Macro Analysis /
Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan: Incumbent Tokayev to prevail in largely pre-determined election

  • Tokayev certain to win with backing of all major parties, opponents have limited credibility

  • Campaign uneventful so far, president's reform programme dominates agenda

  • Post-election developments will really test Tokayev's commitment to democratisation

Kazakhstan: Incumbent Tokayev to prevail in largely pre-determined election
EmergingMarketWatch
14 November 2022

Kazakhstan is nearing the snap presidential election on Nov 20 and the incumbent Kassym-Jomart Tokayev appears the certain winner of a largely pre-determined election campaign. Recent surveys suggest voter turnout will gravitate around 70%. This is not surprising as people are generally more interested in presidential elections and the state apparatus was also involved in promoting Tokayev's reform agenda in order to attract popular attention. While poll access is not particularly extensive, the available data indicates a landslide victory for Tokayev. He faces no real opposition since all major political parties in Kazakhstan chose to back him. Of the other candidates, the most prominent one is Zhiguli Dairabayev, former head of the Kazakh Farmers Association who was backed by a smaller party (Ayil). Kazakhstan's Social Democratic Party also put forward one of its functionaries, Nurlan Auesbayev, even though it had not contested elections since 2016. The other three candidates are complete underdogs and include a human rights activist, a sociologist, as well as a former tax committee official who is currently active in family institutes. Voters who cast a ballot against all candidates are projected to equal around 3% and could thus exceed the support for each individual candidate except Tokayev.

CAMPAIGN DEVELOPMENTS

The registered candidates have been seemingly active so far, but the campaign is still relatively uneventful. Tokayev has made visits to different regions, where he would highlight different aspects of his large-scale reform agenda, depending on the region's specific hardships. He did not participate in the official televised debate and was instead represented by the ruling party's leader Yerlan Koshanov. Tokayev was not involved in the 2019 debates either and his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev never took part in them during his entire rule. As a whole, Tokayev's high rating after the January protests and his all-encompassing agenda for social justice and prosperity are his biggest trump cards. His image as a reformer has been reinforced by several high-level arrests in recent months, many of which targeted members of the Nazarbayev clan as well as entrepreneurs and civil servants with ties to the former president. Tokayev initially presented the snap election as a necessary step to legitimise his anti-corruption strategy and push for 'people-centric' governance. In this context, the real challenge for him is not winning on Nov 20, but achieving meaningful results, which has rarely been the case in previous instances.

The remaining candidates have offered little of substance and are mostly repeating ideas that are already part of Tokayev's agenda without necessarily adding novelties. This applies to the two party-backed candidates, Zhiguli Dairabayev and Nurlan Auesbayev. For instance, the former has pledged salary hikes for teachers and medical personnel, in line with Tokayev's plans. In addition, he also has a democratisation agenda (albeit an equally abstract one for now) and similarly highlighted the importance of transparent fiscal policy and sovereign fund management. Due to his background, Dairabayev has a slightly more extensive focus on agriculture, although Tokayev's programme does deal with the sector as well. With regard to Auesbayev, he has offered a few different steps such as abolishing the bicameral parliamentary structure and nationalising all companies in the extraction segment. He also proposed forced IPOs of companies privatised in the 1990s as part of the fight against corruption. The three other candidates have more narrow and/or abstract agendas that are predominantly focused on a single matter such as family affairs or domestic violence.

OPINION POLLS

Overall, six pollsters have been accredited to survey public opinions, but most will only conduct exit polls. The Public Opinion Institute is the only one to have published an official survey so far and it identifies President Tokayev as a clear frontrunner, followed by Dairabayev and Auesbayev with individual support of below 3% each. The undecided voters accounted for under 10%, so there is no implicit potential for dramatic shifts in this respect.

POST-ELECTION DEVELOPMENTS

As noted, we believe the aftermath of the election will be the real test for Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as he will have to prove his strategic development concept is not a repetition of Nazarbayev's large-scale, though ultimately superficial agendas. The timing of the election allows Tokayev to cement his position in power before the potential consolidation of an internal opposition or perhaps another power centre more open to Russia's political influence. We remind that he pushed for presidential terms in office to be capped at one in the constitution, while also extended from five to seven years. Once elected, Tokayev will thus remain in power until 2029. He has been adamant that the constitution will not be amended subsequently, which raises the question of a power transfer in seven years. At present, it is not clear whether Tokayev is planning to consolidate an elite sympathetic to him in order to facilitate a 'hand-picked' succession and maintain influence behind the scenes. It is similarly impossible to exclude tensions if the Nazarbayev era oligarchs and/or his relatives decide to make a play for power, but this time in opposition to Tokayev and his preferred circle.

In general, the president signalled he wants to reboot Kazakhstan's political system to make sure reforms are implemented efficiently. Snap parliamentary elections are scheduled for H1 2023, though there are limits to what can be achieved in the short run. Specifically, Kazakhstan's political system has been rather exclusive for years. It has not been accommodating to newcomers and alternative approaches, so an immediate and all-encompassing reshuffling may just be impossible. Gradual change is thus a more realistic scenario, assuming Tokayev does have the political will to increase political competitiveness and to empower parliament and local assemblies in a meaningful way. With regard to policy priorities, Kazakhstan's social welfare agenda will not only persist, but will also be reinforced with further wage- and pension hikes, spending on healthcare and education, as well as transfers of 50% of the sovereign fund's investment income to special children accounts. Judicial reform and tax code amendments are also on the agenda, but very few concrete initiatives have been confirmed so far.

In terms of foreign policy, Tokayev has signalled Kazakhstan will continue to pursue a neutral position, balancing between all major players in search of benefits. He said he expects a new 'golden age' in relations with China, while also expressing interest in deepening the country's 'strategic' partnerships with both Russia and the US. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the balance in relations with Russia has become a focal point. Kazakhstan has not directly criticised Moscow's actions, but has also tried to distance itself from sanctions circumvention initiatives and reiterates its commitment to the UN Charter and its principles. For now both sides have praised their mutual understanding and cooperation progress. Yet, underlying tensions related to the Caspian Pipeline Consortium and integration projects could turn into a more notable rift if geopolitical contentions continue to intensify. In theory, this could cause instability in Kazakhstan if Russia resorts to behind-the-scenes activity against Tokayev, involving disgruntled figures.