Kazakhstan votes in snap elections a year after deadly unrest

Voters in Kazakhstan will head to the polls on Sunday, casting their ballots in a snap election, the first since deadly unrest seized the resource-rich Central Asian nation a year ago.

The vote comes after a short but active campaign for seats in the reconfigured lower house of parliament and falls on the third anniversary of Nursultan Nazarbayev stepping down as speaker.

Nazarbayev had ruled Kazakhstan since independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and had established immense influence. It was expected that his successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, would continue Nazarbayev’s authoritarian course and even rename the capital Nur-Sultan in honor of his predecessor.

But the country’s political landscape changed dramatically after a wave of violence in January 2022, when provincial protests initially sparked by a fuel price hike engulfed other cities, including the commercial capital, Almaty, and turned overtly political. as protesters shouted “Old man out! in reference to Nazarbayev.

More than 220 people, mostly protesters, died as police cracked down hard on the unrest.

Amid the violence, Tokayev removed Nazarbayev from his powerful post as head of the National Security Council. He restored the capital’s former name, Astana, and parliament repealed a law granting Nazarbayev and his family immunity from prosecution.

Tokayev also launched reforms to strengthen parliament, reduce presidential powers and limit the presidency to a single seven-year term. Under the reforms, a third of the 98 seats in the lower house of parliament will be chosen in single-mandate races rather than by party list.

Tokayev’s Amanat party holds the overwhelming majority of seats in the current parliament, and the rest are held by parties largely loyal to Amanat. Although opinion polls indicate that Amanat will remain the largest party in the new parliament, the likely end result is unclear.

More than 400 mostly self-proclaimed candidates are competing in the single-mandate races, and the national election commission has allowed two additional parties to participate in the proportional vote.

The expanded competition appears to have energized the electorate.

Although the election campaign was only allowed to begin in mid-February, “campaigning appears lively so far, particularly online and in single-mandate constituencies with large numbers of candidates”, according to an assessment by the Organisation’s election observation mission. for security and cooperation in Europe.

The candidates have raised a wide range of issues, including further political reform, housing and rising food prices, and the country is not showing a clear path forward. But many are encouraged by the broadening of electoral opportunities.

“There is hope that the upcoming parliamentary elections to be held under the new mixed electoral system will bring change and facilitate democratization and political liberalization in Kazakhstan,” analyst Assel Nussopova wrote for the Astana newspaper. Times.

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