Iuri Buluktaev, Ph.D. (Hist.), senior research associate, Institute of Philosophy and Political Studies, Ministry of Science and Education of the Republic of Kazakhstan (Almaty, Kazakhstan)

During 10 years of independence elections in Kazakhstan have already considerably influenced its political institutions: election and parliamentary systems, and party structure, yet many analysts are convinced that so far elections have not developed into an instrument of legal changes of the political elite and the nations control of the state.

Evolution of the Election System

The first stage of the evolution of the republics election system started in 1990 and went on until late 1993. It was the time when the public was fairly widely involved in the election process while the election system itself was a fairly democratic one for its time: society had just started its movement away from totalitarianism to democracy. The totalitarian election system had been destroyed, which made it possible to partly democratize the way the representative structures were organized and to make their composition more democratic. Until August 1991, the ruling Communist Party preserved its positions and, therefore, its domination in the Soviets of Peoples Deputies.1

In 1992-1993, it became clear that the election system had no longer fitted the new social relations that were taking shape in the structure of political power. The mechanism through which the political elite was formed needed changesa new election system was used as this mechanism.

On 28 January, 1993, the republics Supreme Soviet adopted the first constitution of independent Kazakhstan. The old election system remained in force until a new election law was passed, yet the Constitution completely changed the system and principles of representation. Under the fourth provision of the Foundations of the Constitutional Order the people of Kazakhstan was the sole source of state power in the republic. It exercised its power directly and through its representatives. All deputies, without exception, of the Supreme Soviet and the local representative bodies were elected directly by the people. No cooptation was allowed. The Constitution registered the key principles of the election law: direct, equal and universal suffrage by secret ballot.

The second stage of reforms of the election system started on 9 December, 1993 when the Supreme Soviet adopted the Code On the Elections in the Republic of Kazakhstan that introduced a majority election system and considerably changed the rules of nominating candidates. Under the new Code public organizations preserved their right to nominate candidates. Individuals also acquired the right to nominate themselves rather than be nominated by groups of voters. In addition, the new Code introduced a state list of candidates to the Supreme Soviet, each person nominated by the president. Forty-two deputies were elected in this way on an alternative basis and according to the relative majority system.

The system had a significant drawback: it did not stipulate for public control of the voting procedure and counting. The Code made no mention of observers, which means that it was only slightly more progressive and slightly closer to international standards.

This was probably explained by the fact that the Code was passed while the Supreme and other Soviets had to disband themselves on an insistence of executive powers. In other worlds, the deputies were obviously under pressurethe nature of laws they had to pass was predetermined.

The 1994 parliamentary elections abounded in violations of the Constitution and the Election Code that could not but affect the results. On 6 March, 1995, the Constitutional Court ruled, in acceptance of the claim of candidate T. Kviatkovskaia, that laws had been violated during the elections. As a result, the Supreme Soviet of the 13th convocation was disbanded. The country found itself in a constitutional crisis that ended when a new constitution was adopted. The 1994 elections were the first to be conducted in the conditions of a multiparty system, though no seats were reserved for parties. This contributed to the parties greater involvement in election campaigns.

The third stage of the evolution of the election system is associated with the new Constitution adopted on 30 August, 1995. It changed the republics political structure, its election system and corresponding laws. The following constitutional clauses related to the election system are the key ones: The people exercises its power directly through republican referendums and free elections (Art 3:2); The citizens of the Republic have the right to elect and be elected to the state bodies and the bodies of local self-administration (Art 33:2). Electoral legislation that provides the fullest possible idea about the republics election system is mainly represented by the presidential decree of 28 September, 1995, On Elections in the Republic of Kazakhstan. This document has the force of a constitutional law. All deputies are elected by absolute majority in a two-round vote. Deputies of local self-administrations are elected by a relative majority vote.

