On 20 March 2016 parliamentary elections were held in Kazakhstan.
The elections were originally scheduled for much later in the year but in January 2016 a group of MPs asked President Nursultan Nazarbayev to bring the vote forward. The official explanation for the early elections was the necessity to cope with the economic crisis. The prevailing opinion among political analysts and observers was that the regime expected the economic situation in late 2016 to deteriorate further and, scheduling the election for March was designed to make sure that the main pro-presidential party, Nur Otan, wins the elections with a big margin.
On 22 March 2016 the election results were announced. Nur Otan indeed obtained around 82%. The Communist People’s Party and Democratic Ak Zhol Party, both positioning themselves as ‘constructive opposition’ obtained around 7% each. The same parties were present in the previous parliament. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) stated that the ‘elections were efficiently organised…but Kazakhstan still has a considerable way to go in meeting its OSCE commitments for democratic elections’. The main point of criticism was the absence of real political competition.
Neither the election results nor the OSCE’s criticism surprised the public. What came as a surprise was a statement, made by Nazarbayev on the day of the election. He told the media that the political system in Kazakhstan should be changed, ‘the presidential political system functions, now power can be re-distributed between the president, the parliament and the cabinet …we think about this, when this will happen depends upon the situation in the economy, in the world, within the country…if it is the people’s will that the system must be changed, then we will seriously think about it’.
Political reform was not mentioned in Nazarbayev’s ‘100 steps’ programme, which he announced at the time of his re-election as president in 2015. Instead, the programme focused on administrative, legal and economic reforms. However, the economic crisis which hit Kazakhstan in late 2015 apparently highlighted the need for political reforms as well. It seems likely that any reforms to the political system will begin only after the economic situation in Kazakhstan has stabilised, which to a significant degree depends upon the oil price. Nazarbayev’s announcement appears to indicate that he is aware of the succession problem (i.e. who will become the next president) and is ready to change the political system if necessary in order to ensure stability.