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Kazakhstan’s elections have never taken place as scheduled, and despite the recent resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had been president for nearly thirty years, it seems that in this respect, nothing has changed. The Kazakh authorities have announced a snap presidential election in June: the former president is apparently in a great hurry to complete the power transition.
In his time, Nazarbayev would justify unscheduled elections by arguing that voting should not be a distraction from reforms that would propel Kazakhstan toward joining the world’s 30 most developed countries. In a televised announcement on April 9, interim president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev appealed to the same logic, saying an early election (Nazarbayev’s term was not due to end until April 2020) was “absolutely necessary” in order to ensure public political accord, move forward, solve socioeconomic development issues, and—most tellingly—remove any uncertainty.
A snap election at this time injects considerable confusion into the initial power transfer arrangement. As head of the newly powerful Security Council and lifelong leader of the nation, Nazarbayev had been expected to remain the country’s de facto number one. For the next year, it was believed that Tokayev would be his number two, while Nazarbayev’s oldest daughter Dariga would be the third most powerful person in the country, having been appointed speaker of the upper house of parliament following her father’s resignation.
A year would have been enough time to think about future power configurations and redistribute government seats in a way that would keep the current political system virtually unchanged and allow the Nazarbayev clan (his relatives and entourage) to hold on to their positions. But the seventy-eight-year-old former president appears to be running out of time: his health is not improving (the opposition revealed back in 2011 that Nazarbayev had cancer), so the power transition must be accelerated.
Nazarbayev has a choice of two candidates. The first is Tokayev, the former speaker of the Senate, who has shown himself to be fiercely loyal to the leader of the nation. He wasted no time in renaming Astana, the country’s capital, to Nursultan in honor of Kazakhstan’s first president, while the central streets of Kazakh cities were also renamed after Nazarbayev. Tokayev is at pains to show that he is not straying from the path charted by the former president.
On the other hand, Tokayev has already taken some populist steps: Kazakhstan no longer blocks Internet access in the evenings, and the president has intervened to suspend the construction of a ski resort in the Kok Zhailau national park. Shortly before the snap election announcement, pro-government websites published polls showing that Tokayev was considered the most suitable president for Kazakhstan at this time. The results should be taken with a pinch of salt, but they point to Tokayev’s attempts to conduct his own election campaign.
Tokayev administration officials have recently held over ten meetings with opinion-makers, including those from the opposition, assuring them that the new president does not oppose the liberalization of public life, and that he is prepared to continue dialogue after being reelected.
Tokayev’s main problem is that his team consists almost entirely of officials who once pledged allegiance to Nazarbayev. In other words, it’s not really his team. Tokayev also lacks decisive influence in other spheres, such as the media, security services, and the economy, meaning he is not an independent figure.
The new president can only hope that Nazarbayev will ultimately select him as his permanent successor. A year would have allowed Tokayev to assemble a team of supporters, but a force majeure in the form of Nazarbayev’s death would leave him facing numerous interest groups, which certainly wouldn’t be as submissive to him as they were to the national leader.
Candidate number two is Dariga Nazarbayeva. As soon as the snap election was announced, her aides said she wouldn’t run, but then later—as though running scared—they started hastily backtracking. Both Nazarbayeva and Tokayev belong to Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party, so the party convention could nominate either of them.
Nazarbayeva’s main advantage over Tokayev is her last name. She controls a significant proportion of the country’s media and economy, plus she always has a trump card up her sleeve: her father’s siloviki. During the last year, Dariga’s associates have significantly increased their influence on the government bureaucracy, and she has come to partly own a number of banks. Nazarbayeva is one of the republic’s shadow leaders, and the temptation to make her president right away is very strong. Her name will shield her from investigations into her past and current assets: everything will remain close to the country’s main political clan.
The problem is that nominating Dariga right now amounts to clear dynastic succession. The issue here is not Tokayev’s feelings, which can be dispensed with if necessary: he is Nazarbayev’s foot soldier and will understand. But the people who will later inscribe Nazarbayev’s name in history books won’t forgive him for it. This is an important consideration for Nazarbayev, who opposed renaming the capital after him during his tenure.
In addition, Dariga Nazarbayeva has a mixed reputation inside the country, which might lead to protest voting. While that’s not such a serious obstacle—one of Dariga’s in-laws heads the Central Election Commission, and Nazarbayev’s nephew, who is the deputy chair of the National Security Committee, could take care of any offline protests—such upfront nepotism is not to Nazarbayev’s liking. After all, only a month has passed since he stepped down, not even a year.
No one is seriously entertaining the prospects of any other candidates, so the decision must be made between the two. It’s a tricky situation for Nazarbayev. One possible solution could be a gradual transition to a parliamentary republic: in that eventuality, Tokayev could remain president after the June 9 election, while Dariga could come to power later, as a result of the constitutional changes. This option would ostensibly please everyone. Constitutional amendments in 2017 already strengthened the role of the parliament, and it’s always possible to boost it even further. The question is whether Nazarbayev still has time to pull this off.
In the final analysis, Kazakhstan’s power handover increasingly resembles a trap for Nazarbayev. He wants the process to go smoothly, as planned, but the entire system only works when he is at the helm. There is no one capable of replicating precisely what the first president conceived. Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan with an iron fist, but that fist is gradually growing weaker. As for Tokayev and Nazarbayeva, their influence can buy them respect, but it doesn’t inspire fear.
When the time came to hand over power, it became apparent that there is ultimately no one to whom it can be transferred. There is no other figure of Nazarbayev’s magnitude. The father of the nation can’t trust anyone except himself, which means he can’t give up power until his death. Each next step raises new questions for Nazarbayev, and ready answers are increasingly scarce. This makes for a fragile and unstable transition, yet there’s no one to blame for that. In any event, risks will have to be taken.
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