After nearly 30 years in power the first president of independent Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, announced his resignation on 19 March 2019. A whole generation of young Kazakhs grew up under his reign, never experiencing a presidential transition in their lifetimes. This historical moment has now arrived—although Nazarbayev still occupies the highest positions in the country as the head of the Security Council, chairman of the ruling “Nur Otan” or Democratic People’s Party and the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, an appointed advisory body. Moreover, following his resignation a parallel executive body called the “Office of the First President” was created. Long before Nazarbayev’s resignation, he was given the lifetime position of “Leader of the Nation”, or Elbasy, which means immunity from criminal prosecution for him and members of his family. Nursultan Nazarbayev thus effectively remains in power under the old-new name, and passed on the presidency to the chairman of the senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. On 20 March Tokayev took the oath of office and became the acting president.
Three weeks later, on 9 April 2019, Tokayev declared early presidential elections to be held on 9 June. Early presidential and parliamentary elections have become a Kazakh “tradition” in recent decades, an effective practice to prevent potentially non-loyal contestants from participating.
The nomination of candidates began on 10 April and ended on 28 April. The main object of intrigue was the nomination from the ruling party, Nur Otan. Some experts and opposition activists predicted the party would nominate Dariga Nazarbayeva, the elder Nazarbayev’s daughter. Ultimately, however, Tokayev was backed by Nazarbayev and nominated by Nur Otan.
In total nine people submitted documents to the Central Election Commission (CEC) to register as candidates. Talgat Yergaliyev withdrew his application and decided to support Daniya Yesspayeva, the first female presidential candidate in Kazakh history. She was nominated by the “Ak Zhol” party. Another nominee, Zhumatay Aliyev, was not registered due to “insufficient knowledge of the state language”—he failed a Kazakh language test. The testing procedure itself remains controversial, however, and the public has no way to verify the linguistic commission’s evaluation.
The CEC registered seven candidates from four political parties and three public associations:
- Zhambyl Akhmetbekov from the People’s Communist Party of Kazakhstan
- Daniya Yesspayeva from the “Ak Zhol” (Bright Way) party
- Amirzhan Kossanov from the “Ult Tagdyry” (Destiny of the Nation) association
- Toleutay Rakhimbekov from the “Auyl” (Village) party
- Amangeldy Tasspikhov from the Federation of Labour Unions
- Kassym-Jomart Tokayev from Nur Otan
- Sady-Bek Tugel from the “Uly dala kyrandary” (Eagles of the Great Steppe) public association
After the official campaigning period began on 11 May, the candidates presented their election campaign programs and platforms. Experts noted that most of them were weak and incomprehensive, often focusing on one particular issue. Although all of the candidates except the main candidate Tokayev and “non-system” candidate Kossanov were not perceived as noteworthy or serious, a look at their platforms is informative.
Communist candidate Zhambyl Akhmetbekov was running for the presidency for the second time. In 2011 he received only 1.36 percent of the vote, while Nazarbayev won with 95.5 percent. Akhmetbekov focused on fighting “Western influence and fake values” by restricting destructive content on the internet, as well as eliminating poverty and income inequality. He advocated prosecuting oligarchs and further economic integration with neighbouring countries (the Eurasian Economic Union member-states and “Belt and Road Initiative” countries).
Daniya Yesspayeva was the first female candidate in the history of independent Kazakhstan. In her words, the population—not only women but also the youth—welcomed this fact. She mostly focused on economic issues. Yesspayeva was nominated by the Ak Zhol party, which positioned itself as a party of entrepreneurs. Her platform emphasized the principles of free market economy, de-offshorization and fighting corruption, promoting mass entrepreneurship, and the development of small and medium enterprises. Yesspayeva also raised the issue of Kazakhstan’s national independence: decolonizing the national mind, renaming cities and villages still bearing Russian and Soviet names, protection from religious sects, while at the same time promoting equality in terms of ethnicity, religion, and language.
One candidate, Kossanov, was widely seen as an opposition leader. Kossanov talked about political freedom by changing various laws that go against democratic values (laws on media, elections, political parties, trade unions). He advocated a transition to a parliamentary-presidential form of governance, strengthening the law on state language and defining the list of professions that require knowledge of the state language, and liberation of the national self-consciousness from post-colonial and post-Soviet influence. As far as foreign policy is concerned, Kossanov promised deeper cooperation with the European Union and other Western countries. He also expressed concern about the uncontrollable increase in the country’s external debt, corruption, and the need to ensure transparent income reports for all public servants and their family members. He called for a transition from a resource-dependent economy to a scientific and technological model of economic development. Kossanov promised to improve the ecological situation in the Aral Sea and Semey, and close or transform all non-environmentally sustainable enterprises.
