Kazakh Leader Seeks Reset After Riots With Parliament Ballot

Kazakhstan holds parliamentary elections on Sunday in what President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has called the last stage of a government “reset” in response to last year’s deadly riots.

(Bloomberg) — Kazakhstan holds parliamentary elections on Sunday in what President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has called the last stage of a government “reset” in response to last year’s deadly riots. 

Seven parties, including two newly-registered ones, are competing for 69 party-list seats in the 98-member parliament, with the remainder filled by the winners of new single-mandate contests that are part of Tokayev’s shake-up of the legislature. Polls open at 7 a.m. and are scheduled to close at 8 p.m.

The elections will provide a “mandate to continue in-depth reforms,” Tokayev told heads of local administrations on March 13. “Reforms must, first of all, create a new political culture in society.”

The president brought forward the vote in central Asia’s largest energy producer from 2025 as he moved to dismantle the legacy of his long-serving predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev following the unrest in January last year that Tokayev denounced as an attempted coup. He called in Russian troops to help put down the violence then revised the constitution to restrict the presidency to only one seven-year term before winning 81% in snap elections in November.

At 2021 parliamentary elections, the ruling Nur Otan party founded by Nazarbayev won 76 seats. It changed its name to Amanat last year.

The elections may produce a move “away from the monopoly of the ruling party and toward a parliamentary coalition” that would still be fully controlled by the presidential administration, said George Voloshin, a Paris-based analyst at ACAMS, an anti-financial crime body. “Nothing will change in substance,” even as Tokayev is no longer a member of the ruling party, he said.

The campaign “appears lively,” with candidates focused mainly on “social and economic issues, including rising food prices,” as well as the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine and questions of sovereignty, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a March 3 report. 

“After criticism of the presidential elections in November 2022 by the OSCE, President Tokayev is keen to create the illusion of a more competitive parliamentary election process,” said Kate Mallinson, founder of Prism Political Risk Management in London. 

‘Rubber-Stamp Mechanism’

“The government is carefully curating which candidates enter parliament to ensure that, ultimately, as under his predecessor, President Nazarbayev, parliament will remain a rubber-stamp mechanism for the executive,” Mallinson said.

Tokayev refused to back Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has sought to strengthen ties to the European Union and the US to try to reduce Kazakhstan’s dependence on Moscow. 

He held talks in Astana with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month and has offered to boost energy supplies to the EU as the bloc rejects Russian oil and gas.

“We are not likely to see much of a role for parliament” in Tokayev’s policies after the elections, said Chris Tooke, director of political risk at J.S. Held, a global consulting firm. While there may be “limited progress” on issues such as privatization and liberalizing prices, “the temptation to keep a strong hold over political and economic life will still be” powerful, he said. 

(Updates with analyst comments in eighth paragraph)

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