Officials in Astana, Kazakhstan announced Monday that voters had predictably reelected President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has helmed the Central Asian post-Soviet republic since it became independent in 1991. Nazarbayev won a reported 97.7% of the vote — a numerical landslide that rivals those seen in the world’s most anti-democratic republics.
After the votes were counted, Nazarbayev addressed the Kazakh people on national television. Anticipating a skeptical Western reaction, he said: “I apologize if these numbers are unacceptable for the superdemocratic countries, but there was nothing I could do…if I had interfered, it would have been undemocratic.” (In fact, Kazakhstan has never held an election deemed free and fair by international observers.)
Nazarbayev ran in Monday’s snap elections practically unopposed. While two other candidates technically challenged him, they poised themselves as supporters of the Nazarbayev government and their ability to campaign was limited by state-backed censorship. As one female voter in Astana explained to AFP, “Of course I voted for Nazarbayev…who are the other two?”
Despite the sense of confidence relayed by Nazarbayev in his victory — and his able grip on the country — there are nonetheless reasons to believe there could be cracks below the surface. For one thing, Monday’s snap elections were held around one year ahead of schedule and analysts suspect Nazarvayev’s unease could have been the cause.
For several years, Kazakhstan underwent a fabled rise — its oil wealth primed it for a privileged position relative to other Central Asian republics of the post-USSR, and Nazarbayev’s heavy investment into the new capital of Astana gave the city a “wow-factor” in global business. Its geopolitically significant placement between China and Russia led Kazakhstan to be wooed by both rising giants at once, leading to an influx of cash, infrastructure and development.
But in 2015, officials in Astana are decidedly less optimistic about their prospects than they were a mere year ago. The falling price of oil on the global market has been especially hard-hitting in countries whose economies are heavily reliant on oil exports. Kazakhstan’s currency has undergone recent devaluations, leading the countries new rising classes to default on loans and lose their new assets. Furthermore, Russia’s continuing entanglement in the sectarian issues of eastern Ukraine surely perturb observers, who are well aware that Kazakhstan’s 25% Russian minority could be regarded as a vested interest by the Kremlin. In light of these factors, it is likely Nazarbayev pushed for early elections to reaffirm the nation’s stability.
The lack of free expression or transparent polling makes it tough to measure the degree to which Nazarbayev’s victory is genuinely supported by the Kazakh people. But even among the most enthusiastic Nazarbayev fans, an uncomfortable truth looms: at the age of 74, Nazarbayev has yet to ordain a successor, hinting at eventual conflicts over the transfer of power. (This anxiety began brewing in earnest in 2011, when it was rumored that Nazarbayev was secretly smuggled to Germany for a clandestine surgery.) Nazarbayev’s long rule has afforded Kazakhstan a degree of stability, albeit at the expense of democratic liberties. But can it last?