In Kazakhstan, where elections are superfluous

While Nursultan Nazarbayev is around, there’s little chance of marching in the streets of Astana and

Across Astana, Kazakhstan's shiny if somewhat soulless new capital, election posters are being taken down after Sunday's snap presidential poll. The country has just held a surreal election that offered the semblance of a democratic event: the faces of the four candidates adorned billboards, television and newspapers built up suspense about the results, and officials talked excitedly about the new technologies on offer in the voting booths.

But these were mere trappings for an election that was a foregone conclusion.

No one had the slightest doubt about the winner. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the strongman president who has led Kazakhstan for the past two decades, was returned to power, winning a monstrous victory.

And by monstrous, that means 95 per cent of the vote, according to official figures. This was up from the last presidential election in 2005, when his 91 per cent score was only marginally more modest.

In fact, so confident was Nazarbayev of returning to power this time round, he didn't even bother campaigning, leaving his rivals to tour the country, attempt to woo crowds and debate among themselves. One of the three challengers, the environmental activist Mels Yeleusizov, even admitted that he, too, had voted for Nazarbayev.

Beat and block

Although this year's Arab awakening suggests noisy people power could penetrate parts of the world previously thought resistant to western-style democracy, the Asian steppe seems immune to the phenomenon. While the elections at least took place in Kazakhstan, they were more a confirmation than a contest.

Nazarbayev himself seems to have little doubt about the vote. "You've given me carte blanche to continue the course of economic, political and social reforms," he said Monday morning at the headquarters of his party, Nur Otan. Nazarbayev insisted that the election was "open and fair", and officials brashly predicted that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which had 300 election monitors in the country, would agree.

But that did not happen. The OSCE, Europe's main poll-monitoring body, found irregularities, citing ballot-box stuffing, spurious rules for candidate registration, intimidation and media bias. There were minor improvements since the 2007 parliamentary elections – when Nur Otan won 88 per cent of the vote and picked up all 98 seats in the Majilis, or lower house.

However, the OSCE said the overall effect of the restrictions – whether formal or unsaid – was to quench debate and dissent. "This election has showed that the country still needs to make improvements to meet democratic commitments, particularly in the fields of freedom of assembly and media," said the OSCE's head mission observer, Tonino Picula.

There were reports of journalists being beaten, websites being blocked and activists being detained. Criticising the president is sometimes interpreted as libel, which is a criminal offence, making self-censorship another issue.

The main opposition candidates boycotted the election (raising questions about the reported 89.9 per cent turnout). The three official opponents – from the Communist People's Party, the environmental union Tabigat and the Patriots' Party – were considered no-hopers, there to offer the veneer of competition.

There are wider democratic concerns about the country. A survey last year by the Washington-based rights group Freedom House declared Kazakhstan "not free". A February report by the International Crisis Group said: "Kazakhstan has made patchy progress in some sectors and conserved Soviet endowments in others." And Transparency International, which monitors corruption, placed Kazakhstan 105th out of 178 countries surveyed in 2010 – though this is up from 145th in 2008.

Nazarbayev's entourage is unfazed by criticism. "He's very popular. That's just how it is," says one of his aides, Yermukhmamet Yertisbayev. "He has that personality. It's like Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson: there is just no one who can fight him." And – in an echo of the arguments used by the Arab autocrats allied with the west – he underlines Nazarbayev's strategic usefulness. "He has fought nationalism and religious extremism," Yertisbayev adds.

Stability is all

Many of us know Kazakhstan only through Borat, football qualifiers and, more recently, Prince Andrew's dubious connections. Thanks to oil and gas money, however, Kazakhstan has become a regional linchpin.

Eleven times the size of Britain, this nation of 16 million brands itself as the economically dynamic, politically stable link between Europe and Asia. It is a member of Europe's football union Uefa, chaired the OSCE last year but takes part in the Asian Games, and is also set to chair the Organisation of the Islamic Conference this year. Diplomatically, it has adroitly played off Washington, Moscow and Beijing, all of whom want to exploit the country's oil and gas fields.

Nazarbayev, 70, has been in power since 1989 when Kazakhstan was still part of the Soviet Union. He sees himself as his country's George Washington, and was named "Leader of the Nation" last year, granting him immunity from prosecution for life and the power to approve important policies even after he retires. Last year, he urged his country's scientists to develop an elixir of life to keep him going, saying they should study "rejuvenation of the organism".

But it would be too glib to dismiss him as a neo-Soviet autocrat with a cult of personality, offering authoritarianism-lite. Kazakhstanis don't worship Nazarbayev, but most credit him for steering the country out of Soviet rule to become central Asia's most vibrant economy and freest state. Last year, Kazakhstan enjoyed 7 per cent growth.

The country currently holds 3 per cent of global oil reserves and is the world's largest uranium miner. Since independence, per capita output has risen more than twelvefold, while foreign investment into the country has totalled $120bn.

As for the Arab spring, there is a cautionary tale closer to home. Last year, a bloody revolt deposed the president of Kyrgyzstan, a nation that remains crime-ridden and split by regional clans and ethnic divisions. Certainly stability, more than freedom, appears important to the average Kazakhstani.

"There are many examples of putting political reform before economic growth, and it has not always been successful," says Nurlan Baiyuzakovich Yermekbayev, another presidential aide, referring to Kyrgyzstan. "It may be difficult to believe, but he really is that popular."

