- - Friday, January 13, 2012

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — Sunday’s parliamentary elections presumably are aimed at moving Kazakhstan toward a more open and democractic system — but some voters here aren’t buying it.

“There is no real opposition in Kazakhstan. They are all puppets of [President Nursultan] Nazarbayev,” said a 48-year-old taxi driver, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation. “If there was any real opposition, I would vote with pleasure, but it’s totally useless.”

December saw Kazakhstan’s most significant unrest since breaking from the Soviet Union in 1991: At least 15 people died when police opened fire on a workers’ rights protest in the city of Zhanaozen.

“They have scheduled the election because there will certainly be another wave of social unrest in Kazakhstan this year,” said the taxi driver, an engineer who hasn’t been able to find a job in his field. “The differences between rich and poor are growing ever bigger, and people are very unhappy.”

Mr. Nazarbayev won 95 percent of the vote in April’s presidential balloting — the usual outcome for elections that have kept him in power for 20 years, say analysts.

Long criticized for its lack of transparency, Kazakhstan’s electon process has presented voters with little in terms of public debate or opposition to the status quo.

Parliamentary elections in 2007 saw Mr. Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party take 88 percent of the vote. No opposition party won enough votes to meet the 7 percent threshold needed to take seats in parliament.

Recent reforms have abolished the threshold: The party that wins the second-largest share of the vote Sunday will be guaranteed at least two seats.

But observers say most parties in the race back Mr. Nazarbayev. Others have had their registration for ballots refused or canceled, according to a Jan. 4 report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is monitoring the electoral process.

In addition, six of the 10 candidates for the Social Democratic-Azat Party (OSDP-Azat), which is widely seen as the only real opposition in the election, were disqualified this week on the grounds of alleged financial irregularities. They include one of party’s leaders, Bulat Abilov, and Gulzhan Ergalieva, the former editor of one of Kazakhstan few opposition newspapers.

“Clearly, they were looking for an excuse to take those two out of the race,” said Amirzhan Kosanov, co-chairman of OSDP-Azat. “The government has resorted to unfair and legally questionable means to prevent them being elected because they are both known for openly criticizing the government and the country’s problems. And they have pressed hard for an explanation of the events in Zhanaozen.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Kosanov said the party remains optimistic about its remaining candidates.

“The people are tired of only having one party in parliament; therefore, as the only real opposition party, we have a good chance of getting into parliament,” he said.

 “It depends on the counting of the ballots,” he added. “There might be election fraud.”

Some observers say the Nazarbayev government does not need to resort to fraud to manipulate the outcome of elections.

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