The 2021 Kazakhstan Legislative Elections: Reflections on the ‘Listening State’


Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, and against the backdrop of a set of organised regional restrictions, Kazakhstan successfully held elections to its lower house of parliament (Majilis) on 10 January 2021. In strict observance of the health measures, citizens voted in what was, as expected, a sweeping victory for the ruling Nur Otan party. With the new parliamentary make-up returning an almost identical distribution of seats to the Majilis when compared to the previous parliamentary elections in 2016, the victory was a firm affirmation of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s aspirations of achieving progress through reform for Kazakhstan. 

Several partners, including the European Union, were quick to congratulate Kazakhstan for its effective management of the Majilis elections, noting its ‘efficient organisation’ in light of the pandemic. The EU also praised Kazakhstan’s continued cooperation with the Organization on Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), but remained conscious that national elections are still not held entirely ‘in line with international standards’. China also responded, with Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian citing the elections as held in a ‘smooth’ manner, emphasising the maintenance of political stability and the ‘great progress in national development’ that will be achieved as a result.

The political system of Kazakhstan consists of 5 primary and registered parties, all of which are broadly pro-government. An additional party, the Nationwide Social Democratic Party, is regarded as an opposition party and chose to not contest the elections, citing the lack of opposition. The ruling party, Nur Otan, which retained its supermajority in the Majilis, is a big-tent party founded in 1999, through which Nursultan Nazarbayev, the ‘Leader of the Nation’ and President from 1990-2019 in the post-Soviet years, continues to have influence over. Ak Zhol, a centre-right liberal party, and the People’s Party, a socialist party with communist roots, were two more that were able to reach the 7% threshold for representation in the Majilis. The remaining parties to contest the election were Ayal and Adul, both of which are centre-left with an environmental focus. However, they did not reach the required threshold, therefore not gaining any seats.

In the election itself, 98 representatives were returned to the 107 member Majilis through a system of proportional representation based on party lists. The remaining 9 members are chosen by the national Assembly of the People, an advisory body which represents the ethnic minorities living in the Central Asian state. The results of the elections were as broadly predicted, in a poll that was critically identified as lacking ‘genuine competition’. The ruling Nur Otan party retained control of the Majilis with 71.1% of the vote, thus gaining 84 seats; despite seeing the loss of 8 seats and a decrease of 11.1% in their total vote compared to the 2016 election results. This signals that there was a small increase in the vote share and seats for two smaller parties, the Ak Zhol Party and People’s Party, indicating that both were able to exceed the 7% vote threshold required for parliamentary representation. The overall turnout reached 63.3%, (with the maslihat local elections held simultaneously), the lowest since 1999, albeit impressive considering the Covid-19 situation and the freezing temperatures that Kazakhstan experiences in January.

This was the first poll since President Tokayaev acceded to the Presidency of Kazakhstan in June 2019, taking over from Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stood down after 19 years in power. Nazarbayev remains politically active, notably as chairperson of the Assembly of the People, and has been given the title, ‘Leader of the Nation’. With Tokayev citing these elections as ‘another step in the country’s democratic development’ and an ‘examination for civil society’, it was also the first legislative election since new constitutional and political reforms were implemented, following recommendations from the OSCE/OHIDR. With some citing Tokayev’s motivations for reform as a means to gain the public legitimacy lost during the presidential transition, others tend to view the reforms in a more progressive manner. For example, 2020 amendments to political laws reduced the minimum number of members required to register a new political party, from an original 40,000 down to 20,000; a policy designed to promote new political voices and a general improvement to pluralism. Other notable changes included a quota applied to candidates on party lists, requiring at least 30% to be composed of women and youth candidates below the age of 29. The 2021 election saw a substantial improvement in this, with 90 out of 312 candidates (28.8%) being women, a marked increase of 20.1% since 2016. Elsewhere there were improvements to the involvement of minorities, with 13.8% ethnic Russians and 6.4% from 10 other ethnicities nominated to be candidates from the five main parties, emphasising the desire for Kazakhstan to express its diverse demographics in its political processes. 

The election itself focused largely on social and infrastructure development, economic growth, and the general implications stemming from Covid-19. The Nur-Otan party campaigned on a platform of continuity and stability, titling their five year program as the ‘Path of Change: A Decent Life for All’. This plays into some of President Tokayev’s aspirations and philosophies, such as the concept of the ‘listening state’, a pledge to further transparency and engagement with civil society. As ‘a mechanism for ensuring a continuous dialogue between state and society’, with ‘the former giving a prompt and effective response to the needs of citizens’, the ‘listening state’ is reflected in Nur Otan’s manifesto, in the form of strong social justice policies, a people-focused development of the national economy, and state and government accountability. Investment of KZT 21 trillion (USD 49.9 billion) has been promised for implementation, with the increased spending also going toward assisting in building an ‘intellectual nation’, in reference to developing the sectors of education, science and healthcare. 

President Tokayev’s insistence on modernising Kazakhstan’s political and social culture has been perpetuated through his pledge in 2019 of increased transparency, formulated through the nation’s government aspiration to become ‘a listening state’. Simultaneously calling upon his accession in 2019 for the country to ‘maintain continuity’ while attempting ‘systemic reforms’, Tokayev’s efforts to harmonise the relationship between government and society have experienced gradual progression. While remaining largely ambiguous, this change in philosophy stems from the peaceful transition of power that Kazakhstan experienced when Nazarbayev left office. Yet, this is also about Tokayev’s acknowledgment of the society Kazakhstan is today, rather than what it was in the post-Soviet years. 