The chances are that Nazarbayev would win handsomely even if the elections were as free and fair as election observers might hope for. But the constant emphasis on stability puts heavy strains on the system. There is no heir apparent: when he goes, there are fears the country will descend into a vicious power struggle.

While Nazarbayev is around, there is little chance of marching in the streets of Astana and Almaty. But – as events in the Arab world have shown – stability without democracy brings its own risks, too.

Leo Cendrowicz is a correspondent for TIME magazine

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Where Labour has no chance, hold your nose and vote Lib Dem

May's gamble, MacKenzie's obsession and Wisden obituaries - Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

In 2007 Gordon Brown allowed rumours to circulate that he would call an early general election for the spring of 2008. When he failed to do so, he was considered a coward and a ditherer and never recovered. Theresa May has tried a different strategy. After firmly denying that she would call an early election and killing off speculation about one, she suddenly announced an election after all. Will this work better for her than the opposite worked for Brown?

The Prime Minister risks being seen as a liar and an opportunist. Her demand for “unity” at Westminster is alarming, because it suggests that there is no role for opposition parties on the most important issue of the day. If Labour and the Lib Dems are smart enough to co-operate sufficiently to rally the country against what looks like an attempt to instal an authoritarian, right-wing Tory regime, May, even if she wins the election, could find herself weakened, not strengthened. I never thought I would write this but, in constituencies where Labour has no chance, its supporters should hold their noses and vote Lib Dem.

Taken for granted

I wonder if May, before she took her decision, looked at the precedents of prime ministers who called unnecessary elections when they already had comfortable parliamentary majorities. In 1974, after three and a half years in office, Edward Heath, with a Tory majority of 30, called a “Who runs Britain?” election during a prolonged dispute with the miners. He lost. In 1923, Stanley Baldwin, a new Tory leader sitting on a majority of 75 obtained by his predecessor just a year earlier, called an election because he wished to introduce tariffs, an issue strikingly similar to the one raised by Brexit. He also lost. The lesson, I think (and hope), is that prime ministers take the electorate for granted at their peril.

China’s long game

Commentators compare the crisis ­involving North Korea and the US with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It doesn’t feel that way to me. For several days that year, nuclear war seemed, to my 17-year-old mind, all but inevitable. I went to the cinema one afternoon and felt surprise when I emerged three hours later to find the world – or, at least, the city of Leicester – going about its business as normal. Two nuclear powers were in direct confrontation. The US threatened to invade communist Cuba to remove Soviet missiles and blockaded the island to prevent deliveries of more weapons. Soviet ships sailed towards the US navy. It wasn’t easy to imagine a compromise, or who would broker one. Nobody doubted that the two sides’ weapons would work. The Soviet Union had carried out nearly 200 nuclear tests. North Korea has claimed just five.

For all the talk of intercontinental missiles, North Korea at present isn’t a credible threat to anybody except possibly its neighbours, and certainly not to the US or Britain. It is in no sense a geopolitical or economic rival to the US. Donald Trump, who, like everybody else, finds the Middle East infernally complicated, is looking for an easy, short-term victory. The Chinese will probably arrange one for him. With 3,500 years of civilisation behind them, they are accustomed to playing the long game.

Mussel pains

Whenever I read Kelvin MacKenzie’s columns in the Sun, I find him complaining about the size of mussels served by the Loch Fyne chain, a subject on which he happens to be right, though one wonders why he doesn’t just order something else. Otherwise, he writes badly and unfunnily, often aiming abuse at vulnerable people such as benefit claimants. It’s a new departure, however, to insult someone because they were on the receiving end of what MacKenzie calls “a nasty right-hander”, apparently unprovoked, in a Liverpool nightclub. He called the victim, the Everton and England footballer Ross Barkley, who has a Nigerian grandfather, “one of our dimmest footballers” and likened him to “a gorilla at the zoo”.
The paper has suspended MacKenzie, a former Sun editor, and Merseyside Police is investigating him for racism, though he claims he didn’t know of Barkley’s ancestry.

Several commentators express amazement that Sun editors allowed such tripe to be published. It was not, I think, a mistake. Britain has no equivalent of America’s successful alt-right Breitbart website, disruptively flinging insults at all and sundry and testing the boundaries of what it calls “political correctness”, because our alt right is already established in the Sun, Express and Mail. To defend their position, those papers will continue to be as nasty as it takes.

Over and out

Easter is the time to read the cricket annual Wisden and, as usual, I turn first to the obituaries. Unlike newspaper obituaries, they record failures as well as successes – those who managed just a few undistinguished performances in first-class cricket and, most poignantly, some who promised much but died early. We learn of a 22-year-old Indian who, during demonstrations against the alleged molestation of a schoolgirl, was shot dead by police and whose grieving mother (invoking the name of one of India’s greatest batsmen) cried, “Bring my Gavaskar back!” In England, two young men drowned, having played one first-class match each, and a 22-year-old Sussex fast bowler, described as “roguish” and “enormously popular”, fell off a roof while celebrating New Year with friends in Scotland. In South Africa, a young batsman was among five municipal employees killed when their truck crashed; the local mayor fled the funeral as his workmates “chanted menacingly” about unpaid wages.

Among the better-known deaths is that of Martin Crowe, probably New Zealand’s best batsman. In a Test match, he once got out on 299 and reckoned the near-miss contributed to the cancer that killed him at 53. “It tore at me like a vulture pecking dead flesh,” he said. Cricket can do that kind of thing to you. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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