In Kazakhstan, Snap Parliamentary Elections Provide an Unexpected Window of Opportunity for Civic Engagement

Civil society looks to capitalize on recent political reforms and new relationships between activists and voters to continue working toward democratic change.

People hold a rally in memory of victims of the recent country-wide unrest triggered by fuel price increase in Almaty, Kazakhstan, February 13, 2022. A banner reads: "People are not terrorists".

People hold a rally in memory of victims of the recent country-wide unrest triggered by fuel price increase in Almaty, Kazakhstan, February 13, 2022. A banner reads: "People are not terrorists". REUTERS/Pavel Mikheyev 

This past March, voters in Kazakhstan headed to the polls for snap parliamentary elections. The elections, which were neither free nor fair, saw Kazakhstan’s ruling party, Amanat, retain its majority,  further entrenching the authoritarian regime of President Qasym-Jomart Toqaev. Unexpectedly, however, recent political reforms enabled independent candidates to use the campaign period to build their legitimacy, expand their audiences, and engage meaningfully with the public ahead of the elections.

Flawed elections are business as usual in Kazakhstan, which is rated Not Free in our Freedom in the World 2023 report. Independent observers frequently report electoral irregularities, including ballot box stuffing, group and proxy voting, and the manipulation of voter lists; independent candidates face significant obstacles in registering their candidacy; and the ruling party benefits from a blurred distinction between the party and the state. Such irregularities again marred this year’s parliamentary elections. An election observation mission conducted by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) reported that the transparency of the election was undermined by “significant procedural irregularities” in the vote-counting process.  As in the past, in-country independent observers reported numerous electoral violations and independent candidates rejected the election results, claiming that election commissions had illegitimately skewed the results to favor progovernment candidates.

Despite these widespread electoral irregularities and the overwhelming victory of the ruling Amanat party, OSCE observers noted that recent reforms provided more choice for voters in the March polls. These reforms were introduced by President Toqaev following the widespread violence of January 2022, which saw Kazakhstani authorities use excessive force to suppress nationwide protests. Significantly, the reforms—which were purportedly intended to address the root causes of the protests and boost the country’s democratization—allow for self-nominated independent and opposition candidates to stand for election to the parliament and local councils. Because of these reforms, many more independent-minded candidates were able to contest the March elections than in the past, increasing the competitiveness of the polls.

While President Toqaev’s gestures towards reform stopped well short of providing for a truly democratic election, they did allow independent and opposition candidates to campaign. These independent election campaigns, however unsuccessful in achieving their immediate electoral goals, have opened the door for candidates to directly engage with citizens. What sets these campaigns apart from Toqaev’s proclaimed “listening state” is that many independent candidates made actively reaching out to the people and listening to their grievances and suggestions a key component of their electoral campaigns. During the month-long campaign period, independent candidates held hundreds of in-person discussions with voters. In Uralsk, independent journalist and parliamentary candidate Lukpan Ahmediyarov hosted around 40 sessions with area residents, campaigning on the promise that if elected, he would push legislation protecting people’s rights and their control over the executive branch.   

Importantly, the campaign period ahead of March’s snap parliamentary elections gave independent candidates—many of whom came from civil society—a chance to expand their audiences beyond those they had previously reached. The challenge now is for these civic activists to deepen their connection with their existing audiences, finding opportunities for their newly acquired allies to channel their energy and enthusiasm on issues of public concern, while also continuing to grow their reach. If they succeed, networks of civically engaged citizens who trust one another could ultimately become a driving force for democratic change in the country. 

Direct engagement tactics have repeatedly proven successful in the region over the past 20 years. In Ukraine, for example, reformist candidate Viktor Yushchenko successfully used a direct engagement approach to develop the networks of civic and political activists that played a crucial role in organizing the mass protests that helped him win the country’s presidency in 2004. Similarly, Russian opposition figure Aleksey Navalny used a grassroots communication strategy to engage people from across Russia’s regions in the wave of political and civil protests seen throughout the country in 2019. Although the 2019 protests did not achieve democratic change in Russia, Navalny’s inclusion of people outside of Russia’s biggest cities was the right approach: some analysts’ research indicates that it takes a critical mass of 3.5 percent of a population engaged in sustained nonviolent resistance to yield serious political reform.

While campaigning for the March parliamentary elections, independent electoral candidates from Kazakhstan’s civil society earned political capital in the form of a new audience. As these connections are strengthened, people will grow to trust each other more and understand each other better, allowing them to identify their common problems and mobilize to solve them together. Now, it is time for this group of candidates to think strategically and to capitalize on the new relationships that they have developed with the public in order to continue working to bring about change in the country.