The decree is not free from shortcomings: the observers delegated by public organizations, foreign countries, and international organizations have no clear legal status though their presence and participation in the election process is stipulated; there is no mechanism of cutting short violations at polling stations that observers might register; there is a direct ban (Art 40:3, and Art 42:5) on interference of observers and representatives of candidates in what the election commissions are doing when the polling stations are opened and through the course of elections (the decree has failed to interpret the term interference, which allows the election commissions to act in an arbitrary manner in relation to the observers); there is no mechanism that would allow observers and representatives of candidates to control vote counting.

The parliamentary elections of December 1995 did not attract many voters, which can be explained by popular mistrust in the election system. According to the Central Election Commission, only 7,153,444 out of the registered 8,959,543 (or 79.84 percent) voters came to the polling stations.2 These elections also demonstrated that the election system was far from perfect and did not correspond to the generally recognized international democratic legal norms and principles.

In 1998, the Constitution received amendments that radically changed the system of elections and their organization. Thanks to the proportional system, the political parties acquired a greater role to play in and a wider access to legislative work. In 1999, parliamentary and presidential elections were organized according to the new rules.

In all, there were 19 amendments to the Constitution, seven of them dealing with elections. Point 4 of Art 41 was removed, which ruled out off-year presidential elections; the way election commissions were formed was also changed yet they were not completely exempted from the jurisdiction of executive power. The way the commissions were formed made it easier for the authorities to support their candidates (Art 10:3; Art 11:2; Art 13:1; Art 15:1; Art 17:1.) There are other provisions that help executive powers affect the election results. For example, the representatives of candidates, and observers appointed by public organizations cannot interfere in what the election commissions are doing at all stages, including vote counting. It is the right of a higher election commission to demand that the votes be recounted (Art 40:3; Art 20:6.)

One should admit, however, that the changes and amendments to the Constitution and the election laws made it possible to raise the level of individual and party involvement which was demonstrated during the parliamentary elections of September-October 1999.

The Voters and Parliamentary Elections

The first democratic parliamentary elections in the history of independent Kazakhstan took place on 7 March, 1994. The three-month-long election campaign proceeded in a very complicated economic and sociopolitical context. The results of a sociological poll Elections as the Voters See Them conducted by the Supreme Soviet Information Center in Almaty explain the voters behavior and the reasons behind the votes cast. Over half of those polled (55.8 percent) explained their decision to vote by civic awareness; 22.5 percent, by the desire to promote democratic developments; 19.7 percent, by the need to improve the laws; 14 percent, by the desire to protect the interests of their nation (13.9 percent among the polled Kazakhs and 17.2 percent among the polled Russians); 13.3 percent were convinced that the country needed a professional parliament as a counterweight to the executive branch, and only 7.67 percent, by their sympathies for a definite candidate.3

Many faults were registered during elections (mainly by the OSCE observers): election campaign was limited and underfunded; candidates were not active enough, there were practically no new names, the media did not pay enough attention to the campaign. The president responded to all reproaches of Western observers with a request to take into account that the republic that had been quite recently living under pressure of communist ideology just sampled pluralism of opinions and that the election campaign should be judged from these rather than from Western positions.

Still, the elections were a step forward to a genuinely multiparty system while the experience accumulated during the campaign proved invaluable. There were certain OSCE observers who recognized that the elections that attracted 75 percent of the voters were a true achievement of democracy in Kazakhstan.

In 1995, the citizens could realize their right to vote three times: at two referendums (on extending the term in office of President Nazarbaev and on the new Constitution) and parliamentary elections. According to the public opinion poll conducted by the Ghiller Institute (an independent institute for public opinion studies in Almaty), the nation was on the whole dissatisfied with the state of affairs in the country: 31.1 percent were completely dissatisfied; 47 percent were rather dissatisfied. Ethnically the answers were distributed as follows: among Russians 47 percent were rather dissatisfied and 38 percent completely dissatisfied with a total absence of completely satisfied and 13 percent of rather satisfied. Among the Kazakhs 18 percent were completely dissatisfied and 26 percent rather satisfied. It is interesting to note that the dissatisfaction pole shifted to the regions where ethnic Russians predominated (in the north and east) and to small towns badly hit by industrial decline and complete production stalemate.4 The reason behind peoples participation in elections and referendums: 68.2 percent went to the polls because they believed it was their duty.

