Friday 20 January 2012

Everything changes to remain the same (by now)

Kazakhstan has just elected a new Parliament. Turkmenistan is about to vote for a (new?) president. Although elections usually lead to some sort of change, of course this is not true at all in Former Soviet Central Asia. Recent developments, however, show interesting signs of (possible) changes afoot. Or is it just me being very naïve?

In the big steppes of the north, of course, last Sunday Kazakhs strongly supported the party Nur Otan of its long time leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev. But new rules were adopted to avoid what was happening since the 2007 elections: a Majlis (lower house of parliament) with no other party apart from the ruling party (that, incidentally, won 88% of the votes five years ago). So now any party that comes in second in an election, even those who do not clear the threshold of 7% of the votes, is guaranteed a place in the Parliament. This time, three parties were able to reach the threshold and were given seats. Even so, Nur Otan got 81% of the votes and 89% of the seats in the Majlis.

Last Sundays’s ballot, that was originally scheduled to take place later this year, was brought forward, already with the new rules, supposedly to accelerate a process of political change in the country. But this doesn’t mean there were any real changes after Sunday! Other parties that made it to the Parliament are very weak in terms of opposition – if they can be considered opposition at all. Take the second most voted, Ak Zol. This liberal party will apparently be a sidekick of Nur Otan. It was led in the elections by Azat Peruashev, a Nur Otan member until last July. There is a strategy widely used in electoral authoritarian regimes like Kazakhstan – create or fostering parties that nominally are in opposition, but in practice only exist to support the ruler’s claim that there is democracy. The only party considered real opposition and that took part in the ballot, the National Social Democratic Party, had its leader disqualified days before the vote and did not elect a single representative (read more here). To put in a nutshell: this new rules might be paving the way for real changes in the future, but, really, do you see a “pluralist” parliament now in Kazakhstan? And do you see this happening during Nazarbayev’s lifetime? The dictator commands genuine support, of course, especially in big cities that have seen the bulk of the economic bonanza of the last years. The old and battered argument that the country needs “stability” in order to advance in the economic sphere continues to be used again and again and is particularly effective when dealing with these elites. Terrorist attacks in the West and South, the bloody clashes in Zhanaozen (see my previous posts)… for the elites in Almaty and Astana, the moment is definitely wrong for any exciting moves. For now, the Majlis remains strongly in the hands of Nazarbayev; no party in the parliament represent any danger to him; the criticism of Western observers regarding irregularities in the ballot fell on the usual death ears; protests against irregularities in the vote were negligible; government agents closely monitor Zhanaozen for any further trouble. And… life goes on as normal in Nazarbayevland. The risks remain, though: Nazarbayev is old and will need to leave its throne soon; more terrorist attacks could (and most certainly will) take place sometime in the near future.

Moving south now, honestly, I was surprised when I read that the Parliament in Turkmenistan had passed a bill regulating the creation of political parties (read more here). My surprise itself is obviously not a surprise, since we are talking about the most repressive and non-democratic regime of the region, a country where there are no other parties at all apart from the ruling one. Like in Kazakhstan, however, the changes created by the new law won’t have any practical effect now – they won’t be valid for the February 12 presidential elections. Berdymukhamedow is of course the favorite; there are a couple of other candidates, but no real opposition voices were raised against the supreme leader - despite the recent success on the internet of a video that offers a rare glimpse of Berdymukhamedow’s lovely personality. If you haven’t seen you, please don’t miss it: click here. The Turkmen leader is seen not only treating their ministers like naughty children, but also making some, let’s say, controversial remarks against the Turks. Whereas in the West a video like this will destroy the career of any politician, in Turkmenistan it will certainly not affect at all the expected result of the presidential elections. It has been pointed out that Central Asians like strong leaders that are not afraid of using harsh words. That the lack of finesse is not a problem, quite the opposite, is expected of them. I, on the other hand, think the Central Asians, especially in Turkmenistan, simply don’t care – they still believe they can’t change those in power. Indeed, if they are thinking about elections, they are right. At least for the time being.

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