Reflections on the presidential election06 april 2011, 19:41
A Western friend and I were having a drink in Astana a few weeks back when the conversation turned to the referendum drama, which was still raging.
“You know, this is an amazing country,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “In a lot of countries, like Kyrgyzstan and Tunisia, the people rise up and force the leader from power. In this country, the people rise up and force him to STAY in power.”
He was talking about millions of people signing a petition calling for a referendum on whether Nazarbayev should have 10 more years in power – an initiative that would have passed overwhelmingly if it had been placed on the ballot.
Nazarbayev ended up rejecting a referendum, calling instead for a presidential election a year ahead of the one scheduled for 2012.
It was a savvy political move.
On the one hand it placated the referendum’s backers, some of whom could have felt unappreciated if Nazarbayev had short-circuited their grassroots effort to ensure he had another decade at the helm.
On the other hand, the decision to move up the presidential election by a year made points with the West. Several Western governments had opposed a referendum on grounds that it was basically a presidential-election format that failed to include other candidates.
Although the outcome of the early-presidential election was never in doubt, it was fun to watch.
The New York Times used the term “colossal” to describe the 95.5 percent victory that Nazarbayev achieved. The tone of the article indicated that the writer was genuinely surprised at the level of his popularity.
Kazakhs have long understand his popularity – and long resented Western news organizations’ insinuations that 90-percent Nazarbayev victory levels could mean only one thing: that the vote was tainted.
Many of those news organizations have a boilerplate phrase that they trot out every time they do a story about a Kazakhstan vote: “Kazakhstan has never held an election deemed free and fair.”
The interesting thing about the “free and fair” phrase is that Kazakhstan’s elections have been accurate reflections of opinion polls about Nazarbayev’s popularity. Both Kazakhstan and Western polling agencies have long found him enjoying a favorable rating of about 90 percent.
Which raises the question: How unfree and unfair could an election be if it accurately reflects a public-opinion-poll finding about a leader’s popularity?
Western skepticism about Nazarbayev’s popularity led to many Kazakhs becoming gleeful about the findings of a Reuters reporter who drove the 810 miles from Almaty to Astana in the week before the election.
The reporter interviewed dozens of voters about their preferences on his trip. All said they would be voting for Nazarbayev – except one. The lone exception was a teen-ager who was too young to vote. If she could vote, she said, she would be casting her ballot for: guess who?
News of the Reuters story delighted Kazakhstan officials and the millions of voters who support Nazarbayev.
Local news organizations gave it good play, ensuring that it became a topic of conversation in many households.
Many Kazakhs greeted the story with a triumphant, “I told you so” air: Their underlying message: “This just proves what we’ve been telling you all along.”
Another Western friend of mine, a political analyst who has been coming to Kazakhstan for years, also discussed the referendum with me shortly before Nazarbayev rejected it in favor of an early presidential election.
While Western governments were gnashing their teeth about a referendum being a setback for democracy, the pundit contended, none of them wanted Nazarbayev replaced.
Those governments were relieved, the pundit said later, when Nazarbayev hit upon the idea of an early presidential election in lieu of a referendum.
“Do you think that Exxon Mobil wants a change of government here, or the White House or the European Union?” the analyst asked. “Kazakhstan is critical for (the West’s) energy security, investment security and minerals.”
Although Western governments wouldn’t admit it publicly, “it is just in everybody’s interests for this man to stay here (in the presidency),” the pundit concluded.