Domestic politics

While there remains some scope for independent political activity in Kazakhstan, the country has gradually evolved into a presidential dictatorship. The first post-independence parliament was dissolved in 1993, and for the next two years Nazarbayev held unlimited power.

Only after the adoption by referendum in 1995 of a new constitution that greatly increased the president's powers was a new parliament elected. The same referendum extended Nazarbayev's term in office to 2000.

Media acquired by President's daughter

In 1997, Nazarbayev’s control over the media was tightened. The President’s son-in-law Rakhat Aliev gained control over the popular newspaper Karavan. Dariga Nazarbayeva, the President’s daughter, had already acquired much of the country’s media. The remaining independent (mainly print) media began to suffer harassment and intimidation. Journalists who exposed top-level corruption involving oil money were arrested on doubtful charges.

Restrictive provisions in a draft media law aroused international concern. Nazarbayev signed a law tightening government control over the media in 2006.

Political opposition

Opposition parties that are not considered capable of winning power, such as the Communist Party of Kazakhstan (CPK), are tolerated. However, action is taken to block the activity of parties that are thought to pose a serious challenge to Nazarbayev, such as the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan and the Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan (RPPK) of former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin. Unknown assailants have beaten opposition leaders. The law on political parties passed in 2002 set such high requirements for parties' participation in elections that few parties can satisfy them.

1999 presidential elections

Presidential elections finally took place in January 1999. Nazarbayev won 81% of the vote. His sole opponent, Serikbolsyn Abdildin of the CPK, got 12%. Former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin was not allowed to run, and was later charged with corruption during his time in office. Although he took refuge abroad, he was tried in his absence in 2001 and found guilty. The OSCE expressed doubts concerning the fairness of the trial and the impartiality of the court.

1999 parliamentary elections

The pro-presidential Otan (Fatherland) Republican Party came in first in the 1999 parliamentary elections with 31% of the vote, and the CPK second with 18%.

Only two non-communist opposition parties were allowed to take part: the Azamat Democratic Party, which received 5% of the vote, and the Kazakh nationalist party Alash, which received 3%. Neither was able to enter parliament, for which a minimum of 7% was required.

The OSCE, which opened a “centre” in Almaty in1999, commented that the election was far from meeting international standards but was nonetheless "a step toward democracy."

2004 parliamentary elections

Pro-presidential parties won a strong majority in the elections for the Mazhilis (lower house of parliament). The pro-presidential Otan won 43 seats, the newer pro-presidential Asar four seats, and the pro-presidential AIST bloc of the Civic and Agrarian Parties 11 seats. The moderate opposition party Ak Zhol won one seat. Seventeen independents also won election to the 77-member Mazhilis. The OSCE saw some improvements over past elections, but the electoral process fell short of OSCE commitments and international standards.

Ak Zhol party leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev was given a ministerial post in Nazarbayev’s government but resigned it, as well as his parliamentary seat, to protest alleged fraud in the elections. Ak Zhol did not fill its seat in parliament until 2006.

Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga had less political success. Her Asar party fared poorly in the 2004 elections. She led a merger of the Asar and Otan Parties in 2006, signaling her continuing ambitions.

2005 presidential election

In August 2005, the Constitutional Council resolved a dispute on the scheduling of the presidential election and ordered it held in December. Five candidates were officially registered, including former parliamentary chairman and head of the opposition bloc For a Just Kazakhstan Zharmakhan Tuyakbai (who broke with the ruling party after the 2004 parliamentary elections) and Ak Zhol leader, Alikhan Baimenov.

The Constitutional Council also overruled a law proposed by parliament aimed at tightening restrictions on the activities of nongovernmental organizations. Nonetheless, Nazarbayev warned that foreign-sponsored NGOs, in particular, would be closely monitored to ensure their compliance with state law.

Nazarbayev landslide

Nazarbayev won an overwhelming victory in the December presidential election, with official results giving him more than 90% of the vote with a 70% turnout. The OSCE stated the elections had failed to meet a number of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections.

Political violence

Opposition Naghyz Ak Zhol party co-chairman Altynbek Sarsenbaev and two aides were found murdered outside of Almaty in 2006. Five members of the National Security Committee’s (KNB) special forces unit were arrested for involvement, and the head of the Senate administration was arrested as the alleged ringleader. In the aftermath, KNB head Nartai Dutbaev resigned. Sarsenbaev’s murder came three months after the death of Zamanbek Nurkadilov, who had accused Nazarbayev of corruption and had threatened to publish evidence proving his accusation.

Observers remain skeptical that all the facts regarding these murders have been revealed.

