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Jana Kazakhstan (New Kazakhstan): Overhauling the Old

Kazakhstan is gearing up for snap elections of the lower house of parliament on March 19, and there is a sense of anticipation in the air. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who came to power in 2019, called for snap elections in the wake of the deadly street protests in January 2022. The elections are part of the president’s ambitious reform agenda, “Zhana Qazaqstan” (New Kazakhstan), which aims to usher in a new era of political liberalization.

The parliamentary elections are stage two of Tokayev’s program, following his re-election winning 80 percent of the votes last November. The coming elections will see 70 percent of the country´s lawmakers elected through party lists, while the remaining seats will be contested in single-member districts. While it has become easier to register a new political party on paper, there are concerns that the Justice Ministry is still rejecting applications from anyone critical of the government. Party registration remains difficult, especially for anyone critical of the government, and this has raised concerns about the potential for a “pocket parliament” controlled by the presidential administration.

Despite these concerns, a couple of parties have made it through the registration process, becoming the first new parties to be registered in two decades. The Respublica party, led by once-apolitical businessman Beibit Alibekov, has been approved and supports advancing Tokayev’s Jana Kazakhstan agenda. The Baitak party bills itself as a green party, but its leader, Azamatkhan Amirtayev, has faced criticism for taking the side of officials in a dispute with eco-activists over plans to drain a local lake.

Legacy parties from the Nazarbayev era, such as Amanat (formerly Nur Otan), are not looking as strong as they once did, with the ultimate loyalties of these parties far from certain. The rural interests Auyl (Village) party and the National Social Democratic Party, or OSDP, are also contesting, but the OSDP is recently considered a spent force.

Despite the challenges, there is a sense of hope amongst the people that the lower house parliamentary elections will pave the way for a more democratic Kazakhstan. Tokayev has made it clear that he wants to build a new Kazakhstan, free from the corrupt cronyism that prevailed in the Nazarbayev era. The president’s sweeping reform agenda includes political liberalization and the elections are an important step in that direction.

The people of Kazakhstan are eagerly awaiting the results of the elections and are hoping that they will mark a turning point in the country’s history. “It is important for Tokayev that new personalities appear in the Majilis who are going to participate in the construction of a New Kazakhstan while also respecting the political rules established by the authorities,” Tolganay Umbetaliyeva, Director General of the Central Asian Foundation for Democracy, said.

With new parties emerging and the potential for change on the horizon, there is reason to be optimistic about the future of democracy in Kazakhstan. By doing so, Kazakhstan can take a major step towards a more democratic future. The government must ensure that the elections are free and fair, and that all parties and candidates have an equal chance to participate. Political observers are cautiously optimistic but point out the big bear in the room, Russia. The question how the regime in Moscow will react to the liberalization moves remains a riddle.