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Observers criticize Kazakhstan election

Voters cast ballots Sunday in the oil-rich Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan in elections that are expected to slightly broaden democratic representation in parliament's rubber-stamp lower house. (Anatoly Ustinenko/AP)

Weekend parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan broke the ruling party’s exclusive hold on legislative power, but independent monitors called the vote undemocratic Monday and criticized the government for limiting competition.

Nur Otan, the party of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, won 80.7 percent of the votes cast Sunday, moderating its overwhelming victory in 2007, when it got 88 percent and took every seat in parliament. This time, two other parties squeaked past the 7 percent threshold needed to enter the 107-member body.

But observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the government prevented some parties and candidates from contesting the election; the media operated under self-censorship; and “necessary conditions for the conduct of genuinely pluralistic elections, which are a prerequisite for functioning democratic institutions, were not provided for by the authorities.”

Nazarbayev has made it clear in recent months that he wanted at least one other party in parliament. Both Ak Zhol, a business-leaning party, and the People’s Communist Party got just above the 7 percent needed to qualify. Others received less than 2 percent of the vote.

“If Kazakhstan is serious about their stated goals of increasing the number of parties in parliament, then the country should have allowed more genuine opposition parties to participate in this election,” said João Soares, the head of the OSCE short-term observer mission.

The widespread perception that the 2007 contest was essentially a rubber stamp discomfited Nazarbayev, who as president since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 has been fashioning his traditionally Muslim nation as a dominant player in Central Asia. He has tried to build strong ties to Europe and the United States while remaining on friendly terms with his heavy-duty neighbors, Russia and China.

The president cares about what the world says about him — last week he took pains to tell his countrymen that fair elections were important. “The state has set up all essential conditions for holding open, fair, transparent and competitive elections,” he said in an address to the nation.

Kazakhstan was head of the OSCE in 2010, despite the criticism of human rights groups, and Nazarbayev has welcomed election observers. At the same time, he keeps a firm grasp on power, and regional authorities remain deeply dependent on him, and loyal, making delivering desirable election results a point of pride.

“This election took place in a tightly controlled environment, with serious restrictions on citizens’ electoral rights,” said Miklós Haraszti, head of the long-term observation mission of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. “Genuine pluralism does not need the orchestration we have seen — respect for fundamental freedoms will bring it about by itself.”

Election officials originally decided against allowing residents of the western city of Zhanaozen to vote because the president declared a state of emergency there after police broke up a demonstration Dec. 16 and killed up to 16 protesters. Nazarbayev, however, vetoed the decision, and the election was held.

“More than 70 percent of Zhanaozen voters supported Nur Otan and national stability,” he said Monday. “Nothing could weaken our unity.”

Haraszti called the overall turnout of 75 percent astounding, saying it should be listed in the Guinness book of records, according to the Interfax news agency reporting from the capital of Astana.

“Almost all of the voters participated in elections,” he said. “Almost everyone voted the same way.”



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