The Republic of Kazakhstan 2019 election: Not our democracy but a democracy all the same

People in the Western world really don’t know what repression is. It’s evident in our discourse on political issues when the words dictator and tyrant are used as low-brow insults directed at countries without much thought to the meaning these words carry.

Few understand what real repression is, nor can they comprehend its effect on the minds and livelihoods of those who live under oppression. Step off a resort in Cuba and see firsthand the despair that comes with a lack of political and economic freedom.

Many non-western liberal democracies are evolving into democratic systems using an authoritarian approach to transition. This model exhibits a Confucius-like take on the democratic system where citizens are responsible to the state and vice versa. There is more power in the hands of the state, yet citizens can still vote in elections and have most of the economic benefits and freedoms expected in western democracies.

During the 2019 presidential election, I witnessed this hybrid system for the first time in the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan had not held a democratic election without former President Nursultan Nazarbayev as the candidate since it declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. He ruled for three decades as a strongman and was not shy to use the force of the state to crack down on unrest and protest. He was admired for his ability to navigate the country towards a free-market society from a socialist/communist single market state.  His policies ensured Kazakhstan became a democratic, multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural state where different nationalities live in relative harmony — something that was far from inevitable after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Nazarbayev instituted a parliamentary system with legislative power vested in the government and the chambers of parliament: the Assembly (Mazhilis) and the Senate (Senaty). The president is elected separately and is the commander in chief of the armed forces, and has the authority to veto legislation passed by the Parliament.  

When Nazarbayev resigned in March 2019, he appointed a successor Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Pre-election day in the capital, life seemed to be rolling along as normal despite the vast shake to the political system. People appeared content and wandered the capital of Nur-Sultan freely. Western clothing brands and iPhones were ubiquitous. At the large shopping mall in Nur-Sultan, the Khan Shatyr, the country’s prosperity was evident everywhere. It felt as if I was in any other Western nation. People freely approached me asking where I was from, what was I doing in Kazakhstan, and how I was liking the country? A taxi driver in broken English told me of his intention to vote for the Communist Peoples Party.

June 9, 2019 was election day. I watched former President Nazarbayev cast his vote in front of hundreds of international journalists at the Youth Palace (a large and aggressively modern community centre). I also witnessed a couple dozen Kazakhs vote.

Later in the day the Youth Palace would become the focal point for demonstrations that saw a wave of mass arrests. Initial reports referred to several hundred being arrested, but the Associated Press would later report that   four thousand were detained nationwide, while videos from the BBC showed paramilitaries in camouflage uniforms dragging away some protestors.

Unaware of the upheaval, I interviewed the first female presidential candidate running for the Ak Zhol Party, Dania Espaeva. She was full hope for the legitimacy of the elections even though she would only garner around five per cent of the overall vote. As I left Kazakhstan following the election, I saw a large column of military vehicles leaving the capital as I headed to the airport. These were the military troops who were likely called to the capital to deal with the protest I narrowly missed.

Tokayev won the elections with 70 per cent of the vote — not a Vladimir Putin-like super majority in the 90 per cent range but a margin far higher than any Western democratic election and one that might have skeptical Westerners questioning the election integrity. In an interview President Tokayev said that those protesting over social issues would be released, and those that broke the law would be prosecuted. It is interesting that his comments were so straight forward.  They were an acknowledgment of the arrests, not a denial.

I don’t doubt that there are transitional problems in Kazakhstan with their democratic system. The videos of the crackdown on demonstrators show it plain and simple. However, I don’t believe calling the state a dictatorship or undemocratic is fair nor accurate. I did not witness a repression imbedded in the mentality of the Kazakh people like I saw it in Cuba. 

If a Kazakh was to see footage of the mass illegal arrests of thousands of Canadian citizens at the 2010 Toronto G20 there would be very little to contrast with the presidential election arrests in Kazakhstan. The people elected Tokayev president because he represents the continuation of Nazarbayev’s political stability and the growing prosperity of the Kazakhstan people.

It may not be westernized model but it is still a democracy, albeit Asian-styled and more authoritarian.