The 1999 elections to the parliament caused more active competition and the use of new election technologies. For example, on 6 October the Khabar TV channel showed political debates attended by members of nine political parties and watched by foreign observers and journalists who agreed that the nationally broadcast discussion was another step toward genuine democracy.

Still the OSCE mission that monitored the campaign, and the media pointed out that on the whole the electronic media demonstrated an obvious bias toward the progovernmental parties and candidates. For example, all news programs presented the Otan and Civil parties in a more favorable light than the opposition parties. The Commercial TV Channel gave the Otan Party nearly 60 percent of free time allocated to all parties. The same party bought 65.7 percent of paid time.5

To make the picture of the 1999 parliamentary elections complete we should mention the violations registered mainly by the opposition press, Russian and other foreign media and the report compiled by the OSCE mission. The violations registered by OSCE observers say that the Central Election Commission made mistakes while local administrations exceeded their powers. Here is a list of violations: illegal interference of executive structures; unfair methods parties used during the election campaign; threats of bureaucratic, administrative and legal restrictions that might affect freedom of the press; an obvious bias of election commissions at polling stations toward the candidates and parties supported by regional and local bureaucrats, etc.6

On the whole, despite the violations and demands presented by the opposition that the elections be declared illegal, the authorities suggested that they should be regarded as another step toward democracy.

Party-List Vote

In fact, political parties, movements, and public organizations did take part in the elections to the Supreme Soviet of the 12th and 13th convocations and to the Majilis of the Parliament in 1994 and 1995. Some of them even formed their factions. While back in 1994 public organizations and parties nominated 48 percent of candidates and won 56 percent of the seats, in 1995 the share was 55 percent of the candidates and 76 percent of the seatsan obvious evidence of growing popularity of parties and public organizations. Ten of them took part in both election campaigns.

In 1995, the Peoples Unity Party, the Peoples Congress Party, the Peoples Cooperative Party, the Resurrection Party, and others were represented in the parliament. By the early and middle of the 1990s the above parties formed the backbone of the republican party system. Still, it was merely an imitation of elections from parties: parties nominated their candidates who competed in single-member constituencies and were elected by a majority vote.

It was in 1999 that proportional elections were introduced and the parties got 10 seats (out of 77) in the parliaments lower chamber. It was for the first time that the parties could directly compete for the seats. Eighty-four candidates were registered in the lists submitted by nine parties: the Peoples Congress Party, the Resurrection Party, the Republican Political Labor Party, the Otan Republican Party, the Communist Party, the Azamat Democratic Party, the Civil Party, the Agrarian Party, and the Alash National Party. The Republican Peoples Party boycotted the elections in protest against the election commissions refusal to register its leader A. Kazhegeldin as candidate.

The following parties won the party-list elections: the Otan Party (30.89 percent of the votes); the Communist Party (17.75 percent); the Agrarian Party (12.63 percent); the Civil Party (11.23 percent). The Azamat Democratic Party, the Alash National Party, and others enjoyed certain support of the voters. Party-list voting creates a fully-fledged party system because the results depend, to a great extent, on the candidates party affiliation. One can even say that before the 1999 elections there were parties in the country but no party system. The period that predated the 1999 elections should be regarded as a preparatory one when organizational and other prerequisites of a party system had been taking shape. We should not overestimate the significance of this achievement because the parties became equal subjects of the election process only in 1999 and so far they were competing for few seats in the parliament. This allows certain analysts to describe what the political regime is doing in this respect as dosed democracy.

