Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 20 Issue 9
Author: Luca Urciuolo
In the immediate neighbourhood of Russia, a strong wave of democracy is rising. Kazakhstan, the Central Asian nation, is experimenting with new contours of democratisation and public participation. Emerging from the shadow of President Nur Sultan Nazarbayev’s era, where all power was concentrated in his hands, the country is moving towards a model of flexibility and decentralization.
On June 5th, 2022, Kazakhstan held a historic constitutional referendum after a gap of more than two and a half decades, paving the way for reform of the entire political system in the country. Around one-third of the Constitution’s articles will be changed as part of what Tokayev has cast as his “new Kazakhstan” agenda. The unprecedented referendum is part of a drive to change its constitution in an era when other rulers of Central Asian republics are regularly accused of twisting the constitution to establish their monopoly over power. A majority of Kazakhstan’s electorate voted in favour of the referendum, which, according to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, aims to transform the country “from a ‘super-presidential’ system to a presidential republic with a strong parliament.”
The constitutional referendum: a brief analysis
Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country and the ninth-largest country in the world. For about 30 years, Kazakhstan witnessed the iron fist rule of its first president Nazarbayev. However, in recent times the country’s elite has chosen a new path of dilution of power to make the apex body of governance more accountable to the public. The Central Election Commission said that 77.18% of Sunday’s votes favoured the amendments, which decentralised decision-making in the oil-rich country and stripped former strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev of his “national leader” status (turnout was 68.06%). The intended effect is to dilute the president’s power; redistribute power in a more balanced manner among the various branches of government; enhance parliament’s role in running the country; increase public involvement in making policies and strengthen citizens’ civil liberties. That latter goal will be pursued by creating a Constitutional Court and establishing an independent human rights ombudsperson.
“We have shown that we are united in building the new, just Kazakhstan. […] We must review the legislation which allowed a small group of people to concentrate the country’s economic resources in their hands and enjoy the preferential status,” said Tokayev.
International observers who attended the referendum were pleased with the results. They observed that every requirement of the electoral legislation and the country’s international obligations was successfully met. Kazakhstan’s Central Referendum Commission accredited 272 foreign observers representing 25 countries and 11 international organizations to make the referendum objective and transparent. Among the international organizations were the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Observer Mission, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Observer Mission, the Organization of Turkic States, and the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic Speaking Countries (TURKPA).
The referendum’s critics decried the process as rushed, with only a month for voters to review the proposed changes and no public comment period to suggest alterations to them. According to Kazakh rules, once such a referendum is convened, consultations must be held within a minimum of one month and a maximum of three. Although the law has been respected, choosing the least time lag has aroused suspicions. According to the latest report of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the short time between the convocation and the referendum date would not have guaranteed an honest debate among the citizens about the object of the reform. There are also gaps in electoral legislation (such as the lack of regulation for electoral expenditure and the lack of rules for access to the media) which, together with the government’s apparent support for reforms, prevented a political debate on the vote. The problem is highlighted by many analysts and denounced by many activists. The only “place” for an accurate comparison, always according to the report, is the social networks. It is no coincidence that President Tokayev, in his speech to the nation on March 16th, 2022, in which he anticipated the topics of the referendum two months before the convocation, described social networks as the next area of reform to regulate their political role. An ambiguous signal that portends future censorship.
A new political scenario
This vote comes a few months after the unrest earlier this year. What began as peaceful protests about rising fuel prices turned into mass demonstrations against the economic and political situation across the country, particularly in Almaty, the financial capital and most populous city. The situation spiralled out of control and led to heavy street violence and armed clashes. The Kazakh armed forces cracked down hard on the protests in fighting that left up to 232 people dead, mostly civilians. The chaos also led Tokayev to request the intervention of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led alliance of several post-Soviet republics, which sent thousands of soldiers to the country. 
The official version of events blamed the violence on “bandits and terrorists.” However, many analysts point to a power struggle between President Tokayev and the entourage of former president and hitherto strongman Nazarbayev operating in the background.
The long-serving former president officially retired as head of state in 2019, having led the country since 1990, even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, electing Tokayev as his successor. Nevertheless, Nazarbayev retained several of his most important posts, and the constitution granted him special privileges as “Leader of the Nation” (Elbasy) and “First President.”
Most analysts agreed that Nazarbayev continued to run Kazakhstan de facto. However, during the January riots, in which the former president was one of the targets of public anger, the balance seems to have shifted in favour of Tokayev, who removed Nazarbayev from the posts he still held and led the purge of the institutions of several of his allies.
Once calm was restored, Tokayev promised a package of political and economic reforms to respond to popular discontent.
“We need to define new, fairer, and more transparent ‘rules of the game,’” said the Kazakh leader, who fleshed out these promises in the present constitutional amendments in the months that followed.
