Kazakhstan Set for Presidential Election, Amid Internal Turmoil, Regional Instability
A member of a local election commission prepares a polling station in Astana on November 19, 2022, a day before Kazakhstan's snap presidential elections. (VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO / AFP) (Photo by VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP via Getty Images)

Kazakhstan Set for Presidential Election, Amid Internal Turmoil, Regional Instability

69-year-old incumbent Tokayev touts himself as a reformist who can unite the country, but many activists warn that the government is cracking down on dissent 

[Astana] Kazakhstan goes to the polls on Sunday for a snap presidential election that incumbent President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is expected to win and cement his grip on power. About 12 million people are eligible to vote.

The 69-year-old Tokayev, who became president in 2019, has touted himself as a reformist leader capable of uniting the country. He has stymied opposition and consolidated power, pushing aside his authoritarian predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev.

The vote comes 10 months after deadly protests that began over fuel prices rocked the Central Asian country and left more than 230 people dead.

“The tragic events in January played a crucial role for the steps that followed,” Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to Israel and Cyprus Satybaldy Burshakov told The Media Line. 

Kazakhstan’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Roman Vassilenko and State Counsellor Erlan Karin speaking in Astana, Nov. 18 2022. (Dario Sanchez)

The opposition says the country is suffering from deep economic and social inequality and nepotism, while the incumbent has vowed to build “a new Kazakhstan” by liberalizing the judicial system, tackling corruption and undertaking reforms.

The country also has a huge gap between rich and poor, where 60% of the nation’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of just 162 people, according to Ambassador Burshakov. 

Burshakov says the president’s priority is to bring “more economic equality” to the people. “It’s a fight against oligarchy,” he says. 

These elections and the expected results will only bolster Tokayev’s grip on power and solidify his ambitions to stay in power.

Tokayev has introduced constitutional reforms to curb the powers of the president by limiting the term to seven years, saying he needed a “new mandate of trust from the people.”

“Stability is the main priority, and the other is keeping the territorial unity of the country,” says Burshakov. 

However, many in the opposition say these reforms and initiatives were introduced and backed by the elites with little public support. 

None of the five other candidates standing against Tokayev are well known. Nor do they pose any threat to his chances of victory. 

Government officials are hailing the election as an historic event that will help transform the country.

Byrganym Aitimova, deputy chair of the Council of Senators advisory body, and former deputy prime minister and ambassador to Israel, told The Media Line that she wants all Kazakhs to turn out to vote. 

“Our future should be quiet, peaceful, bright and prosperous,” she said. 

“In this period of time Kazakhstan is stable and has faith in the future of our country,” Aitimova said. “We decided that our unity and patriotic feeling to reach a quiet and peaceful country is the most important issue for our people, especially for our future.” 

But despite the official enthusiasm for the election, many activists warn that the government is cracking down on dissent. 

Anastasiya Zhyrmont, Eastern Europe and Central Asia Regional Outreach Coordinator at Access Now, accused the government of trying to curtail people’s ability to criticize it. 

She told The Media Line that “internet shutdowns are not only a violation of human rights tenders themselves, but they also serve as a cover to other human rights abuses, including police brutality against protesters.”

L-R: Members of Kazakhstan’s Council of Senators Dulat Kustavletov, Kuanysh Sultanov and Georgiy Kim speaking in Astana, Nov. 18 2022. (Dario Sanchez)

Zhyrmont said that the internet is one of the few platforms opposition members can use to express their opinion and that limiting access to the internet would have negative consequences for the people.

“This is why our main concern is not only free, secure and open access to the internet during the election period, but also free elections themselves and the absence of any violence [towards] those who might exercise the right to freedom of peaceful assembly to challenge the results of those elections,” said Zhyrmont.

A former part of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan and Russia share the world’s second-longest border. Astana also has close security and economic partnerships with Moscow. 

Tokayev criticized Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 but stopped short of joining Western sanctions on Russia. 

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