Nazarbayev falls out with son-in-law

Tensions between Nazarbayev and his son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev exploded in 2007. Aliyev was accused of involvement in the kidnapping of two Kazakh bankers, and his KTK television channel was taken off the air and Karavan newspaper closed for three months. He was fired from his post as Kazakh Ambassador to Austria. His wife, Dariga Nazarbayeva, divorced him. Finally, Kazakh authorities issued an international arrest warrant for Aliyev, allegedly for running an organized crime network and for the reported kidnapping. An Austrian court decided against Aliev’s extradition.

Presidential term limit removed

Meanwhile, Nazarbayev proposed a series of constitutional amendments, most importantly, removing term limits for the sitting president (i.e., himself). The package quickly passed parliament and was signed by Nazarbayev, enabling him to remain as president for as long as he wishes.

2007 parliamentary elections

The election created a one-party parliament. Nazarbayev’s Nur-Otan Party won all 98 seats at stake, with a reported 88% of the vote. None of the other six parties contesting the elections passed the 7% threshold. Another 9 seats in parliament were chosen by the appointed Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan, which represents the country’s ethnic groups.

The OSCE/ODIHR International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) reported that these elections reflected welcome progress in the pre-election process and during the conduct of the vote. Nevertheless, a number of OSCE commitments and Council of Europe standards were not met, namely in the legislation and vote counting process. The vote count was not transparent, and the counting process was assessed negatively in 43% of polling stations visited. A wide range of irregularities was observed, according to the IEOM.

2011 early presidential election

After a proposed referendum to extend his presidential term to 2020 was strongly criticized in the West, Nazarbayev moved up the election scheduled for 2012. He reportedly garnered 95.5% of the vote on a turnout of 89.5%. The opposition boycotted the vote.

The OSCE/ODIHR International Observation Mission reported that in order to hold genuine democratic elections, reform was needed as this election revealed shortcomings similar to those previously noted. The election was technically well administered according to the IOM, but the absence of opposition candidates and lack of vibrant political discourse created a non-competitive environment.

Nazarbayev issued a decree in late 2011 to dissolve the lower house of parliament (Mazhilis) and hold early elections in January. The apparent goal was to have a new parliament that looked less like a one-party rubber stamp for the regime. Changes in the election law in 2009 provided that minimums of only two parties are needed to form a parliament.

2011 Labor dispute goes violent
Government's lessons learned
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Clashes between strikers and police in Zhanaozen (PaulMurphy.MEP.EU Blog)

A 7-month strike by oil workers for higher pay and better working conditions in the western Kazakhstan city of Zhanaozen was followed by the dismissal of 2,000 workers by the state oil firm KazMunaiGaz. In turn, widespread rioting erupted resulting in the deaths of at least 16 persons, injuries to over a hundred, and widespread arson and damage in the city.

Nazarbayev reemployed the fired workers, prosecuted the rioters and police for the use of disproportionate force, prosecuted officials for corruption, and fired senior regional and industry officials, including his son-in-law Timur Kulibayev (considered a candidate for prime minister and even a possible successor to Nazarbayev), who headed the Samruk-Kazyna investment fund, which owns KazMunaiGaz.

Since then, the government has acted quickly to prevent labor disputes from escalating.  The government's lessons learned were to include local officials in labor dispute resolution; curb corruption; implement broader-based economic development of one-industry towns; and improve training for police.

2012 parliamentary elections

Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan Party won an overwhelming majority of 83 of the Mazhilis’ 93-seats in the January election. The only other parties to win seats were Ak Zhoi with 8 and the Communist People’s Party with 7 seats; neither could be considered an opposition party.

The OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission reported that the election failed to meet fundamental principles of democratic elections. For example, political parties were refused registration; parties were de-registered, as were candidates. The processing of election results also lacked transparency.

In August 2012 the trial of Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unofficial political party Alga ,began. Kozlov was accused of orchestrating dissent among striking oil workers leading up to the deadly rioting that took place in Zhanaozen. He was sentenced in Ocotober 2012 to seven and a half years in prison.

Nazarbayev's successor?

Should the 73-year old Nazarbayev leave the political scene,  the formal successor would be the speaker of the Senate, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, a former foreign minister, appointed by Nazarbayev in July 2013.  Since Tokayev has already served in this capacity, some consider him more of a neutral and transitional figure than a prospective contender to take on Nazarbayev's mantle. 

If the next president is going to come from the current political elite, the best known contenders are Nurtai Abykaev, a long-time Nazarbayev confidant; Karim Masimov, Kazakhstan’s longest running prime minister and now chief of the President’s office; Timur Kulibaev, Nazarbayev’s son-in-law and a powerful figure in the oil and gas industry, and Imangali Tasmagambetov, who has successfully run the country’s two largest cities, Almaty and Astana.

Elections for Senate in Ocober 2014

A formal electoral process will be held October 1 for senators to represent each of Kazakhstan's 16 regions.  Nomination of candidates will be completed by August 31; candidate registration will be open until September 11; and a campaign will be held September 12-29.  In practice, however, this will be a tightly controlled process.