Voters and Presidential Elections

Presidential elections are especially important for the countrys political development: the institute of presidentship introduced in 1990 is the key element of the political system of Kazakhstan. In April 1990, the Supreme Soviet elected Nursultan Nazarbaev president; on 16 October, 1991, a decision on the first nation-wide elections of the head of state was adopted. On 1 December, 1991, Nazarbaev was reelected president with 95.5 percent of votes in an absence of other candidates. In 1995, a referendum extended the presidents term in office to December 2000. The voters guided themselves by the following considerations: 44.1 percent voted because it was their civil duty; over 46 percent wanted to demonstrate their attitude to the president; 22.9 percent believed that the future of their country depended on their vote; 23.7 percent were convinced that it was undemocratic to prolong the term in office outside elections but still came to the polls.

In the fall of 1998, the countrys leaders decided to conduct off-year elections early in 1999. According to some researchers, this was done for the following reasons: the positions of the authorities needed strengthening in the conditions of an expected worsening of the socioeconomic crisis and a growth of dissatisfaction among the popular masses; the oppositions stepped up activity and a possible stiff competition A. Kazhegeldin might offer to the president; the desire to conduct the presidential elections earlier than the parliamentary elections in an apprehension that the opposition might win majority in the parliament; the desire to limit the dependence of the election campaign on the results of presidential elections in Russia scheduled for an earlier date than in Kazakhstan.7

It should be said here that according to certain analysts the powers that be successfully used a rather efficient political device: they corrected the constitutional rules of the game within the election process. This circumstance created by President Nazarbaevs skill in political anticipation brought him victory in the January 1999 presidential elections.8 It should be added that his victory was inevitable: none of those who also ran could really compete with him.

On 8 October, 1998, the joint sitting of both chambers passed a decision that fixed the date (10 January, 1999) of the off-year presidential elections, which stirred up criticism from the OSCE that called on the parliament to postpone the elections so that to give a chance to all candidates to register. The authorities accepted the so-called Kyrgyz model in which the number of candidates could be limited by imposing on them certain very harsh conditions.9 According to them, each of the candidates had to collect 170 thou voter signatures before 30 November, 1998, pay the registration fee of 2.4m tenge (about $31 thou), and to prove that he had no prior conviction.

By early November 1998 eight people claimed their desire to run for the president. Nearly all public and political alliances (both loyal to the official political course and opposite to it) demonstrated high political activity. Among the opposition figures the potentially strongest candidates were A. Kazhegeldin (the Republican Peoples Party), M. Auezov (Azamat), and S. Abdildin (the Communist Party). The Constitutional Court refused to register the former two because of their previous record of taking part in non-sanctioned meetings. Two other candidates withdrew from the competition and Nazarbaev was left with three rivals: Communist Abdildin, formerly the speaker of the parliament, who ran with a program of a communist alternative; E. Gabbasov, member of the parliamentary commission for international affairs, defense, and security who counted on the democratically minded voters; General G. Kasymov, Chairman of the republics Customs Committee who favored a strong hand. As distinct from the 1991 elections people had a choice. It was for the first time that independent candidates and political opposition could take part. As a result, Nazarbaev got 81.75 percent of the votes cast; Abdildin, 12.08 percent; Kasymov, 4.72 percent; Gabbasov, 0.78 percent.10

The presidential elections of 1999 can be described as the so-called elections of a first order the results of which affected to a great extent the countrys later political development. This is testified, first and foremost, by a high turnout: 86.28 percent of the voters elected the president and 62.56 percent, the parliament, that is, the nation obviously looked at the elections of the head of state as more important than the parliamentary elections.

Researchers have identified the following motives of electoral behavior: Nazarbaev is my President (which means that he has a stable electorate of his own and that his rating will survive any circumstance and dynamics of social and economic system); I am not satisfied with any of the candidates, therefore I vote for the one I know; I dont like Nazarbaev, yet I cannot let communists come to power, etc.11

From this it follows that part of the voters elected the sitting president not only because life was good with him but also because it might turn to the worse without him. According to the Central Election Commission 86.28 percent of 8,269,918 registered voters took part in the elections. In this connection it is interesting to analyze why people voted: according to the public opinion poll in Almaty, 18 percent treated elections as a festive occasion; 31 percent voted out of habit; 27 percent voted because they liked the candidate; 8 percent treated voting as their duty; 16 percent were just curious.12

The election campaign laid foundation for the further use of contemporary election technologies, in particular, time on TV and radio and newspaper space were not equally allocated to the candidates (see Table 1).

