Monday, January 30, 2012

The Democratic Disconnect in Kazakhstan

By Lauren Skompinski

With the Republican primary season heating up here at home, Americans have put politics back on their radar screens. We seem to take for granted the importance of discussing our government’s role and the worth of our democratic values, unless it happens to be flashing across the TV during the election cycle. It might do our country some good if we step back from how we do things, and take a look at someplace across the globe, to get a better perspective and a true appreciation of what the United States brings to the table in terms of democratic governance and transparency.

I was recently in the Republic of Kazakhstan to help oversee the Early Parliamentary elections in January. These elections were regularly scheduled to take place in the summer, but with the looming European financial crisis, top officials in Kazakhstan thought it would be best to move up the elections as early as possible, so that if financial trouble hits the country later in the year, the government can focus its attention and resources on combating that and not campaigning. What I saw during the elections was a truly disconnected people and their government. Even though Kazakhstan is a relatively young free country, (they just celebrated twenty years of independence) it is marred by political dishonesty and government secrecy. But it is almost as if the people of Kazakhstan don’t know – or worse, don’t care. It is disconnect that can be highly contrasted to the United States, where civil society demands transparency and adherence to preserving honest democracy on every level.

According to the initial findings report on the election observation in Kazakhstan, “[n]otwithstanding the government’s stated ambition to strengthen Kazakhstan’s democratic processes and to conduct elections in line with international standards, the [recent election] still did not meet fundamental principles of democratic elections.” This was made apparent at several polling stations that I visited in the Karaganda region of the country on election day. The election commissions that are responsible for every aspect of the voting process: from station opening, to end-of-day vote tabulation, took their duties very seriously, and praised the democratic process of elections. Most officials were even welcoming to the international observers – offering tea and lunch and wanting to take photos with us, while respecting each voter that came in, and making them feel welcome in the polling station.

The same initial report pointed out that the opening and voting process of the elections ran smoothly and without much error, and was praised by the international community for sticking to guidelines for those procedures. However, when the last voter left the polling station as the sun went down, what happened behind closed doors was alarming. While I was not a witness to many of the more egregious violations, it was reported that there was widespread ballot stuffing and dishonest vote tabulation. International observers reported that about ten percent of the stations lacked in transparency, as outside observers were not allowed close enough to the area in the station where the actual counting of ballots took place. In the region I was responsible for, it was apparent that the commissioners did not have adequate training on how to run a polling station. I later learned that many of the commissioners selected coincidently belonged to the ruling party (and the party projected to win the election), and that all that was done to prepare them was a quick phone interview, and not an actual training session as was required.

Set apart from the election commission’s haphazard running of polling stations, the sense of duty to vote and the affection for the democratic process was brought to light by the Kazakh citizens all over the country. The final turnout for the election was around seventy-five percent. This is a telling statistic, let alone a telling statistic for a non-presidential election. One small village I traveled to, eighty out of eighty persons eligible to vote had voted by noon that day. I was astonished that everyone would make it out to the station, considering how bitter cold it was that day.

I spoke to several of the voters, who were more than willing to talk politics with an American. It was obvious that the Kazakh people are proud of their country, which was refreshing to witness as they politely took off their hats to stand with me in a quiet corner to talk about their country. It was an honest conversation about the good and the bad about Kazakhstan – never severely blaming the leadership but awknowledging that the country has a long way to go.

The countryside is desolate, and villages show the remains of Soviet rule from old statues and monuments dedicated to the era. Clouds of pollution stretch across the sky for what looks like miles, and there are little if any medical facilities in the country. Several, if not most, of the opposition parties in Kazakhstan try to bring these issues out front in hope to win support with the people for change. These parties have strong support, yet the ruling party, Nur Otan, always comes out on top. It looks like the election commissions, made up of members of the ruling party, may have something to do with that.

So in a country where its citizens are proud and patriotic voters but the ruling party has little to say in terms of a truly democratic government, what happens moving forward from the 2012 parliamentary elections? My answer to that is: not a whole lot – yet.

The country as a whole still has a lot of growing up to do, considering that it has only been self-governing for twenty years. And with Kazakhstan’s growing oil industry, and goals to become a stronger nation economically, I have some hope that at least a portion of that wealth will make its way to providing more services to the people, including better environmental standards, more accessible medical care, and schools. With development comes a stronger civil society, and Kazakhstan’s civil society will be responsible to push for change from their government, and the divide between the Kazakh government and the people it is representing will hopefully dissipate to a point where we can say that the Republic of Kazakhstan is a truly democratic nation.

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