bne IntelliNews – Kazakhstan: Old-fashioned presidential debate stokes election cynicism


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A candidate in this month’s presidential election in Kazakhstan gets the nod from the debate moderator. She opens her remarks with a blistering broadside against the holderPresident Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

“Why are you concealing what really happened during the January Events?” asks the candidate, barely containing her anger.

Tokayev hesitates. He’s not used to facing this kind of fiery challenge. As he begins to stutter an explanation, the other contestants join in the verbal onslaught. He is lost.

The public is surprised. Addressing this sensitive topic – from when dozens of people were killed in unrest sparked by anti-government protests in the early days of this year – in such a divisive way, and directly in the face of the president, does not is not something that happens.

And, in fact, that didn’t happen this time either.

There was a televised presidential debate the evening of November 11 — that part is true. The program lasted 100 minutes. Six people participated, but Tokayev was not one of them. He was too busy attending a summit in Samarkand, so he sent a proxy: Yerlan Koshanov, the staid speaker of the lower house of parliament.

Tokayev’s absence is of no importance and will have no political cost. His five rivals will all lose soundly in the November 20 contest.

The overtly theatrical spectacle of the debate, which aired on state television Khabar, appears to have been disheartening even to a jaded electorate hardened by ersatz exercises in democracy.

“Who are these people they imposed on us? Aidana Tokhtasynova, an account manager at an Almaty investment firm, told Eurasianet, referring to the “also-rans”. “I haven’t seen a single person other than Tokayev at these debates that any sane person would want to give their vote to.”

Tokhtasynova said she wouldn’t bother voting at all.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. After the constitutional changes were approved in a referendum in June, Tokayev promised that Kazakhstan was heading for an era of radical change. There would be a democratic transformation from top to bottom, he said, and a continued campaign of reforms would ensure that the old authoritarian system would wither away.

The tacit implication of these remarks is that the New Kazakhstan – as Tokayev’s team has called it – will be different from the one led by former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who resigned in 2019 but continued to wield a strong influence behind the scenes until very recently. Nazarbayev was Tokayev’s boss and it was he who put him in power. Since the January protests, however, that closeness has become a liability, so Tokayev is scrambling to put clear blue water between him and his mentor, earning his own political legitimacy in the process.

However, the televised debate was straight out of the Nazarbayev regime’s playbook.

All of Tokayev’s five rival candidates are anonymous. A very significant part of the audience had probably never seen their faces or heard their names before the debate. Each of them seemed handpicked to reflect a specific demographic, as if to give an overall sense of balance and representation. For good measure, some of the contestants carry an eternal air of comic doom.

There is no better example than the 68 year old Zhiguli Dayrabayev, a member of the Auyl (Village) party, which narrowly failed to enter parliament in the January 2021 legislative elections. a much-mocked Soviet-era automobile have popped up on the internet. A showed a Zhiguli run over by a dump truck with Kassym-Jomart, the president’s first name, written on it.

Auyl moans that online pranksters were exposing their “low level of sophistication”. Dayrabayev barely helped his own cause by share a video of himself engaging in “rural kung fu,” breaking an animal bone with a blow of his hand at his table in a scene that is hard to explain.

He traded widely on his ostensible appeal to the rural voter in the debate.

“The village is the blood and soul of the Kazakhs. But the current [socio-economic] the condition of the villages leaves a lot to be desired, so I will increase their prominence,” he said, reading from a prepared speech that he tried to brighten up with occasional tones of outrage.

Another candidate, Karakat Abden, 48, representing the National Alliance of Professional Social Workers, vowed to be on the lookout for families, and children in particular.

“I will provide school children with free hot lunches, create conditions for students’ talents to be realized, and expand the network of free after-school clubs,” Abden said, delivering the main points of his platform in the three minutes allotted for that. objective.

Abden positioned herself to appeal to a conservative-nationalist crowd. She came to the debate wearing a traditional red vest and ethnic style earrings. Her public profile to date is based primarily on her book “You Are Kazakh, Be Proud: 160 Life-Hacks for Young Girls”, which drew criticism from social progressives for presenting ideas meant to reinforce “gender stereotypes” and patriarchal attitudes.

His debate performance did not appease these critics. When asked in a pre-recorded video message by a member of the public what she thinks of inter-ethnic marriages, she replied that she would impose heavy taxes on Kazakh women who marry foreigners.

Saltanat Tursynbekova, a candidate presented by a public association called Kazakh Mothers Stand for Traditions, took advantage of her slot to say that she would fight for respect for the law in all spheres of public life.

Tokayev’s most serious opponent is apparently Nourlan Auyesbayev, who was nominated as the candidate by the National Social Democratic Party, or OSDP – a once partly spirited but now entirely exhausted opposition force. Auyesbayev brought few political proposals to the debate, but he showed emotion.

“We must step up the fight against corruption! What we are going to build is not an oligarchic capitalism, but a popular economy! Because the goal of the oligarchs is to earn a lot of money in a short time and nothing else! Auyesbayev shouted, waving his arms.

Auyesbayev dropped the indignant act by addressing a question to Tokayev’s attorney. Instead of shouting, he obediently asked Koshanov what his boss, the president, was planning to do to improve life in the villages. None of the candidates gave Koshanov a hard time.

To give the debate a confrontational feel, the hosts played a pre-recorded video question from Yermurat Bapi, editor of the independent newspaper Thiswho asked Koshanov when the political reform program would finally begin to be implemented.

Koshanov said the fact that Bapi was able to ask the question was in itself a sign of the government’s openness. He then alluded to some recently passed changes to the constitution that he said would improve democratic representation.

To the extent that there were robust exchanges, they were part of the no-hopes as well. Like when Abden lay down Meyram Kazhykena soft-spoken academic, to be an “out-of-the-earth theorist”.

After the debate was over, government-aligned pundits were launched on state media to voice the opinion that the exchange was a heated battle of ideas. Independent experts were less impressed.

“All this is not real. All candidates play a role in this election. There is no real fight, no real debate. I can’t bear to watch this anymore,” Yelena Shvetsova, director of Erkindik Kanaty, a nonprofit group that monitors elections, told Eurasianet.

What is most lamentable is that the televised debates cost the taxpayer about 63 million tenge ($140,000) to organize them, Shvetsova said.

Talgat Ismagambetov, senior researcher at the Institute of Philosophy, Political Science and Religious Studies in Almaty, said the choreography around the election risked undermining the credibility of Tokayev’s much-vaunted vision of New Kazakhstan.

“We only see a reboot of the political system with cosmetic updates, not reformatting,” Ismagambetov told Eurasianet. “The players change, but the rules of the game remain the same.”

Almaz Kumenov is a journalist based in Almaty.

This article was originally published on Eurasianet here.

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