Central Election Commission Chair Shares His Vision on Kazakhstan’s Electoral System Reforms

NUR-SULTAN – The recent referendum, which changed the constitution of the country, became a kind of watershed between the old and the New Kazakhstan. The main organizer of the popular vote, the Central Election Commission (CEC), has completed its mission as the Central Referendum Commission (CRC). At the same time, the CEC is fulfilling another role to renew the country’s electoral system. CEC Chairman Nurlan Abdirov spoke about this crucial task in more detail in June 15 interview with Kazpravda newspaper.

Nurlan Abridov. Photo credit: kazpravda.kz

– According to representatives of public organizations, journalists and foreign observers, the referendum had a high organizational level. Can we say that the referendum to amend the Constitution can also be considered the beginning of the reform of our electoral system?

– I think that’s not quite accurate. The preparation for the referendum was a continuation of the reforms that were already in progress.

Allow me to explain everything in order. During the meeting with the President after my appointment, he stressed that the reforms taking place in the country dictate the need to update the electoral system and the electoral legislation. He also outlined his vision of the primary and prospective tasks that need to be addressed.

One of them is to ensure that our work is based on the principles of the “listening state,” openness, and transparency, so that the people could clearly see these principles in action, concrete actions and results.

The very next day after my appointment at the CEC, I addressed the heads of the territorial election commissions via videoconference. The message I relayed was that after the January events, all of us in Kazakhstan found ourselves in another dimension. People have new expectations of the government. The President and the whole society are expecting us to work differently, which cannot be carried out according to the old models.

– When you summarized the results of the referendum, many people noted an important moment: the voting at the Almaty polling station No 2 was declared invalid. Such a precedent has never happened in all our election campaigns. In some social networks and mass media, it was suggested that the results of some other polling stations should also not be recognized.

– Regarding Almaty, the Central Referendum Commission scrutinized the materials of the territorial commission of the city and made a decision within the framework of the current legislation.
And regarding the proposals not to recognize the results of voting at some polling stations, I must stress again that we must strictly follow the law. This means that the CRС must receive materials that confirm the accuracy of the claims. This is the only way the process works.

The Central Referendum Commission has no competence or resources to verify many fakes. Therefore, we sent all such claims to the Prosecutor General’s Office with a request to check them as part of their competence and, if necessary, to take action.

If we are talking about the situation overall, rather than individual facts, then everyone must be evaluated – the members of the electoral commissions, observers, journalists and the voters themselves. For instance, many came to the polling stations with children, in an elated, festive mood. Yet children see someone tearing up a ballot, loudly expressing their discontent, and all this is filmed on numerous cameras. Is that the way to introduce children to celebrations and culture, including electoral culture?

– For the first time we learned about another fact – the visits of members of the Central Election Commission to the regions of Kazakhstan. Could you tell us about their purpose and who did they meet?

– Yes, from mid-February to the end of April I visited almost all regions of the country with my CEC colleagues. We met with a varied group of people. Our local commissions invited representatives of all parties and movements, NGOs, opinion leaders and the media.

– Do you think that the first experience of a live discussion with the CEC Chairman had any impact on the format of the meetings?

Looking ahead, I would say that figuratively speaking these meetings have become a real case of sociology for us with its palette of different views, positions and beliefs.
We held the meetings under several conditions: there should be no Akimat (Mayor’s Office) staff, no police, no jeeps or limousines for transportation – only minibuses; neutral venues – houses of culture, theatres, philharmonic halls, university halls.

Another prerequisite was that all meetings must be attended by young people. By the way, we had separate meetings with young people in each region. This was announced in advance, and the meetings were broadcast live on YouTube. But that’s how we did it in all the other cases, too.

There were no formalities when it came to the meetings: no presidiums, reports and regulations. All meetings continued until the last question. The topic was people’s attitude to the elections, and one of the goals was to study this attitude, as well as all the comments and suggestions made by the representatives of different groups.

– There is a perception that young people are now apolitical, indifferent to various official events, including elections. Is that why you emphasized young people, to get them involved in electoral matters?

– Perception doesn’t always equal reality. At our meetings, young men and women were quite interested in elections. For example, they were interested in how e-voting works, whether QR codes are used, and whether there is a quota for young people in Parliament. There were a lot of questions which concerned them, therefore our meetings sometimes lasted more than two hours.
One of the meetings in Taldykorgan lasted over three hours. We discussed the elections and all the related topics until around 10 p.m. To lighten the mood, I asked, “Are none of you late for your date?” Everyone ignored my questions and continued asking their questions. Only now they were about life. One young man asked how to become a successful person.

I always respond to this type of question in the following way. The notion of a “successful person” is necessarily accompanied by the words specialist and professional. So initially, you have to thoroughly understand yourself, your character, essence, and who exactly you want to become. And then, having decided, you must move towards your goal. Persistently, stubbornly, falling and rising, but always moving forward and, no matter what, reaching your target.

