Kazakhstanis vote in new competitive parliamentary elections

ASTANA, Kazakhstan (AP) — Voters in Kazakhstan went to the polls Sunday to select lawmakers for the lower house of parliament, whose membership is undergoing changes following bloody riots that swept the resource-rich Central Asian nation a year ago.

Although the electoral field was unusually large, with two newly registered parties and hundreds of individual candidates joining the race, the turnout appeared to be relatively unenthusiastic – about 54% of eligible voters cast their ballots, according to the National Electoral Commission.

The snap elections took place on the fourth anniversary of the resignation of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has led Kazakhstan since independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and has wielded enormous influence.

His successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, was expected to continue Nazarbayev’s authoritarian course and even renamed the capital Nur-Sultan in honor of his predecessor.

But the country’s political landscape has changed markedly since a wave of violence in January 2022, when provincial protests, initially sparked by rising fuel prices, swept other cities, especially the commercial capital of Almaty, and became overtly political, with demonstrators shouting “Old man out!” in relation to 82-year-old Nazarbayev.

More than 220 people, mostly protesters, died as police cracked down on the unrest. Amid the violence, Tokayev removed Nazarbayev from his powerful post as head of the National Security Council. He returned the capital to its former name of Astana, and parliament repealed a law granting Nazarbayev and his family immunity from prosecution.

Tokayev also initiated reforms to strengthen parliament, reduce presidential powers, and limit the presidential term to one seven-year term. Under the reforms, a third of the 98 seats in the lower house of parliament will be elected through single-member races, not party lists.

The ruling Amanat party has an overwhelming majority of seats in the current parliament, with the remaining seats held by parties largely loyal to Amanat.

Although opinion polls show that Amanat will remain the largest party in the new parliament, the likely final balance is unclear. More than 400 candidates, most of them self-nominated, competed in single-member races, and the national electoral commission allowed two additional parties to participate in proportional voting.

“We can only hope that these elections will contribute to the further consolidation of society, democracy, and that the idea of ​​a new and just Kazakhstan will develop with the real participation of the population in this,” Austrian Martin Sajdik, a member of the Organization elections in Europe on security and cooperation in Europe.

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