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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.