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ASTANA — Kazakhstan has started the electoral campaign for the upcoming elections of the national Parliament and local councils. Thus, the process of resetting the state government system, which was initiated by the authorities following the January 2022 events, is coming to the finish line.

The elections of the Mazhilis (the lower house of Parliament) and maslikhats (local councils), scheduled for 19 March 2023, is another stage of political modernization in Kazakhstan. It follows the nationwide referendum to amend the Constitution, the presidential elections, and elections of the Senate (the upper house of Parliament).

As was declared by the authorities, the elections are not an end in itself, but an important component in the resetting of the entire state system. The Constitution and constitutional laws have been amended, simplified and democratized, and Kazakhstanis will now live in a new, “just Kazakhstan”.

But what is the essence of reforms? What has changed? And to what extent are these changes revolutionary?

Not all of the changes were met unequivocally. For instance, the idea of electing President for a seven-year term instead of five years was met with criticism. The matter was that this idea had not been discussed during the constitutional reform but was put forward later in the September address of the head of state and was included in the new package of political reforms. Opponents protested, saying that a constitutional law (on the president’s term of office) must not have been passed after the constitutional referendum, while its supporters insisted the novelty helped to finally depart from the “super-presidential” model of government. Previously, the president in Kazakhstan could be reelected, but now there is only one, seven-year term.

There are some other changes relating the president and his family members, such as the non-partisan status of the head of state (he previously led the country’s ruling party), the ban for his relatives to occupy positions in state agencies and state companies, and the transfer of some presidential powers to other government structures.

Other judicial novelties include the reinstatement of the Constitutional Court, giving the constitutional status to the Ombudsman, and strengthening the rights protecting role of the prosecution office.

As to the upcoming elections, recommendations of experts have finally been heard. Kazakhstan has switched to the mixed electoral system. That means that 70 percent of the Mazhilis members will be elected from among political parties and 30 percent in single-mandate election constituencies. In regional (provincial) maslikhats (councils) and the cities of Astana and Almaty, the ratio is 50-50, while all deputies in districts and regional cities will be elected in single-mandate constituencies.

The changes are long-awaited, as the old election system, in force since 2004, prevented non-partisan citizens from being elected. People could not nominate civil-society leaders for elections. The old electoral system (on party lists) made elections depersonalized — the Parliament and local council members could hardly be described as truly elected by the people.

There was also stagnation among the political parties, but the new election campaign has brought about some changes. For the first time over the past 15 years, new political parties have appeared in Kazakhstan. Two of them — the ecological party Baitak and Respublika (which consists of young businesspeople) — are actively competing for the votes.

What has changed? Authorities in Kazakhstan have simplified the registration of political parties in order to promote competition among them. The registration threshold for political parties has been lowered from 20 thousand to five thousand members. The minimum number of an initiative group of citizens for organization of a political party has been lowered, the requirements for holding the founding congress of a party and opening its branch offices have been simplified. The threshold for entering the Mazhilis for political parties has been lowered from 7% to 5% of the votes.

As a result, the competition has toughened. Seven political parties are competing in this election, compared to five in the 2021 elections. In addition to the two above-mentioned parties, the others are the People’s Party of Kazakhstan, Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, Ak Zhol, Auyl, Amanat, and OSDP.

Political activity is growing in Kazakhstan, but will it translate into democratization? What are the prospects for electing akims (heads of regional and city administrations)? Previously, they were elected in a pilot mode and in rural areas only, but now plans are to elect akims in cities. Time will show if there is a chance to build a truly “Just Kazakhstan” by improving local self-government and involving citizens in state administration. Now the ball is in the court of civil society.


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