Voters in Kazakhstan go to the polls on Sunday in a snap election that looks likely to return the incumbent president to power, in an election described by the OSCE as “low-stakes”.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who faced a bloody outpouring of unrest earlier this year and then moved to marginalize some of the Central Asian country’s longtime powerful figures, appears certain to win another term against little-known challengers.
Five candidates are on the ballot against Tokaev, but with the short campaign period beginning at the end of October, they have had few opportunities for significant challenges. Tokayev, apparently confident of a strong lead, stayed away from the nationally televised election debate.
The election for the seven-year term comes as Tokayev has taken steps to distance Kazakhstan from longtime ally and dominant regional power Russia. He pointedly said that the country does not recognize the Ukrainian regions that Russia declared as sovereign states at the beginning of the conflict that began when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
Kazakhstan has taken in hundreds of thousands of Russians who fled after President Vladimir Putin issued a recruitment order in September.
When Tokayev became president in 2019 following the resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev, many expected him to continue the authoritarian course of the man who has led the resource-rich country since it gained independence from the Soviet Union. Nazarbayev remained highly influential as head of the National Security Council, and the capital was renamed Nur-Sultan in his honor.
Then a wave of violence rocked the country in January, when provincial protests initially fueled by rising fuel prices spread to other cities, notably the commercial capital Almaty, and turned openly political as protesters chanted “Old people out!” in relation to Nazarbayev. More than 220 people, mostly protesters, died as the police cracked down on the unrest.
In the midst of the violence, Tokayev removed Nazarbayev from his seat on the Security Council. He restored the capital’s previous name Astana, and Kazakhstan’s parliament repealed a law granting Nazarbayev and his family immunity from prosecution.
Tokayev later pushed through reforms that included strengthening parliament, reducing presidential powers and limiting presidential terms to one seven-year term — meaning he could remain in office until 2029 if he wins Sunday’s election.
“There may be optimism when it comes to (Tokayev’s) promise to reform the political system, although concerns remain that Tokayev will ultimately prioritize his own interests — and the interests of other elites — over the goal of democratization,” analyst Temur Umarov wrote in a commentary for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Some critics have suggested that early elections for the seven-year term are less an effort toward genuine reform than an attempt by Tokayev to extend his time in office; his current term would end in 2024.
A report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s election observation mission said that “despite the fact that candidates have started holding meetings across the country … the campaign has so far been low-key and has generated little interest and debate.”