After parliamentary elections last weekend, Kazakhstan has become a one-party state. President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s governing Nur Otan (“Ray of Light-Fatherland”) party has won all 98 seats parliament’s lower house with 88 percent of the vote. None of the other parties reached the parliamentary threshold of 7 percent. Nazarbayev called the snap election two years early to allow him to implement constitutional changes to give him unlimited terms of office.
Kazakhstan's two main opposition parties Ak Zhol (Bright Path) who took 3.27 percent and Nationwide Social-Democratic Party who polled 4.62 percent have announced they do not recognise preliminary returns of last Saturday's elections. Ualikhan Kaisarov, the Nationwide Social-Democratic Party's representative in the Central Elections Commission described the elections as "utter profanation". Ak Zhol were equally unimpressed. "They absolutely do not reflect the actual alignment of political forces or the social support they draw,” said Burikhan Nurmukhamedov, a party leader in the Kazakh capital Astana. “These elections are neither a step forward, nor even remaining at standstill.”
The result confirms the power base of 67 year old President Nursultan Nazarbayev who has ruled the country for 16 years since independence. Nazarbayev claims credit for an annual economic growth of almost 10 percent since 2001 and is credited with ensuring the country’s stability. However his critics say he has concentrated power in his family, suppressed the opposition and has failed to deliver free and fair elections.
Kazakhstan was one of the five central Asian nations along with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan that gained independence in 1991 after the break-up of the Soviet Union. All five countries had central planned economies and had no experience of nationhood before being incorporated into the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th century. The Kazakh economy was based on primary products and the country suffered severe disruption in the immediate aftermath of independence. Efforts to keep the ruble as a common currency with the other four nations caused hyper-inflation. It was abandoned at the end of 1993 and replaced by the tenge (the Kazakh word for ‘set of scales’). Kazakhstan initially appeared to take a liberal western path but the president became more autocratic as the decade progressed and the economy took on the look of “crony capitalism” based on favours and influence. Privatisation transferred valuable public assets to a small group and health care declined.
Matters have improved greatly since the turn of the century. Much of this improvement is due to the profits generated by the massive Tengiz oilfield. Formed in 1993, Tengiz is operated by TengizChevroil a joint venture between the Kazakh government oil company and Chevron. The Tengiz field is one of the largest in the world, with 6 to 9 billion barrels of reserves. The field produces 180,000 barrels a day, most of which is exported through the Russian pipeline system to Novorossiysk. Exports from Tengiz are expected to increase to 1.3 million barrels per day by 2010.
Nazarbayev is now aiming to make Kazakhstan one of the world's top 10 oil exporters in the next seven years and wants to lift his country's international profile. He is pushing for Kazakhstan to chair the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in 2009. His call has met with opposition from Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The RSF has condemned Kazakh media's coverage of the elections as biased and heavily influenced by the authorities." The Paris-based group said there were many cases of "pressure, self-censorship, violations of electoral legislation, and bias" in favour of Nur Otan. The RSF said a country where "press freedom stops whenever the authority of the president and his party is challenged is not fit to head an organization such as the OSCE."