokayev’s government in Kazakhstan successfully stewards a transition towards democratic government that spares the country the instability seen in countries such as Kyrgyzstan and more recently Tunisia, it could make a significant impact on how the European institutions view democratisation more broadly, both in Central Asia and in other facets of EU foreign policy.
Image: Людмила Помазанова/Pixabay
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