Tokayev views constitutional and legislative reform as a means to economic growth, thus allowing increased transparency and clarity to his form of governance is one step in a very long game. For example, one of his first moves was to establish a Commission on Public Trust, with the Majilis regarded as a key cornerstone of his policy on expansion of transparency and openness. As a chamber in which Kazakhstan’s diversity can be fully represented, Tokayev identifies the Majilis as an area in which the seeds towards political pluralism and a multi-party system can be sown, also hoping that the lower chamber will provide a more complete representation of the nation’s electorate, both in terms of its peoples and its parties. This is already built on the foundation of the Majilis’ Assembly of the People, which functions as a voice for ethnic minorities and underlines Kazakhstan’s prominence as a diverse and inclusive country. 

Furthemore, in the days following the election, President Tokayev has since proposed further political reforms, which includes a reduction of the threshold for parties to gain seats in the Majilis from 7% to 5%, and the addition of an option to vote ‘against all’ parties on the voting ballots. This will assist in the long run with giving the Majilis a more diversified parliamentary makeup. Also discussed was the potential for directly elected mayoral regional elections, first proposed in September 2020, with elections for district mayors possible if the first round is successful. This underlines Tokayev’s emphasis on introducing further direct democracy to political processes, with the power of appointment to be used less extensively in the future. Besides this, in order to move towards increased pluralism, one aspect Tokayev should perhaps be focusing on next should be to hand greater powers to the Majilis in the years ahead, including the ability to question government policy in the form of committees, a key feature of the process of government accountability.  

The OSCE described the elections themselves as ‘efficiently run’, noting the strict observance of sanitary requirements, though the lack of ‘genuine choice’ permeated the election, as the two new parties in the Majilis are both pro-government and broadly support its agenda. However, the OSCE noted the number of revisions since the previous legislative elections in 2016. Besides the political reforms made to promote pluralism and a more diverse and representational process, constitutional reform has been made to simplify the processes associated with political activism, including the loosening of freedom of assemblies and speech. The 2020 Law on Peaceful Assemblies altered the wording on outdoor campaign-related gatherings to cite that ‘notification’ was required rather than ‘permission’, again, evidence that gradual change suits Kazakhstan well with incremental progression. The OSCE did also note however that restrictions remain with registering new parties, with financial hurdles in place, requiring a deposit of KZT 637,500 (EUR 1250), which is not always possible for small parties with provincial origins. The OSCE findings were also critical of the treatment of observers, with some barred from visiting polling stations while others had difficulties receiving Covid-19 test results after obligatory testing. In summary, the OSCE found that the election emphasised the need for the ‘announced political reforms’. There is much work to do, though it should be highlighted that democratisation is a process that requires steady progress, rather than immediate change.

It is obvious that systemic shortcomings and limitations remain with respect to the freedom of opposition parties and assembly for example. Critics toward President Tokayev have also underlined the content of his new laws, such as the recent law on demonstrations which still requires permission and can only be held in designated areas.  The European Union, in accordance with its Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA) with Kazakhstan, asserted that Kazakhstan should continue to cooperate with the OSCE and examine and enact the recommendations outlined. The EU referred to the election as a ‘missed opportunity’ to demonstrate the effective implementation of the political reforms. However, it could be noted that a step by step and gradual progress is more apt for Kazakhstan as it would not be logical to compare Kazakhstan to countries or states with long traditions of multi-party governance

The European Union has also said it will ‘continue to support Kazakhstan’s reform and modernisation processes and democracy, stability and inclusivity in the country’. With Tokayev’s ambitious agenda of political reform, there are thus more avenues for engagement in this area. EU-Kazakhstan relations currently revolve around the recently ratified (March 2020) ECPA, which among other things, allow for increased political dialogue between the two parties and has created a more favourable regulatory environment for business in areas such as raw materials. For now however, the EU should continue to press Kazakhstan for further development of Tokayev’s ‘listening state’ pledge, particularly through the Roadmap for Engagement with Civil Society 2018-2020. As a part of this, an annual Human Rights Dialogue is already held, with discussion between the two parties ranging from topics such as the freedom of expression and assembly to civil society. An update to the Roadmap could be thus timely and effective, in order to take into account the realities of Tokayev’s pledges related to civil society and the consideration that he came into office in 2019. Increased attention should be placed on the work of the EU Delegation in Nur Sultan, where projects under the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) total around EUR 2 million. Further dialogue with civil society organisations in Kazakhstan will be pertinent in the long term, thus emphasising the role that the EU could have to assist President Tokayev in achieving his aspirations of a ‘listening state’ and economic growth through political reform. Though Tokayev will continue to pursue the nation’s multi-vectored approach to foreign relations, balancing relationships with global partners, Kazakhstan could be receptive to increased EU dialogue in terms of assisting with civic participation processes, particularly as the EU is Kazakhstan’s largest trade and investment partner

The January 2021 Majilis elections have preserved President Tokayev’s position, and the maintenance of the balance of power delivered by the results are an affirmation of his political goals. With a realistic and incremental reform agenda, the next few years for Kazakhstan look to be eventful. With the promise and encouragement of further civic participation, Kazakhstan’s growth will be measured by the extent to which it can introduce further transparency and become a ‘modern and responsive state’ that can involve its citizens in order to find solutions for the problems of today; this will be the ‘next stage in the country’s remarkable development’. Responsible external partners like the EU can assist here, encouraging dialogue within Kazakhstan to engage citizens further. While actions are being taken to promote diversity in the political processes of the nation, and simplifying the laws on the freedom of assembly, Kazakhstan is democratising in its own way, in a controlled manner. With a President attempting to bring concerted political change, 2021 and the future look encouraging for Kazakhstan.

Author: Simon Hewitt, EIAS Junior Researcher


Photo Credits: The Economist