But the words “successful” and “happy” are not synonymous. Success has no soul, but happiness does. That is why for the majority of people happiness is much more important than success. And what shapes a person’s soul? His family, his mother’s songs, the nature around him – everything that is called a small motherland. A person can be truly happy by possessing and cherishing these values. And if he is persistent and adamant on the way to his goal, success will surely come.

But every young person is so different! At one meeting with students in Taraz, a guy in his twenties asked, “Can I become a governor right after university?” I asked him whether he was married and whether he had children. No, he answered. I told him that maybe he should get married first and go through the first step of adulthood – responsibility for one’s family.

And another example. We had a frank conversation in Atyrau, and a young man 31 years of age shared his plans. He said, “I live with my wife and children in the regional center, I have a job, and everything seems fine, but I would like to return to my native village. I would like to win the election and work there as a governor. To test me in a new capacity, to do something useful for my fellow countrypeople. But I think I’m not mature enough yet. I need three years to accumulate the necessary experience, and I will be ready when I am 34!”

As they say, see the difference.

– Because we are talking about the elections of rural governors: what would be your assessment of this practice? How would you comment on the cases of the resignation of governors?

– Indeed, there are such instances. For the first quarter of the current year, 10 out of 71 elected governors are those who replaced those elected last summer and who worked in an office for around half a year. There is a natural process, although one can call it natural selection. It seems that someone deceived their expectations, someone simply did not calculate their strength, and someone saw the distrust of the villagers. Everyone has their own reasons.

But in any case, it is a disadvantage to the district’s population, which faces the so-called slackening of power. For example, numerous operational issues of the villages are hard to resolve independently without a governor, especially in times of trouble. Moreover, such cases require unplanned and quite significant budgetary expenditures for the new election campaign.

I would like to tell you about a case that outraged me. There was a meeting in Kokshetau. One elderly man with undisguised disdain declared, “And what of these ’bloody governors’? You can appoint them or elect them, what difference does it make! They are useless…”

I was unable to restrain myself and answered him in the same tone, noting that a village governor is at work 24 hours a day. He lives next to everyone else, he is always in sight. You elected him yourself, so by criticizing him you are criticizing yourself. And if you did not vote for him, you are even more to blame.

This man, unfortunately, is not alone in such judgments. Yes, of course sometimes there are reasons for such assessments, but how can you accuse everyone indiscriminately?

I would like to comment on the difference between “appoint” and “elect”. During another business trip in the Kostanay Region, we witnessed how a man, who has been working in this position for more than 10 years, was elected to be governor of the village. Villagers practically pray for him: they have a road to the regional center, they always have light, and communication, and he always congratulates women in the village on Women’s Day on March 8.

I asked the governor what had changed for him since he was appointed and when he was first elected last year. I told him that judging by the feedback from the villagers and the superiors, both at the district and regional level, he was doing fairly well before and now.

He was silent for quite some time, looking elsewhere. Then he looked at me with slightly moist eyes and said softly, “Everything has changed! People voted for me, showing their trust in me. Now I am accountable to each and every one of them. And for each of them – to myself.”

After talking with him, I thought to myself that elective arithmetic doesn’t always follow the rules of mathematics. You can’t say that this governor has double responsibility. If 100 people voted for him, then his responsibility has increased a hundredfold.

Do you think we can call him a ‘bloody governor’?

And one more example. A delegation of aksakals (honored elders) came to the governor of one of the districts in the Turkistan region. They asked for help: elections are coming soon, they said, but we can’t find a worthy candidate in our village, please, help us find one. The governor of the district found a young, experienced and responsible person. He convincingly won the election against the local candidates, receiving 76 percent of the votes.

He immediately assembled a team of like-minded people and attracted local entrepreneurs. Very quickly an excavation pit for a future sports complex was dug up in the village. The newly elected governor and his associates are confident that they will raise at least two Olympic champions here.

I am deeply convinced that rural governors are the front line of the “listening state.” They are responsible for the well-being of the villagers – that bedrock, the spiritual force of the Kazakh Steppe.
From such examples it is clearly visible that the villagers are convinced of the presidential course to transform the state, they themselves began to choose their leaders, being well aware that their own welfare depends on their choice. Therefore, they began to take a conscious and responsible approach to the elections themselves and to their preparation.

– Can you give concrete examples of this awareness and responsibility? It would be interesting to know what the members of the CEC and its staff learned from their business trips.

– Let me give you some figures. We held more than 70 meetings in the regions and districts of the country, attended by over 10,000 people. As a result, we heard 443 proposals to improve the electoral process.