The platform of the candidate from the Auyl party, Toleutai Rakhimbekov, largely focused on rural and agricultural issues. He highlighted agricultural power, food security, and independence. Rakhimbekov argued for social equality between rural and urban areas and an effective youth policy to create more incentives for them to stay in the villages. He also mentioned national identity, traditions, and spirituality.
Amangeldy Tasspikhov from the Federation of Labour Unions underlined the protection of workers’ rights. He mentioned labour migration regulations (by prioritizing jobs for Kazakh citizens) and improving living conditions in rural areas. In general, the candidate’s platform leaned heavily on protecting the rights of workers and improving working conditions in the country.
The main candidate, acting Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, had the most comprehensive platform based on three main principles: continuity, justice, and progress. Continuity in this sense meant adhering to the political path laid out by the first president and ensuring that the country enters the ranks of the top 30 developed countries by 2050. As far as justice was concerned, he proposed equal rights regardless of ethnicity, religion, and social status. Tokayev proposed increasing government expenditures in the social sector by five percent of GDP and reforming the pension, health care, education, judicial, and police systems. He mentioned the creation of productive workplaces, strengthening civil society, and cooperation with “law-abiding” media. By progress, he meant consistent economic growth, developing rural areas and small- and medium-sized enterprises, promoting the private sector by limiting the number of big national monopolies, and promoting democratization and cooperation between businesses and NGOs.
The seventh candidate, Sady-Bek Tugel, demanded raising the status of the state language (by banning non-Kazakh speakers from working in the public sector) and strengthening the position of women in the country by increasing the benefits package for mothers of more than five children. Tugel proposed ensuring that social benefits for people with disabilities and those affected by environmental disasters associated with the nuclear test sites in Western Kazakhstan and Semey (Semipalatinsk), and fighting corruption (including introducing the death sentence for corrupt officials and paedophiles). He expressed his conviction that civil society must control the government, and that land leasing to foreigners should be prohibited. Tugel also proposed fighting unemployment by creating new factories and proposed interest-free government loans to the agricultural sector, police reform, supporting the youth, and promoting national and traditional values.
Despite the fact that the candidates’ platforms were designed to appear comprehensive and trustworthy, they lacked a clear, coherent, and logical structure. Candidates used notably vague terms and promises, loaded with cliché and populism. The campaigns themselves confirmed this impression.
Generally speaking, the candidates’ campaigns were low-key and rather primitive. In terms of visuals, candidates mostly used billboards, leaflets, and video clips. They avoided mass gatherings and rallies, particularly outdoors, and preferred small-scale private meetings with employees of various companies and organizations. For instance, Rakhimbekov met with workers of agricultural companies and institutions, while Tasspikhov met with labour union staff members across the country. Candidates concentrated their campaign efforts among their potential supporters and even colleagues, but did not to reach out to other segments of the electorate.
A televised candidates’ debate was held on 29 May. Three candidates, including the frontrunner, sent proxies to represent them. The event was more like a conference than a debate. The assembled candidates and proxies neglected to raise any hot political issues and mainly focused on the socio-economic sphere.
Interestingly enough, the majority of candidates during the election campaign never visited Almaty—Kazakhstan's largest city. This clearly indicates that they were not genuinely interested in the campaign or winning the election at all.
Election day itself was overshadowed by mass arbitrary detentions in Kazakhstan’s major urban areas, predominantly Almaty and Nur-Sultan. People protested peacefully and called for a boycott of the presidential election. The right to peaceful assembly is heavily restricted in Kazakhstan, leaving almost no chance for citizens to exercise this freedom. The Ministry of Interior Affairs officially stated that roughly 500 individuals were detained in the two cities on election day. Arrests continued as protests followed the next day.
It is worth mentioning that the election was also marked by a large number of local observers mostly covering urban areas throughout the country. This received wide coverage through social media, where video recordings of fraud and violations during the election were broadcast extensively.
Late in the evening of 10 June, the Central Election Commission announced the results. Zhambyl Akhmetbekov received 1.82 percent of the vote, Daniya Yesspayeva 5.05 percent, Amirzhan Kossanov 16.23 percent, Toleutai Rakhimbekov 3.04 percent, Amangeldy Tasspikhov 1.98 percent, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev 70.96 percent, and Sady-Bek Tugel 0.92 percent. Tokayev thus won the election and was elected the second president of the Republic of Kazakhstan. His inauguration was conducted in a big hurry just two days after the official results were announced.
This election brought forth protests and activism that revealed the real issues and demands emanating from Kazakh society. Authorities have largely neglected or repressed the grievances accumulating over the decades of Nazarbayev’s rule. Now the challenge for the newly elected president is to find a new approach and convert it into a constructive response, or continue to use the old methods and tools—with increasingly unpredictable consequences.
Daniyar Kussainov works as a project manager at the new RLS Central Asian Regional Office in Almaty, Kazakhstan.