Longtime opposition politician Amirzhan Qosanov finished Kazakhstan’s June 9 presidential election with an estimated 16.2 percent of the vote, but the result, the highest ever for an opposition presidential candidate in the Central Asian country, appears to have done little to unite other government critics behind the 55-year-old.
Many Kazakhs appeared to see the vote, the first without ex-President Nursultan Nazarbaev since 1991, as a chance to break with the strongarm policies of the past and encourage genuine democratic reform, a plan Qosanov, a journalist by training, advocated.
But Qosanov’s acknowledgement of Acting President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev’s win based on two exit-polls sparked a sharp blowback from supporters and some opposition members. Hundreds of Kazakhs have been arrested throughout the country since election day for alleged participation in unauthorized protests against what many, including international observers, saw as less than a free and fair vote.
Against that backdrop, some claim that Qosanov sold out to the government.
“He legitimized the elections, created the appearance that there is an opposition in our country, and, in so doing, buried himself for the future both as a politician and as a person,” charged Mukhtar Ablyazov, the fugitive billionaire head of the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement, in a June 10 interview with Current Time.
Another self-exiled opposition figure, former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, for whom Qosanov worked in the mid-1990s as a press secretary, claimed that people were “in shock” that Qosanov “suddenly fell for the so-called exit polls prepared by the government,” Election officials authorized only two groups, the Kogamdyk Pikir Institute and the non-profit organization Youth (Molodezh), to run exit polls.
“[T]hese elections were a big test,” Kazhegeldin commented to Current Time. “These elections were a contest between society, the people of Kazakhstan, with the outgoing regime of Nursultan Nazarbaev.”
But in a June 10 interview with Current Time, Qosanov backtracked from his recognition of Toqaev’s victory. “That was a decision made in a hurry. It could have been done after the announcement of the preliminary results,” he said.
Qosanov did not elaborate about the reasons for his rush recognition of Toqaev’s win, but denied, as some critics charge, that he had synchronized the move with the government.
“The government can, without Qosanov, legitimize these elections and Qosanov or someone else from the principled political opposition are not absolutely necessary,” he said.
He added that he had no intention to accept any offered position within the Toqaev government. “I don’t see myself in an authoritarian system,” he said.
Seven candidates took part in the race for Kazakhstan’s presidency, prompted by the March 19 resignation of 78-year-old Nursultan Nazarbaev, Kazakhstan’s president since 1991. Multiple voters told Current Time that they knew little or nothing about most of the contenders apart from Acting President Toqaev, Nazarbaev’s designated successor. Kazakhstan’s one registered opposition party, the Nationwide Social Democratic Party, refused to take part in the poll.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which deployed 322 observers to monitor the presidential election, cautioned in its preliminary report that ballot box stuffing and irregular vote-count procedures meant that “an honest count could not be guaranteed.”
Qosanov had stated before the vote that he did not believe the elections would be honest, but on June 10 he did not question his own result, which he termed an unexpected “step ahead.”
“In the past, we couldn’t dream about 16.2 percent. It’s a new stage. It gives us the chance to be legitimate, to now gather our forces.”
He told Current Time that he would not take to the streets to protest the vote and blamed Ablyazov for urging, from abroad, his own supporters to do so despite the risk of detention.
Like Kazhegeldin, his next focus is on Kazakhstan’s parliamentary elections, slotted for 2021.
He described the parliamentary election as “a team event” not dependent on a single candidate for the outcome, and asserted that his proposals for political diversity and a corruption clean-up offer “change without turmoil.”
“The fact that we’re working within the law, yes, that doesn’t suit the radicals, but it suits the centrists. It suits small and medium businesses that don’t want turmoil.”
Former President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s party, Nur Otan, currently holds the majority in the 104-seat Majilis. No committed opposition party has a seat.