Voters in Kazakhstan will cast ballots Sunday after a short but active campaign for seats in the lower house of parliament that is being reconfigured in the wake of deadly unrest that gripped the resource-rich Central Asian nation a year ago.
The snap election comes on the third anniversary of the resignation as president of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had led Kazakhstan since independence following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and who had established immense influence. His successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, was widely expected to continue Nazarbayev's authoritarian course and even renamed the capital as Nur-Sultan in his predecessor's honor.
But the country's political landscape changed markedly after a wave of violence in January 2022 when provincial protests initially sparked by a fuel price hike engulfed other cities, notably the commercial capital, Almaty, and became overtly political as demonstrators shouted “Old man out!” in reference to Nazarbayev. More than 220 people, mostly protesters, died as police harshly put down the unrest.
Amid the violence, Tokayev removed Nazarbayev from his powerful post as head of the national security council. He restored the capital’s previous name of Astana, and the parliament repealed a law granting Nazarbayev and his family immunity from prosecution.
Tokayev also initiated reforms to strengthen the parliament, reduce presidential powers and limit the presidency to a single seven-year term. Under the reforms, a third of the lower house of parliament's 98 seats will be chosen in single-mandate races rather than by party list.
Tokayev's Amanat party holds the overwhelming majority of seats in the current parliament and the rest belong to parties that are largely loyal to Amanat. Although opinion surveys indicate that Amanat will remain the largest party in the new parliament, the likely final balance is unclear.
More than 400 candidates, most of them self-nominated, are competing in the single-mandate races, and the national elections commission authorized two additional parties to enter the proportional contest.
The widened competition appears to have energized the electorate.
Although electioneering was allowed to start only in mid-February, “the campaign so far appears lively, in particular online and in the single-mandate electoral districts with a large number of candidates,” said an assessment from the elections observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Candidates have raised a wide array of issues including further political reforms, housing and rising food prices, and the country does not show a clear path forward. But many are encouraged by the expanded election opportunity.
“There is hope that the upcoming parliamentary election that will be held under the new mixed electoral system will bring change and facilitate democratization and political liberalization in Kazakhstan,” analyst Assel Nussopova wrote for the Astana Times newspaper.