It may not have the glamour or excitement of the fascinating U.S. Presidential primaries, which are rightly gripping the world, but Kazakhstan goes to the polls this week. The election of the new Mazhilis, the lower chamber of the Kazakh Parliament, may be relatively low-key, but it remains an important moment for our country.
After all, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has made very clear that Kazakhstan faces a difficult time in the coming months and years. Even his most severe critics can hardly accuse him of trying to hide the scale of the challenges from the public.
The campaign kicked off formally on Feb. 20. It has provided the opportunity for a public debate on the direction of the country, the priorities for the future and the decisions and policies needed to achieve them.
It will also lead to a new parliament where more than one party is likely again to be represented but which won’t be distracted by electioneering. It will be able to focus all its efforts after March 20 on helping chart Kazakhstan through the current storms. This was the main reason why the former members unanimously asked for the Mazhilis to be dissolved and early elections called.
But while the world understandably has its eyes on the battle for the White House, Kazakhstan does not want the elections to go unnoticed. The country has pledged that the elections will be held in strict accordance with the rights guaranteed by its laws and constitution and has also promised that it wants them to be in line with international standards.
This is, of course, easy to say. But what marks Kazakhstan’s determination to continue its political progress is its commitment to international monitoring. This has been coupled with a promise that recommendations for strengthening the process will be closely considered.
It is why the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, after being invited to monitor the elections, has already put in place a core 40-strong team. This is being bolstered by almost 400 short-term observers drawn from member countries who will watch polling around the country as it happens this week.
The OSCE team will be joined by observers from the Council of Europe, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and a number of interested countries in the coming days. Each will be given the help needed to see for themselves how the elections are conducted.
The OSCE team has already published a preliminary report on the background to the elections and some early conclusions. It generally gives a positive view of the technical work of the Central Election Committee (CEC) in registering voters and candidates. It points out that the CEC has held regular open sessions on preparations for political parties, citizen and international observers and the media.
But it also reported past concerns over the diversity of the media environment and new regulations, which non-government organisations fear may limit what they can do. It pointed out that such restrictions had led to doubts over the robustness of genuinely pluralistic elections and said that previous concerns had not been properly addressed.
The CEC has already promised that a comprehensive reform of the electoral law, which will take into account previous OSCE suggestions, is being prepared. While the reforms will not be ready to put before parliament until next year, this will also give time for any recommendations in the final report on next week’s elections to be properly considered and incorporated.
It is, of course, never comfortable to be told that you have to do better, especially if you don’t believe all the criticism is fair. But the willingness of Kazakhstan to continue to invite outside scrutiny of its electoral process and to engage in debate underlines both its commitment to reform and the country’s confidence in its future.