Table 1

Time on TV and Radio and Newspaper Space, Submitted to the Candidates (%)13






Khabar Radio





Khabar TV










"31st Channel"





Kazakhstanskaia pravda





Karavan daily





Karavan weekly










These were the first presidential elections in Kazakhstan during which the nation had a choice of several candidates and a kind of an indicator of changes in peoples minds. They made presidential power legitimate (from the point of view of power itself) and completed another cycle of political and constitutional reforms aimed at creating a strong presidential republic.

The Causes of Absenteeism

The causes of absenteeism (a form of apolitical behavior when people avoid elections to representative bodies) are an important part of any attempt at an analysis of the election campaigns in Kazakhstan. Today, in any society absenteeism is caused by the fact that the citizens fail to detect any meaning or do not expect political or other dividends of their individual activity and are not interested in the very institute of democratic elections.

It is interesting to note that the causes of absenteeism during the 1994 elections (as revealed by a sociological poll conducted by the Supreme Soviet Information Center) were the following: among the polled absentees in Almaty (35.4 percent of all polled) 70.3 percent explained that they did not believe that the elections would improve the state of affairs; 69.2 percent believed that those supported by the authorities would be elected in any case; 9.2 percent explained their absenteeism by indifference, another 9.2 percent, by lack of necessary information; 9.1 percent believed that their personal problems should come first.14

According to another study conducted by the Ghiller Institute that dealt with the 1995 elections, 49.1 percent of respondents were convinced that through voting people could not affect the state of affairs in the country. Thirty-four percent of the polled in towns with 200 thou and more, and 37 percent in towns below 200 thou said that people could affect the course of affairs through elections. In worker settlements and villages the figures were even higher42 and 49 percent, respectively. An influence of the ethnic factor was quite noticeable: 51 percent among Kazakh respondents and only 32 percent among Russian respondents believed that they could improve the state of affairs in the country by voting.15

The referendum on extending the term in office of President Nazarbaev attracted 69.3 percent of the respondents; 30 percent of the respondents stayed away from voting, 0.7 percent refused to answer the question. These figures are considerably lower than the official figures supplied by the Central Election Commission. People from large cities were least active: 54.1 percent of registered voters came to the polls in the cities with 500 thou people and more; 64 percent, in cities with 200 to 500 thou people. Worker settlements were most active. Ethnic differences were approximately the same as at the elections to the Supreme Soviet: 76 percent of the polled Kazakhs and 64 percent of the polled Russians went to the polling stations.

People explained their absenteeism in the following way: conviction that elections could not change life to the best (26.8 percent of those who missed elections at least once); 17.7 percent were absent from home on the election day; 16.2 percent were convinced that the results were predetermined; about 4 percent did not vote for technical reasons (could not get at the polling station or the polling station was closed); nearly 7 percent did not receive an invitation to vote; 10.3 percent were disappointed in the countrys leaders. There were people who did not vote because none of the candidates attracted them.16

From this it follows that in 1999, 12.95 percent of voters stayed away from the polling stations during the presidential elections while 37.44 percent ignored the parliamentary elections. On the one hand, this can be taken for a sign of freedom, on the other, as absenteeism and crisis of democracy in which power has become alienated from the nation and the nation from power. Both opinions can be accepted as true.


