According to Kazakhstan’s Central Election Commission (CEC), incumbent Nursultan Nazarbayev received 95.5 percent of the vote in Kazakhstan’s April 3 presidential election, with almost 90 percent of the electorate casting ballots. Most observers and analysts believe Nazarbayev won the election easily, but consider the declared victory margin, and especially the turnout figure, implausibly high.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which had the largest of the international observer missions, cited several improvements in this presidential vote over previous ballots, but cautioned that “needed reforms for holding genuine democratic elections still have to materialize as this election revealed shortcomings similar to those in previous elections.”
I observed the electoral process in Astana and Almaty as a member of the Independent Observer Mission, accredited to the Central Election Commission, and exchanged views with election officials, voters, media representatives, foreign diplomats, and the other observer missions.
Despite noting significant irregularities, most observers believe Nazarbayev won the election by a large margin, though 95.5 percent is an atypical figure for any free election. Not only did he face three weak competitors, but Nazarbayev seems genuinely popular among voters, who frequently juxtapose their economic prosperity and political stability against the poverty, political uncertainty and other problems in neighboring Central Asian countries, Afghanistan, and even the Middle East. "Most important for us is to live in peace and stability, particularly as we are looking at the turmoil in many countries in the world including [in] our own neighborhood,” one voter explained to me.
With Nazarbayev’s reelection widely anticipated, most attention centered on turnout. Several opposition groups had called for a boycott. The government and its supporters responded with efforts to boost the number of recorded votes. According to OSCE monitors and foreign diplomats, in some remote areas outside the main cities, these included clearly fraudulent practices, such as ballot stuffing and multiple, proxy, and group voting.
These irregularities denigrated the good work by many officials who tried to run a smooth and clean operation on election day. At the polling stations I visited in Almaty, election commission representatives genuinely sought to do everything correctly as specified in the election-day regulations.
I did not myself see any violations, though an earnest domestic (Kazakh) observer related to me that he saw a young man, who wore a “re-elect Nazarbayev” jacket, promise voters gifts if they voted for the president. He showed me a photograph of the man and his car (with its license plate clearly visible) and said he planned to report the violation to the authorities.
For the most part, the local election commissions that I interacted with adopted a responsible attitude to addressing problems. For example, they tried to resolve issues with voters who went to the wrong polling place by redirecting them to the correct location. In addition, I saw people who were appropriately denied the right to vote when they failed to present proper identification documents.
I met many people in Astana and Almaty who claimed they did not vote—not because they opposed the regime or the elections, but because they were too busy or did not think a single vote would affect the outcome. They said that, while people encouraged them to vote, nobody tried to force them to do so. They said that, since they were no longer in school and worked for a private employer, they did not fear official retribution.
Along with a fellow election observer, I met the head of the Central Election Commission in Astana. He and his colleagues and staff stressed they wanted to administer a clean election. For instance, they explained how they had sought to address earlier OSCE criticisms. As an example, they stopped using electronic voting after the OSCE (and voters) had complained about transparency and other problems with the new technology.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.