Historic Kazakhstan election sparks hope for a taste of democracy

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Asya Tulesova is leaning over what looks like a big box in the middle of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city. She is exchanging the filter tape in an air quality monitor, slowing and carefully rolling the tape up and looking at gray measurement indicators as she goes. Tulesova is a well-known eco-activist in the Central Asian country, but she has also become one of the faces of the Central Asian country’s opposition movement.

“Any attempts to express your opinion are repressed in Kazakhstan, through arrests and fines. And many activists are being sent to serve in the army,” Tulesova says, pointing out that one activist was recently arrested for holding a blank placard. She explains that the ecological movement is one of the only remaining ways for activists to defend people’s rights in the Central Asian country, along with artistic projects and social media campaigns. “There aren’t many political freedoms in Kazakhstan.”

Tulesova knows that all too well. In late April, she and one other activist were detained for 15 days for holding up a banner during a marathon in Almaty. Their sign read “You can’t run from the truth” and featured hashtags calling for free and fair elections. The authorities labeled it an unauthorized protest. In a rare show of public discontent, just days later, hundreds of people came out into the streets of Kazakhstan’s cities shouting against “dictatorship” and for a free ballot.

Asya Tulesova changing the filter of an air quality monitoring device in Almaty (DW/E. Sherwin)

Art and ecological campaigning are currently the only way to express political dissent in Kazakhstan

Early elections will be taking place in Kazakhstan on June 9, after Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down as president in March. Nazarbayev served as president for nearly 30 years, and handpicked his close ally Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to take over as interim president. Tokayev called for snap elections, which he promised would be “fair and transparent.”Tokayev served as the country’s prime minister and foreign minister for many years. He is now on the ballot along with six other candidates, who are significantly less well known in the country. Tokayev is widely expected to win the ballot.

Passing the baton?

In Kazakhstan’s cities, campaign posters plaster bus stops and billboards along the main streets. Tokayev is running on a platform of stability. His slogan, which unashamedly presents him as the natural successor to Nazarbayev, reads: “Continuity, fairness, progress.”

“His campaign advertisements are everywhere,” one young couple tells DW, explaining that probably “everyone will vote for Tokayev.” “You come out of your house and his advertisements are there. Even people who didn’t know who he was know now.”

And despite stepping down, Nazarbayev himself is also still omnipresent in Kazakhstan. Streets around the country are named after him and the capital, Astana, was renamed Nur-Sultan in his honor. Video advertisements show the former president surrounded by his people. “Leader of the Nation” is still his official title. Regardless of the outcome of the election, Nazarbayev will remain in charge of the Security Council in the country.

A poster promoting Kazakh presidential candidates in a street in the capital Nur-Sultan (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Yegikov)

With seven candidates on the ballot in Kazakhstan, the government is promising fair elections

According to political scientists and opposition activist Dimash Alzhanov, that means he will remain “fully in control of the situation” in the country, no matter what happens in the elections.

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“The political field here has been completely sterilized. There are no independent parties, and no independent candidates are taking part in this election — they are fully under government control. These elections are more of an administrative task the government has set for itself.” He argues that Kazakh authorities are trying to achieve a high turnout at the ballot box for “legitimacy.”

Opposition on the ballot

None of Kazakhstan’s previous elections have been recognized as free and fair by the international community. Still, there does seem to be an attempt to show voters that there is a choice. Sunday’s election includes Kazakhstan’s first female presidential candidate and also its first truly critical candidate in more than a decade.

Amirzhan Kosanov (DW/A. Weißkopf)

Amirzhan Kosanov stands for political freedoms and against corruption

Experienced opposition politician Amirzhan Kosanov is campaigning for political freedoms and against social inequality and corruption. He admits even he was surprised to be registered for the presidential race, explaining that “the government wants to show that it is taking some sort of steps toward political liberalization.”

In his sparse campaign office in the capital, Nur-Sultan, Kosanov hands out flyers to volunteers and tells DW that the campaign is a good opportunity to have a broader platform for government criticism and take the temperature among voters. Kosanov hopes to attract the protest vote. Even if time restrictions and geography have prevented him from traveling the vast country to campaign, Kosanov says regular live social media meetings with voters have given him a sense that Kazakhs want to voice their discontent.

“I see my chances as good because people are dissatisfied. People see how in other countries, including other post-Soviet countries, one president leaves and another one comes — and there is nothing scary about that. People want that for Kazakhstan. After having one president for 30 years people want change,” he says. One poll shows Kosanov could take almost 8% of the vote, coming in second place. Tokayev meanwhile, is polling at nearly 73%.

Read more: An Uzbek princess falls from grace

Hoping for change

Still, ahead of the Kazakhstan’s first vote without Nazarbayev vote many people are excited at the prospect of change. “Right now is the moment to show that people can take things into their own hands,” one young man in Nur-Sultan tells DW.

Flowers bloom on the backdrop of the Nur-Sultan skyline (picture-alliance)

The Kazakh capital was recently renamed Nur-Sultan in honor of longtime president Nazarbayev

But many opposition activists are less optimistic, and argue that everyone on the ballot is cooperating with a corrupt, government-controlled system. Some are even calling for a boycott or for ballot spoiling.

On election day, community activist Tulesova plans to monitor the ballot with young observers from the Youth Information Service of Kazakhstan. “Do I have any expectations about the elections? No. I think that our system is such that we can essentially already say who will win,” she says.

Still, Tulesova argues being politically active on election day is important. “The main thing is that we all monitor these elections,” she says. “Nothing will be solved itself unless we start uniting — and expressing our demands.”

And she is not the only one pushing for unity among dissenters. In a recent social media video, Tulesova is one of many faces fighting against political apathy in the country. On June 5, activists including political analyst Dimash Alzhanov announced they had created a new, politically independent leaderless “civic movement” called “Wake up, Kazakhstan.” They say anyone can join the movement and insist it is not a party.

“We aim to create democratic institutions and allow for an open political process. We want to fight for the rights of every citizen in this country,” Alzhanov explained at a recent press conference.

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