Citizens of Kazakhstan are widely expected on Sunday (June 5) to vote “yes” in a referendum on constitutional reform aimed at decentralizing power. Not that there’s massive enthusiasm about what’s on offer. The positive response could simply be a reflection of Kazakhs’ desire to strip three-decade former president Nursultan Nazarbayev of his title of “Elbasy”, or head of the nation, and swipe powers granted to the 81-year-old under the current constitution when he resigned in 2019. The honorary title also granted Nazarbayev and his family complete immunity from prosecution.
There is some consternation about a weak information campaign before the vote, but some 56 amendments to the constitution were proposed. These include the re-establishment of the Constitutional Court, abolished in 1995, and the ban on the president being a member of a political party and his relatives from holding public office.
While the public would no doubt like to see a more democratic Kazakhstan, many Kazakhs also remain skeptical of current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, widely seen as responsible for what many see as security atrocities. state and military forces during the civil unrest that so rocked the country in January, wiping out oil-rich Kazakhstan’s reputation among foreign investors for enduring political stability. At least 230 people have died according to official figures, although some independent sources say the death toll is in the thousands.
Nazarbayev, now 81, ruled for three decades. His era will be partly remembered for the bloody events that marked his end in January, when civil unrest spread across Kazakhstan. (Image: Kremlin.ru, cc-by-sa 3.0).
Many Kazakhs who oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine also see Tokayev as a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The unrest was accompanied by what many analysts considered an attempted coup. Tokayev turned to Putin, who then backed the Tokayev regime by sending troops to help stabilize the situation in Kazakhstan under the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) military pact.
So while the referendum is seen as a step in the right direction, it is unlikely to be seen as enough to turn the country into the desired democracy due to the public’s continued mistrust of 69-year-old Tokayev.
“Tokayev understands that and that’s why to some extent he’s trying to position himself using this referendum as a man trying to change something,” Kazakh political analyst Dosym Satpayev told Reuters.
Tokayev, the second president of post-Soviet independent Kazakhstan, is expected to seek re-election when his current term ends in 2024. Satpayev sees the referendum as partly “a rehearsal for the presidential election”, noting that Tokayev would take overwhelming support to the amendments as a vote in favour.
However, despite the restoration of the constitutional court and the granting of additional powers to the parliament, the proposed amendments will still leave the main levers of power in the hands of the president. Many of Tokayev’s critics are likely to continue to oppose his regime, even if the referendum sees the public overwhelmingly in favor.
The referendum may nonetheless bode well for future political activity in the country and help the public put additional pressure on Tokayev as he aims to ease the process of registering political parties in the country. Taking advantage of Tokayev’s stated intention to remove the dominance of the ruling Kazakh party, Amanat, in parliament, many politically active Kazakh citizens may try to seize this opportunity to further democratization. Several organizations and individuals who opposed Tokayev’s predecessor while he was in power said they would form new political parties after the referendum.
This scenario includes a return to politics of Bolat Abilov, a prominent businessman and former opposition figure in Kazakhstan. There is also a declared intention to form a political party by a group in Kazakhstan involved in defending the rights of ethnic Kazakhs in China’s harshly repressed northwestern Xinjiang region – the group has accused Kazakh authorities of doing nothing to help ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang who want to move to Kazakhstan. Kazakhs remain suspicious of the close connection between Tokayev’s fortune and that of Putin. They may soon get an idea of the extent to which Tokayev is prepared to test Beijing’s patience.