Voters in Kazakhstan on Sunday went to the polls to choose lawmakers in the lower house of parliament, which is being reconfigured in the wake of deadly unrest that gripped the resource-rich central Asian nation a year ago.
Although the electoral field was unusually large with two newly registered parties and hundreds of individual candidates joining the race, turnout appeared relatively unenthusiastic – about 54% of eligible voters cast ballots, according to the national elections commission.
The early election came on the fourth anniversary of the resignation of president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had led Kazakhstan since independence following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 and who had established immense influence.
His successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, was widely expected to continue Mr Nazarbayev’s authoritarian course and even renamed the capital as Nur-Sultan in his predecessor’s honour.
But the country’s political landscape changed markedly after a wave of violence in January 2022, when provincial protests initially sparked by a fuel price hike engulfed other cities, notably the commercial capital, Almaty, and became overtly political as demonstrators shouted “Old man out” in reference to the now 82-year-old Mr Nazarbayev.
More than 220 people, mostly protesters, died as police harshly put down the unrest.
Amid the violence, Mr Tokayev removed Mr Nazarbayev from his powerful post as head of the national security council.
He restored the capital’s previous name of Astana, and the parliament repealed a law granting Mr Nazarbayev and his family immunity from prosecution.
Mr Tokayev also initiated reforms to strengthen the parliament, reduce presidential powers and limit the presidency to a single seven-year term.
Under the reforms, a third of the lower house of parliament’s 98 seats will be chosen in single-mandate races rather than by party list.
The ruling Amanat party holds the overwhelming majority of seats in the current parliament and the rest belong to parties that are largely loyal to Amanat.
Although opinion surveys indicate that Amanat will remain the largest party in the new parliament, the likely final balance is unclear.
More than 400 candidates, most of them self-nominated, competed in the single-mandate races, and the national elections commission authorised two additional parties to enter the proportional contest.
“We can only hope that these elections will contribute to the further consolidation of society, of democracy, and that the idea of a new and fair Kazakhstan will develop with the population really participating in this,” Austrian Martin Sajdik, a member of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s elections observation mission, said on Sunday.