The election system of Kazakhstan allows the main participants employ varied political technologies while people can realize their political rights. At the same time, voters activity during the elections of the 1990s proved to be rather low. On the whole, people tended to treat elections as a political game in which the elite indulged itself. It seems that the voters passivity can be explained by the following reasons: alienation between the nation and the structures of power; bureaucratization of state administration; corruption among politicians and bureaucracy, and the main reasonpeople were convinced that the results were predetermined by the structures of power and did not depend on the voting. This is what presidential advisor E. Ertysbaev spoke of at an OSCE meeting in Warsaw in September 2002: Speaking about the elections one may say that there is a contradiction between the rigid liberal reforms and the huge communist electorate. This explains the desire of the authorities to protect itself from unpleasant surprises during elections. Hence violations. To a great extent OSCE criticism of our election campaigns is just.17

The presidential advisor admitted that the authorities falsified and would continue falsifying elections proceeding from political necessity and expediency. He was convinced that the specter of communism was haunting the country and for a long time to come would continue justifying manipulations with election results. After this the electorate should start thinking what should be done to make the elections fair and straightforward. It was back in 1998 that President Nazarbaev in his address to the nation said: In any country free and fair elections are a linchpin of democracy. They should play the same role in our country, too. Our aim should be clear: to make the coming universal elections an example of free and fair elections.18

We shall live and we shall see whether this happens during the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2004-2006.

1 See: G. Gosmanova, Razvitie elektoralnogo protsessa v Respublike Kazakhstan, Authors summary of candidate thesis, Almaty, 2002, p. 12.
2 See: A. Auekenov, Tsentrizbirkom obnarodoval itogi pervogo etapa vyborov v nizhniuiu palatu Parlamenta, Panorama, No. 50, 23 December, 1995.
3 See: Vybory glazami izbirateley, Almaty, March 1994, pp. 1-3.
4 See: L.Ia. Gurevich, Osobennosti elektoralnogo povedenia grazhdan Kazakhstana, Sotsis, No. 5, 1996, pp. 65-66.
5 See: Missia OBSE po nabliudeniiu za vyborami. Vybory deputatov v Mazhilis Parlamenta. Respublika Kazakhstan10 oktiabria 1999 g., in: Sh.A. Kurmanbaeva, Izbiratelnye tekhnologii v Kazakhstane, Almaty, 2000, p. 163.
6 See: OBSE: kritika vyborov. Obektivna li missia? Nachnem s ponedelnika, 3 November, 1999.
7 See: E.T. Karin, D.A. Satpaev, G.T. Ileuova, A.E. Chebotarev et al., Uroven politicheskogo riska v Kazakhstane, Tsentralnoaziatskoe agentstvo politicheskikh issledovanii, Almaty, 2000, p. 95.
8 See: T.T. Ismagambetov, V Kazakhstane izmeniaiutsia elektoralnye pravila igry, Saiasat, No. 1, 1999, p. 21.
9 See: R. Abazov, Prezidentskie vybory v Kazakhstane: do i posle, Polis, No. 3, 1999, p. 173.
10 See: Stolichnoe obozrenie, No. 3, 15 January, 1999.
11 See: A. Aitaly, Zh. Utalieva, Vybory prezidenta i demokraticheskiy protsess v Kazakhstane: obshchie i regionalnye problemy, Saiasat, No. 4, 1999, pp. 37-41.
12 See: Tsentr politicheskoy koniunktury Rossii. Prezidentskaia izbiratelnaia kampania v Kazakhstane i Rossia [http//www.ancentr.ru].
13 Compiled from: Prezidentskie vybory v Respublike Kazakhstan. Zakliuchitelniy otchet missii OBSE/BDIPCh po otsenke izbiratelnogo protsessa v Kazakhstane, Chelovek i pravo, No. 1, 1999, p. 51.
14 See: Vybory glazami izbirateley, Almaty, March 1994, pp. 1-3.
15 See: L.Ia. Gurevich, op. cit., p. 67.
16 See: Ibid., p. 68.
17 K. Toguzbaev, Chto pokazal Evrope g-n Ertysbaev? Ekonomika. Finansy. Rynki, Delovoe obozrenie Respubliki, No. 15, 27 September, 2002.
18 N.A. Nazarbaev, Poslanie Prezidenta Respubliki Kazakhstan narodu Kazakhstana. O polozhenii v strane i osnovnykh napravleniakh vnutrennei i vneshnei politiki: Demokratizatsia obshchestva, ekonomicheskaia i politicheskaia reforma v novom stoletii, Kazakhstanskaia pravda, 1 October, 1998.

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