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 his latest reshuffle, who’s who on Donald Trump’s campaign team?

Following a number of personnel shake-ups, here is a guide to who’s in and who’s out of the Republican candidate’s campaign team.

Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, stepped down last week. A man as controversial as Trump himself, he has departed following the announcement last Wednesday of a new campaign manager and CEO for Team Trump. Manafort had only been in the post for two months, following another campaign team reshuffle by Trump back in June.

In order to keep up with the cast changes within Team Trump, here’s the low-down of who is who in the Republican candidate’s camp, and who-was-who before they, for one reason or another, fell out of favour.

IN

Kellyanne Conway, campaign manager

Kellyane Conway is a Republican campaign manager with a history of clients who do a line in outlandish statements. Former Missouri Congressman Todd Akin, whose campaign Conway managed in 2012, is infamous for his comments on “legitimate rape”.

Despite losing that campaign, Conway’s experiences with outspoken male candidates should stand her in good stead to run Trump’s bid. She is already credited with somewhat tempering his rhetoric, through the use of pre-written speeches, teleprompters and his recent apology, although he has since walked that back.

Conway is described as an expert in delivering messages to female voters and has had her own polling outfit, The Polling Firm/WomanTrend for over 20 years and supported Ted Cruz’s campaign before he was vanquished by Trump in May. Her strategy will include praising Trump on TV and trying to craft an image of him as a dependable candidate without diminishing his outlier appeal.

She recently told MSNBC, “I think you should judge people by their actions, not just their words on a campaign trail”. Given that Trump’s campaign pledges, particularly those on immigration, veer towards the completely unworkable, one wonders what else besides words he actually has to offer.

Perhaps Conway, with her experience of attempting to repackage gaffes will be the one to tell us. Conway also told TIME magazine that there is “no question” that Trump is a better candidate than Hillary Clinton. Given Trump’s frightening comments on abortion, to name just one issue, it’s difficult to see how this would prove true.

Stephen Bannon, campaign CEO

While Conway may bring a more thoughtful, considered touch to Trump’s hitherto frenetic campaigning, Stephen Bannon promises to bring just the opposite.

Bannon is executive chairman of right-wing media outlet Breitbart, also the online home of British alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Once described by Bloomberg as “the most dangerous political operative in America”, the ex-Goldman Sachs banker can only be expected to want to up Trump’s rhetoric as the election approaches to maintain his radical edge.

Trump has explicitly stated that: “I don’t wanna change. I mean, you have to be you. If you start pivoting, you’re not being honest with people”.

As Bannon leads a news site with sometimes as outlandish and insensitive views as Trump himself, one can safely assume that Bannon will have no problem letting Trump “be himself”.

The Trump Brood, advisers

While his employed advisers come and go, the people that have been unwaveringly loyal to Trump, and play key advisory roles, are his four adult children: Donald Jr, 38, Ivanka, 34, Erik 22 and Tiffany, 22. With personalities as colourful as their father’s, the Trump children have been close to the campaign since its inception.

Donald Jr personally delivered the bad news to Lewandowski, the younger Trumps describing him as a “control freak”. Although it’s common for the offspring of politicians to take part in their parent’s campaigns (see Chelsea Clinton), in Trump’s case the influence of his children goes undiluted by swathes of professionals. This, despite his actual employed campaign directors being experienced establishment figures, adds credence to the image of Trump’s brand as family-based and folksy, furthering also his criticism of Hillary Clinton as being “crookedly” in the sway of bankers and elites.

Lewandowski’s ultimate downfall has been attributed to his attempts to spread negative stories in the media about Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and husband of Ivanka. Ivanka and Kushner were long-time critics of Lewandowski for his indulgence and encouragement of Trump’s most divisive instincts, and apparently they were integral to his firing.

Whether any good came from this is hard to discern, as Trump still managed to insult the Muslim community all over again with his comments last month about the late solider Humayun Khan, also insulting veterans and “gold star” families in the process.

OUT

Paul Manafort, former national campaign chair

Although Trump called his departing campaign manager “a true professional”, Manafort has recently been beset by personal controversy and criticised for failing to deliver results. Manafort has taken the blame for the poor polling results that have followed Trump’s awful last few weeks, with Trump’s recent (lacklustre and unspecific) apology representing a complete change of tack.

Despite his many years of experience in politics, Manafort fell out of favour with Trump partly because of his spending on media, such as a $4 radio appearance in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina. Trump was judging these investments worthwhile.

Manafort’s personal cachet was also diminished by his dodgy links to ex-clients including Ukrainian former prime minister, the pro-Russian Victor Yanukovych. As Trump has already racked up a number of Russia-related gaffes, continued association was Manafort would have likely proven electorally unwise.

Corey Lewandowski, former campaign manager

Campaign manager until Trump’s team shake-up in June this year, Lewandowski was not the picture of a calm and collected operative. With a list of antics behind him such as bringing a gun to work and then suing when it was taken away from him and lacking the experience of ever having directed a national race, Lewandowski was a divisive figure from the start of Trump’s bid for the nomination.

Although Lewandowski most often accompanied Trump on the nomination campaign trail, it was Manafort, even then, who was in charge of most of the campaign’s logistics, making use of his 40 plus years of experience to do so.

Trump was clearly taken with Lewandowski’s aggressive campaign techniques, as he stood by him even when Lewandowski was charged with battery against former Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields. Although the charges were later dropped, these kind of stories do not bode well for Conway’s hopes for a more women-friendly Trump.

***

Perhaps this latest round of hiring and firing will do him some good, but with only three weeks to go until absentee voting begins in some states, the new team doesn’t have much time.