Is There a Need for Elections in Central Asia?

In early spring of 2015, an intense political season opened in Central Asia, with three out of five post-Soviet republics in the region holding nationwide elections.

IMG_1857Parliamentary elections in Tajikistan on March 1, a presidential vote in Uzbekistan on March 29 and now upcoming elections in Kazakhstan on April 26th. What do they all have in common? Different countries, but similar outcomes: 51 seat out of 63 for President Rahmon’s party in the Tajik Majlisi Namoyandagon (lower chamber of the Parliament), and 90.3% of votes for incumbent Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

In the run up to elections in Kazakhstan, popular support for President Nazarbayev is high, as witnessed by the opinion research recently commissioned by the Eurasian Council on Foreign Affairs (ECFA) from leading UK polling agency Ipsos-MORI. There is little doubt that, come April 26, we will witness yet another convincing election triumph by the veteran Kazakh leader.

But what is the underlying reason for election outcomes that may appear shocking to the Western eye? Falsified elections? Hardly. Talk closely to any foreign observer returning from a monitoring mission in Central Asia – they will tell you that the process is not perfect but that support for leaders is genuine and almost unanimous, give or take a few percent.

Absence of prominent opposition figures? Yes, to a certain extent and no different to any other nascent political culture. But try adding to the ballot list in Kazakhstan, say, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and David Cameron – Nazarbayev would still win on any given day.

For answers, let us throw a quick glance at the past. Central Asia was part of the great nomadic empires, including that of Genghis Khan, and, after a certain period of disintegration, became part of the Russian Empire. Then followed a 70 years stint in the Soviets’ Red Empire. Only 24 years ago did the Central Asian republics gain their independence. After 1000 years of living under absolutism and one-man-rule, people got introduced to pluralism and voting. After 1000 years of worshipping their leaders, with almost religious fervor, Central Asians now have to elect them.

No wonder that, in Max Weber’s terms, rational-legal authority in Central Asia today is barely more than a guise for traditional, “god given” authority. No wonder that voters are not looking for strong political competition, and are instead instinctively looking for strong political leaders.

Even the emerging middle class – that glorious “backbone of democracy” – does not generate sufficient political demand for new faces in the leadership. Why? The majority of middle class businessmen were born in the Soviet Union, some of them under Stalin’s rule, and their mentality is not much different from that of the rest of Central Asia’s older generation. Plus, business captains are not fond of the idea of replacing the leaders who opened their way to well-being and prosperity.

That being said, does Central Asia need elections at all? No doubt, it does. Regular voting strengthens the very institution of elections – by legitimizing and, in a sense, traditionalizing it. An oddity for our forefathers, voting will become a habit for our children.

It is with them – the generation that was born in independent republics and raised with access to the Internet – that our hope for future lies. With the right attitude and habits they will shape the up-to-date political culture of tomorrow, where responsibility will be shared, accountability strengthened, and no one will question the value of elections in Central Asia.

On the eve of my country’s presidential elections, I walk around Almaty, the business capital of Kazakhstan, and do not see many outdoor or media campaign ads for any candidate, including incumbent President Nazarbayev. What I do see, though, is a persistently repeated call by the Electoral Commission to Kazakh citizens, to come and vote on election day. The larger the turnout, the wider the spread of democratic habits and practices. It gives me hope…

The author is Director of the Eurasian Council on Foreign Affairs.