The president will no longer be able to be a member of any political party, which means a loss of influence for the ruling Amanat Party (known until a few months ago as Nur Otan). In addition, his relatives will no longer be allowed to hold political office or state enterprises, a move intended to limit nepotism, endemic during Nazarbayev’s presidency.
Nor will it be possible to return to a continuous presidency like the former president, as the number of consecutive presidential mandates has been reduced to two. The president’s influence over the Senate will also be reduced, from electing 15 of its 49 seats to 10. The lower house of parliament, the Mazhilis, will see its importance increase, as it will become the only chamber responsible for drafting laws. At the same time, the Senate will be limited to approving or rejecting them. Elections will also change to a mixed system, with 70% of seats being allocated proportionally and the remaining 30% being directly elected in single-member districts. The country will also restore a Constitutional Court, abolished in 1995.
Provincial governors and governors of major cities will be directly elected by the people rather than appointed by the president. However, the president will select the candidates for these offices. More importantly, the amendments removed all references to Nazarbayev from the Constitution, denying him the special privileges he enjoyed as Elbasy and “First President.” Since January, Nazarbayev, who has been seen voting in the referendum, has kept a low profile, seemingly confirming his loss of influence over Tokayev; these amendments may be the final nail in his coffin.
For Michaël Levystone, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations, precisely avoiding the abuses of the Nazarbayev era would be the stated aim of the reform, with concrete measures to address the risks of nepotism and autocracy.
“The constitutional revision in Kazakhstan is strongly marked by the desire to ‘de-elbasise’ the country, as illustrated by the planned withdrawal of his status as Leader of the Nation,” he says.
Thus, it seems that the referendum was partly a response to those upheavals, which started as a protest against the fuel price increase but grew into an expansive display of discontent by citizens who have been increasingly vocal in calling for change to an elitist political system.
“Tokayev understands this, and that is why, to a certain degree, he tries to position himself using this referendum as a man who is trying to change something,” political analyst Dosym Satpayev said before the vote.
Tokayev, who also called for higher taxes on the extractive industries and high-income individuals, proposed the reforms after putting down the coup attempt and removing Nazarbayev and his entourage from important public sector positions. Securing domestic support will also help Tokayev navigate the Ukrainian crisis, destabilising Kazakhstan’s economy and putting it in a difficult political situation. While many Kazakhs have welcomed Tokayev’s emergence as leader, some had criticised his decision to ask a Russia-led security bloc to help quell January’s unrest, putting the Kazakh leadership in Russia’s debt, in the eyes of many, weeks before it invaded Ukraine. Western sanctions against Russia have also impacted Kazakhstan. Its tenge currency plunged almost as much as the ruble did in March before recovering. Logistics have become much harder for Kazakh companies dealing with European counterparties. Tokayev has been very cautious in commenting on the Ukrainian crisis. However, he has urged all sides to align with the U.N. charter.
This was the first referendum in the country since 1995, when the Kazakhstan constitution was adopted. President Tokayev first proposed these amendments during his state of the nation address on March 16th, 2022. These are designed to consolidate the final transition from a super-presidential form of government to a presidential republic with an influential parliament and an accountable government. These reforms aim to establish a “new Kazakhstan” – a more resilient, diversified, and equal economy that ensures opportunities for all citizens, a fairer society, and a more vibrant, dynamic, and competitive political system.
Nonetheless, a great deal remains to be done to overcome the old anti-democratic practices and the relationship between government and citizens, especially at a local level: the approved reform provides for the direct election of village governors and the possibility of choosing between two proposals of the president for the post of regional governors (before they were directly appointed). The president still directly decides the appointments for the political office in large cities. The explanation is clear: the towns were the epicentre of the protests, and the situation must be monitored so the government did not make the same concessions for small towns. However, the population has problems and demands even in small towns and villages. There is a possibility that the January shock was so profound that a reform like the one just passed is not enough to stop the popular demands.
 Manuel Fernandez (2022) Kazakhstan passes a constitutional referendum months after the January riots. Atalayar. Link. https://atalayar.com/index.php/en/content/kazakhstan-passes-constitutional-referendum-months-after-january-riots
 Reuters (2022) Kazakh leader pledges reform after referendum win. Reuters. Link. https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/kazakhstan-votes-amend-constitution-referendum-results-2022-06-06/
 OSCE (2022) Kazakhstan, Referendum, 5 June 2022: Needs Assessment Mission Report. OSCE. Link. https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/kazakhstan/518325
 Giuliano Bifolchi (2022) Geopolitical consequences of the political crisis in Kazakhstan, Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598, Vol. 15(1), SpecialEurasia. Link: https://www.specialeurasia.com/2022/01/08/geopolitics-kazakhstan-crisis/
 Manuel Fernandez (2022) Op. cit.
 Reuters (2022) Op. cit.
Disclaimer. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpecialEurasia.