In this photo released by the Kazakh Presidential Press Office, Kazakh President Kasym-Zomart Kemeluly Tokayev casts his vote at a polling station in Astana, Kazakhstan, Sunday, March 19, 2023.
Astana – Early parliamentary elections were held in Kazakhstan today due to a change in the electoral system earlier than planned. According to polls, the ruling Amanat party of President Kasym-Žomart Tokaev will probably win the election, but independent candidates could also get into the lower house of the parliament based on the new system.
Photo gallery: Elections in Kazakhstan
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Last January, Kazakhstan was swept by mass protests, the suppression of which resulted in over 200 deaths. But today's voting was calm. Voter turnout reached 54.2 percent, authorities announced after the polls closed. Estimates are expected after midnight local time, first results on Monday. The final results must then be announced by March 29, the Astana Times website reported.
About 12.3 million out of a total of roughly 19 million inhabitants could vote, 98 members of the lower house of parliament are elected. The elections are being held early due to constitutional reforms announced by President Tokayev after last year's anti-government protests.
The novelty of today's elections in this country rich in oil and natural gas was that voters did not choose only from representatives of political parties, but also from independent candidates, among whom there are also several opposition politicians. According to Reuters, something like this is happening for the first time in two decades. However, turnout in the largest city, Almaty, which is traditionally the most opposition-leaning, was weak and the streets were full of police.
“We still complain that nothing changes in our country, but we ourselves do not participate in political life . Coming and voting is the least we can do for change,” said 36-year-old manager Yevgenija, who did not want to give her last name or who she voted for.
The threshold for entering parliament was also newly lowered from seven to five percent. According to the DPA agency, international observers also welcomed the news, but at the same time criticized the continued lack of freedom of the press and speech.
Tokayev already voted in the morning in Astana without speaking to journalists. He said the election should allow for the implementation of his plan for reforms and a fairer distribution of revenues from the sale of mineral wealth.
The AFP agency characterized the situation surrounding the elections as a timid opening to democracy despite the lingering reflexes of an authoritarian regime in this largest Central Asian country. Tokaev himself warned that those who sow discord will face severe punishment.
“The electoral system has changed and gives the impression of an election. But in reality, the president and his administration are counting the votes in their hands,” said the political scientist Dimas Aljanov. “In an authoritarian country, elections are held to keep the regime in power, not to replace it,” he added.
The now 69-year-old Tokayev has been president since March 2019, succeeding Nursultan Nazarbayev as head of state, who ruled post-Soviet Kazakhstan since independence in 1991. He resigned unexpectedly in March 2019, but still retained an influential position in the country until last January's riots. These broke out at first as demonstrations against rising fuel prices, but later turned into violent protests against the government. The mob also attacked government buildings in several cities. The regime harshly suppressed the unrest, and Tokayev asked for help from Russia and other post-Soviet states, which temporarily sent their troops there.
During the unrest, Tokayev removed Nazarbayev from the influential post of chairman of the Security Council and later announced reforms. Tokayev's government also returned the name Astana to the capital last year. In 2019, the metropolis was renamed Nur-Sultan, in honor of former president Nazarbayev. Tokayev's reforms also strengthened the powers of the parliament and limited them to the president. However, due to changes in the electoral system, the presidential elections had to be held again, which Tokayev won again in November with 81 percent of the vote.