The overwhelming victory by interim President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in Kazakhstan’s presidential elections on Sunday came as no shock – he was running under the banner of former president and ruling party leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, who, despite his resignation, still holds the key reins of power in the oil-rich Central Asian country.
“Our task is to preserve all the achievements and move forward on the path of progress and creation,” Tokayev said after the results were announced – reconfirming his allegiance to his predecessor.
After Nazarbayev stepped down in March after a 30-year rule, Tokayev, his handpicked successor, called a snap election. The election had been largely seen as a power transition plan to secure Nazarbayev’s enormous wealth, and his historical legacy.
Its result also appears to pave the way for his daughter’s ascent to the country’s top office.
Although the elections were slammed by observers, under Tokayev, the Central Asia state is expected to remain on a stable path, as it aims to balance good relations with Russia, China and the West, while further leveraging its vast oil wealth.
A widely expected outcome
According to the first exit polls, career diplomat Tokayev won about 70% of the votes, beating all other candidates by a landslide. Opposition leader Amirzhan Kosanov had about 16%, while liberal Ak Zhol party leader Danya Espaeva secured a distant third place with 5%.
Tokayev’s loyalty was never in doubt. His first decision as interim president was renaming the capital from Astana to Nur-Sultan, in a bow to the man who led the Kazakh nation since its independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991.
Despite his surprise step-down in March, the former president never loosened his grip on power. Last year, he appointed himself head of the Security Council, a powerful organ overseeing the country’s security apparatus.
Moreover, he maintains leadership of the ruling party, Nur-Otan, and enjoys the status of Yelbasy, or “Leader of the Nation,” which grants him life-long protection from prosecution.
In his 30-year rule, Nazarbayev sterilized the country’s political field, eradicating all real opposition, replacing them with a handful of Potemkin parties defined as “constructive opposition.”
Sunday’s elections were deemed unfair by observers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. They were conducted “in a political environment dominated by the ruling party” in which “a honest count could not be guaranteed,” the OSCE said.
Observers pointed at numerous violations of citizens’ fundamental rights. Hundreds were detained by the police while protesting against what were seen by many as predetermined elections.
Some good signs
Opposition leader Kosanov was widely criticized for conducting a low-key campaign that made no direct attacks on Tokayev or his predecessor. According to critics, Kosanov was allowed to run as a spoiler candidate in order to defuse the threat posed by more radical opposition leader in exile Mukhtar Ablyazov, leader of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement.
Ablyazov was blamed by authorities for being behind unsanctioned protests during the election. Still, there were some moves in the direction of political liberalization.
A record seven candidates participated, though most were obscure figures with no real chance. It was also the first time in the country’s history that a female candidate, Danya Yesparyeva, participated in the race. Also, long-term government critic Amirzhan Kosanov was exceptionally allowed to run.
And Tokayev’s triumph looks rather modest compared to the average results obtained by Nazarbayev in past elections. For example, in the last elections, in 2015, he triumphed with nearly 98% of the vote.
A pre-set path
Both in domestic and foreign policy, Tokayev is likely to continue guiding Kazakhstan on the course set by his predecessor, which brought relative prosperity to the post-Soviet republic largely by leveraging its vast oil resources.
Under Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan conducted a multi-vector foreign policy, keeping equally good relations with neighbors China and Russia, as well as with the United States and the West.
Kazakhstan’s neutral position was particularly evident in the context of Russia’s growing confrontation with the West. Despite close personal relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Nazarbayev did not recognize the Russia-backed breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, nor did he support Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Still, Kazakhstan plays a key role in the Eurasian Economic Union, Putin’s pet project of Eurasian integration, as well as in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to connect China’s market with Europe’s.
This neutral foreign policy and internal stability have attracted foreign investors who have poured cash into the local oil industry. However, dropping oil prices in recent years have slowed growth and Tokayev will have to deal with rising popular discontent engendered by poor social services, endemic corruption and a growing wealth gap in the country.
Nazarbayev’s master plan proceeds
By endorsing the loyal and apparently unambitious Tokayev, Nazarbayev is likely to secure a smooth transition.
“As long as he is alive, Nazarbayev won’t allow anyone outside his closest circle to access power, since that would put at risk the enormous wealth and influence he and his family accumulated,” Vyacheslav Polovinko, a Kazakhstan-focused correspondent for Novaya Gazeta, told Asia Times.
According to some analysts, Tokayev is a transition figure who will ultimately hand over power to Nazarbayev’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva. She was nominated as the Senate chairwoman in March, and now is second in line for the presidency.
According to Polovinko, Nazarbayev’s decision to delegate additional power to parliament in 2017 was no coincidence. A transition from a presidential to a parliamentary system might be already in motion and once completed, Dariga would find herself occupying the country’s highest post.
“In Kazakhstan’s politics, those kindd of appointments are never casual,” Polovinko said. “There is always a reason behind them.”