(By Dr Shahid Qureshi – Astana) Voting is under way in the oil-rich former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan in an early parliamentary election expected to provide a commanding majority for long-serving President Nursultan Nazarbayev as the economy struggles.
Sunday’s vote is set to renew a grip of power in the 107-seat parliament for the ruling Nur Otan party as it faces no genuine opposition force – five parties that mostly support the post-Soviet country’s Russia-aligned leader.
The government announced in February that it expects economic growth to slow to 0.5 percent this year, a huge drop from the buoyant expansion it has enjoyed over the past 15 years. Inflation is spiralling, up to 15 percent early this year, and the currency has lost about 30 percent of its value since last year.
The 75-year-old Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan virtually unopposed since before its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, was elected to a new five-year term last year with 98 percent of the vote.
Public demonstrations of discontent are extremely rare in the vast landlocked republic of 17 million people. Dissent is effectively contained through a combination of constant praise for Nazarbayev’s rule in state media and the adoption of repressive measures toward government critics.
Speaking to reporters after casting his vote on Sunday in Astana, Nazarbayev said he could envision changing the political system to grant more authority to parliament.
“We have a presidential system. We could talk about a redistribution of power between different branches – the presidency, parliament and the executive,” said Nazarbayev, a 75-year old former Communist party boss who has ruled Kazakhstan since the 1991 end of the Soviet Union. “As to when this will happen, we will have to see what the situation is with the economy, in the world, inside the country.”
Nazarbayev has intermittently pledged vague commitments to liberalising the country’s political system, but power remains solidly in his hands and is buttressed by the security services.