I can give you concrete examples. In preparation for the elections of rural governors, people propose to clearly define the qualification requirements for candidates and to hold pre-election debates with the participation of all candidates. Undoubtedly, this is the right approach, legal, and does not require financial expenses – only the desire of the candidates and the residents themselves.
This will prevent the election of uncommitted people and populists, who only have the skill of saying the right words. They are also proposing to set a deadline for newly elected governors, during which they must implement their pre-election program. You can see that people have become more demanding toward their future leaders than before.

There was even a suggestion that it is necessary to organize appropriate training for candidates for rural governors. I do not agree with this, because such an approach would lead to unreasonable spending of budgetary funds as there on average 4 candidates per seat. It would be more logical to hold elections 2-3 months before the expiry of the term of office of the incumbent governor. Then, it would be possible to organize full-fledged training for the newly elected candidates at the Academy of Public Administration under the President. This is especially important given that 529 of the 1,041 governors elected today were elected for the first time.

We should approach the elections of governors of rural districts ve

ry attentively and seriously, particularly because this experience, be it positive or negative, will be utilized for the elections of district governors, which will become permanent in a year.
Consider the following: we will elect the executive power in the form of individual people who will have to solve vitally important issues for millions of citizens of Kazakhstan. There is no exaggeration in saying that this will be a milestone in the democratic transformation initiated by the head of atate.

Therefore, it is necessary to start thorough analytical, organizational and explanatory work now. Everyone, including the voters themselves, must be ready for the new test of maturity.
– As you said that “rural governors are the front line of the ‘listening state'”, you could probably say that territorial commissions are the backbone of the country’s electoral system. You engaged with them during your visits. What changes do you think are needed there?

– First of all, they need to be professionals – this is the President’s instruction.

Kazakhstan is entering an era of constant elections. Rural governors have already been elected. Next year we will conduct pilot district governor elections, and from 2024 they will be permanent. There are also elections to maslikhats (local representative bodies) at all levels, parliamentary elections and finally, presidential elections. Given this, as well as the future transition to a proportional-majoritarian model, the introduction of a mandatory mandate, and the fact that now we are likely to have much more frequent referendums, it is time to switch from an amateur to a professional level.

What I mean here is that members of territorial commissions should work on a permanent basis, and have appropriate training and qualifications.

You asked about territorial commissions. But this is only one of the directions of the transformation of the electoral system as a whole. First, of course, the CEC itself has to change. Let’s be frank here: until recently, the Central Electoral Commission had the image of a closed corporation. People did not know what it did. They remembered it only when the results of the elections were announced.

Today, the CEC is becoming open, and this can be seen not only from the above examples of visits to the regions of the country. For the first time, the head office of the commission began to hold meetings with young people. We agreed that it was necessary to open a permanent club for young voters at the CEC.

This decision was not spontaneous. Let’s look at another fact. The average age of Kazakhstan’s citizens is 32. It turns out that we are one of the youngest nations in the world! Undoubtedly, we must focus on young people in our work. Therefore, we consider the establishment of a club for young voters at the CEC as a good opportunity to first arouse interest and then form a conscious need for young Kazakhstan citizens to come to the polls and vote for their future.

In addition, prior to the referendum, the CEC held a series of training seminars for different target audiences: non-governmental organizations, the media, territorial election commissions and youth organizations.

I would like to mention separately a seminar with social protection workers, NGOs and public organizations, whose activities are related to assisting persons with disabilities. In the preparation for the referendum, respecting the rights of our citizens with disabilities has become a priority for literally every member of the CEC, territorial and precinct commissions. This principle will also be observed in all future elections.

I would like to note that all of these seminars were held both live and online, with the latter involving hundreds of participants from literally all regions of Kazakhstan.

– You have talked about many areas of transformation in the electoral system. Which of these do you consider to be the most important?

– I would say fostering the electoral culture of the people of Kazakhstan. This is a very multi-faceted task.

For instance, the introduction of subjects on elections into the curriculum of high schools and the first years of higher education. In general, the study of one’s civil rights and obligations should become one of the elements of the education system for Kazakhstan’s young generation. This knowledge will also form the basis for the formation of electoral culture in our young people, which in the end is the most important component of strengthening civil solidarity, which was emphasized by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev when he spoke about the New Kazakhstan.

– How do you personally see the New Kazakhstan?

– I think New Kazakhstan is not the final goal. Because after the final goal it comes to a stop. And what stops doesn’t grow, but gradually dies out. New Kazakhstan is more likely a constant progression, which means constant renewal.

It also just occurred to me that the New Kazakhstan is also the young man from Atyrau, who not only dreams but also actively prepares to become a governor of his small motherland to not only test himself but to bring as much benefit as possible to his fellow villagers.

This article was originally published in Kazakhstanskaya Pravda.

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