The World Today for March 17, 2023


The Democracy Two-Step


Campaign signs festooned the streets of Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, in anticipation of parliamentary elections on March 19. The signs feature candidates pledging to reduce housing density in the Central Asian country’s cities, reduce prices amid worldwide inflation, expand energy networks, and improve air quality.

The issues reflect how this election might the freest ever in the former Soviet republic. As argued, the election comes after protests erupted early last year over corruption that was rampant under ex-President Nursultan Nazarbayev. It also follows President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s successful constitutional referendum in June that shook up the country’s electoral system.

The new system is a mixture between a proportional system and single-member constituencies, or districts that elect a single legislator. This new system is giving critics of the government at least a chance to stand for office, an impossibility in the past.

“They were part of the government’s efforts to respond with tangible reform when it became clear that Kazakhstan needed measures to reduce presidential powers and encourage political pluralism and competition,” wrote Assel Nussupova, an economist with ties to the Kazakh government, in an op-ed the Astana Times, a local English-language newspaper.

Still, Tokayev, while seeking political liberalization, is not an ardent defender of human rights. As the Diplomat noted, he doesn’t flinch about shutting down the internet in Kazakhstan, for example, if it can take the air out of popular protests or other movements in the society that might foment instability. The country lost around $410 million last year due to stoppages online.

Attacks on independent journalists have also been on the rise since electioneering for the March 19 vote started, Radio Free Europe added.

Still, Tokayev is also seeking to improve democracy in Kazakhstan because he wants to improve ties with the West and weaken its relationship with Russia, argued geopolitical consultant and former German diplomat Thomas Matussek in Euractiv. Learning lessons from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Tokayev has concluded that having allies beyond Moscow might be prudent.

For example, Tokayev is working to diversify the routes it can use for its oil exports because at present the country is almost entirely dependent on Russia to maintain the safe passage of that crude, CNBC added.

Undoubtedly, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit to Astana, the Kazakh capital, was designed to signal approval of these developments.

The future of Kazakhstan still must be written. But eventually, its people might be the ones writing it.

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