In any country with a presidential system of government, who holds the top post matters hugely for its direction and success. The President is inevitably the symbol of leadership at home and abroad. At the very least, too, they set the framework within which the other institutions of government operate. But when a country has been led successfully by the same person for three decades – as is the case here in Kazakhstan – the election of a successor is of even greater importance.
Kazakhstan, of course, is fortunate. The first and founding President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has shaped this country’s extraordinary journey since its first days as an independent nation, has made sure of a stable succession process. His announcement that he was stepping back in March may have surprised many with its timing. It is clear, however, that the decision to hand over responsibility to highly experienced Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was done in a careful and planned way.
The First President has also made sure through constitutional changes that his significant experience and knowledge can still be drawn on. This, too, has helped re-assure both the country’s citizens and Kazakhstan’s many friends abroad. The whole transition process, in contrast to the turbulent periods often seen in other countries, has won international plaudits and ensured economic confidence in Kazakhstan remains high.
Kazakhstan also has an enviable track record of facing challenges head on. It is one of the reasons for both the country’s success and stability. By bringing forward presidential elections to June, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has shown that these hard-won prizes are not going to be put at risk.
In his address setting out why he believed the election should not wait until 2020 as scheduled, President Tokayev said the earlier national poll would help end any uncertainty about the country’s leadership. Given the momentous change, which had just taken place, he suggested that it would be wrong to take the popular will for granted. Instead, he said the time was right to ask the people directly, through a presidential election, their view on the direction the country should take.
We won’t know for a few days who will be standing in this landmark poll on June 9, apart from Kassym-Jomart Tokayev who has been nominated by the ruling Nur Otan party at its April 23 congress. According to the election timetable already set out, the deadline for nominations is April 28. Just as is the case in other countries, potential candidates will have to meet eligibility criteria concerning age, citizenship and residency. They will also have to be able to show a level of public support before they earn a place on the ballot paper.
But while the number and names of candidates won’t be clear for a few days, what we do know already is that the election between them will be free and fair. The rules and laws which govern elections in Kazakhstan have been continually modernised and strengthened over the last 25 years to ensure they meet global standards. The reforms were drawn up with the help and advice of local NGOs and major international bodies, such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The OSCE is also expected to be among the many organisations that will send observers to monitor the elections and, as has been the case in the past, to watch what happens at polling booths across the country. Journalists, too, from across the globe will travel to Kazakhstan to report on the campaign and polling day. There is a huge amount of interest in what is genuinely an historic election for the country and wider region.
The new President, according to the election timetable, will be in place by June 16 after the country has made its decision. It will be another major moment in Kazakhstan’s modern history. But given the calm way the transition has been handled so far, there is every reason for confidence for the future.