Impact of Reforms Transforming Kazakhstan

On becoming President of Kazakhstan in 2019, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev wanted to capitalize on the competitive advantage of his motherland being a global investment hub. He reflects in his most recent speech in Karaganda: “We remain attractive to foreign investors. Kazakhstan is widely known as responsible in international affairs and a dynamically developing country, aimed at achieving progress in its development and striving for mutually beneficial cooperation.” 

Muhammad Rafiq.

He had a dream to transform Kazakhstan into a modern state with the balance of power redistributed among the executive, legislative and judiciary. He aims to develop Kazakhstan into a state where the real beneficiaries of Kazakhstan’s wealth and prosperity are its all citizens. While highlighting the vital importance of his reform agenda, Tokayev said, “This is especially important against the backdrop of the critically difficult geopolitical situation, the growing atmosphere of total hostility and mistrust.”

Resenting cronyism and concentration of wealth, President Tokayev has recently reiterated, “The era of oligarchic capitalism in Kazakhstan is ending as the country is entering an era of greater social responsibility to its citizens. Our citizens need an efficient and socially responsible business that occupies a leading position in the country’s economy.” 

During his first two years as President Tokayev undertook some initial reforms in enhancing communication between the society and the government, empowering women, removing obstacles in peaceful assemblies, compulsory health insurance, increase in child care payment period to 18 months and boosting the electoral process by introducing direct elections of district and rural akims (mayors).  

Historically, Kazakhstan has been a beacon of stability in the region for which it has attracted foreign direct investment of $330 billion. President Tokayev effectively handled the January 2022 events when peaceful rallies against the rise of gasoline price turned into terrorist turmoil causing 166 casualties. Stability was restored in a fortnight. The President launched a comprehensive plan to address the crisis and support long-term well-being of the people that included measures relating to equal distribution of wealth, uniform regional development, eradication of poverty, and long term stability.

President Tokayev has insight of how devastating the abrupt and unsystematic political liberalization, for example, the Arab Spring and color revolutions led to destabilization and the fragmentation of statehood. Therefore, the gradual political modernization is all the more important. Well before the referendum for constitutional reforms on June 5, 2022, President Tokayev said in his address to the People’s Assembly of Kazakhstan, “We are moving to a new model of the state, a new form of state-society interaction. This qualitative transition may be called the Second Republic. The constitutional amendments aim to build a New Kazakhstan.” The referendum was a historic success, as 77.18 percent voters approved amendments to the constitutions. The constitutional reforms approved massively by the Kazakhstan public, are going to impact the power structure in three ways.

Firstly, a transfer of more power to the parliament has been designed. The President’s mandate to nominate members to the senate has been reduced from 15 to 10, as the remaining five would now be nominated by the assembly of the ethnic communities. Then, the President will no longer be appointing the chairman of the constitutional court and the Supreme Court. Out of six members of the constitutional court, three each would be nominated by the national assembly and the senate, while only the remaining four would be nominated by the president. 

The registration procedure for political parties has also been simplified. In another reform, chairmen and judges of the constitutional court, the Supreme Court and other courts, chairmen and members of the central electoral commission, the parliament’s auditing committee, military personnel, employees of national security agencies, and law enforcement agencies, have been debarred from becoming members of the political parties, trade unions and from canvassing for any political party. The Senate will no longer have the power to make new laws, and instead will just approve or reject laws passed by the Mazhilis.

Secondly, certain constitutional measures have been adopted to redistribute powers among institutions. The parliament’s audit committee that oversees expenditures would also report to the parliament twice a year. Ban is being imposed on the president’s immediate family members holding political and leadership offices in the public sector. Land and its subsoil have been declared the property of the people of Kazakhstan. 

Tokayev has emphasized the importance of local governance, marked by the first-ever direct election of village akims and plans to introduce three new regions that will bring government bodies closer to the populations they represent. Kazakhs will get to vote for akims of oblasts, major cities, and the capital.

Thirdly, a system of check and balance is being evolved. A rightful balance between the different pillars of power has been envisaged. The establishment of an auditing committee will keep the budgetary check and assert accountability. Then, the constitutional court is being created at the helm of the judicial system where citizens will be able to appeal. After the constitutional amendments, the president would be prohibited from holding membership of any political party during office. It will also curtail the power of the president to wholly or partly limit/overrule the authority of a provincial governor, mayor, or district commissioner deputy who does not fulfill his election promises.

Moreover, in his Presidential Address last month, Tokayev unfolded another batch of reforms. He has introduced most dashing legislation preventing all future presidents from serving more than one term of seven years. 

This is a unique political reform in entire Central Asia that would beef up further stability of Kazakhstan. Instead of being tempted to adopt short term or ad hoc policies to secure the next term, the focus of the serving presidents would be shifted to long term planning in the best interest of the country. Certainly, it is a real breakthrough in developing democracy in Kazakhstan. 

In social circles, public satisfaction is evident at the establishment of the National Fund for Children from Jan. 1, 2024 whereby 50 percent annual investment income of the National Fund would be allocated in savings accounts for children until they reach the age of 18. Upon reaching this age, the accumulated amounts will be used towards purchasing housing and receiving education. Holding of an early presidential election has also been announced. Tokaev has called for the election of the Mazhilis (lower house of parliament) and Maslikhats (local representative bodies) in the first half of 2023.

Above analysis reflects that the package of reforms being implemented by President Tokayev aims at decentralization of power, preventing monopolies in having privileged access to national resources, institutionalization of the concept of political opposition, strengthening the authority of local and regional government, and participation of people in governing the country. Kazakhstan is well on its way to become an advanced modern democratic nation with a “strong President-influential Parliament-accountable Government.”

The author is Muhammad Rafiq (Pakistan), a senior banker based in Kazakhstan, with a keen interest in Central Asian studies.

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