Kazakhstan votes for sweeping reforms to increase political space

Experts say success of referendum will be determined by meaningful implementations of reforms to benefit people.

Kazakhstan votes for sweeping reforms to increase political space

People in the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan have voted for far-reaching changes in the country’s constitution in the referendum conducted on Sunday.

According to Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, all the amendments are aimed at strengthening the system of checks and balances, and supporting them, will mean "a resolute no to corruption, nepotism, the monopoly in politics and the economy.”

The government sought nod to 55 amendments in 33 articles of the constitution, which included a transition from a super-powerful presidential rule to a one where parliament has relatively more space to influence the country's polity.

According to the Central Election Commission, 77.18% of voters favored the amendments, aimed at decentralizing decision-making. As many as 68% of registered voters had turned out to vote in the referendum.

The change will entail more autonomy for local authorities to make them more effective. Henceforth, the president will no longer have a decisive say in determining the composition of the senate while the lower house will be filled through a mix of nominations and party-based elections.

After casting his vote, Tokayev declared that the referendum was also intended to signify a vote of confidence in the present leadership, to serve “as a guarantee that there will be no repeat of the chaos and rioting witnessed in January 2022."

The amendments will enable the government to incorporate considerable changes in the country's social dynamics, which will change the paradigm of relations between the state and society, stressed Tokayev.

Reminding that the country was undergoing an important turning point, he described it as “a crucial moment that determines the future of the state and society as a whole.”

Path of reforms

He said that the outcome of the nationwide referendum will impact the fate of the country leaving no one untouched.

“The country will embark on a path of reform which proposes a comprehensive program of political changes. Its main goal is expanding the opportunities for the participation of the people in governing the country,” he said.

Tokayev said the uneven concentration of power among competing state apparatus was a source of dissatisfaction among the public. Soon after restoring order in January, he had proposed measures for reforming Kazakhstan’s political setup.

Kazakh political scientist Talgat Kaliev believes that these amendments in the constitution will chart a new political course.

He said one of the outcomes of the January crisis in Kazakhstan was the need to step up measures for advancing political reforms in the country. It was believed that the crisis of confidence in the authorities and the existing political institutions had led to a series of protests.

As the amendments are approved, Kazakhstan will move to a presidential setup that is reformed and will work with a more viable parliament. Following the amendments, the powers of the head of state are reduced, the role of the parliament and local representative bodies have been relatively expanded, and the exclusive exemptions to Nursultan Nazarbayev as the first president of the country, are withdrawn.

"The constitutional reform will allow safeguarding the citizens’ rights and freedoms. It will also allow space for political competition in the country.

More political space

Tokayev believes that extending more political space to the political parties and improving the electoral legislation would strengthen the role of society in decision making and make political representatives more competitive. He anticipates that new parties will appear, and the existing ones will review and restructure their activities in line with current trends and the demands of the people.

The referendum can improve Tokayev’s electoral prospects when he seeks a second four-year presidential term in 2023.

Kazakh political commentator Dosym Satpayev, says that through this referendum Tokayev aspires to be seen as a person striving to bring the desired changes in the country’s polity.

However, it is worth remembering that the people are waiting not only for political reforms but also for socio-economic changes.

Some experts see the referendum as the means to help the current government legitimize its rule.

According to Kazakh economist Pyotr Svoik, amendments in the constitution will allow the president to exercise his prerogatives in full capacity. The results of the referendum will reflect that the authorities and society work together for the sake country's future political course.

On the other hand, political observers are reminded that without sufficient outreach at the grassroots level all the changes promised to the people and most of the reforms will be seen only as "changes from the above."

Hence, the success of the referendum will be determined not by the turnout but by the fact that how meaningfully the reforms will benefit the people.

AA/Zaki Shaikh

Hüseyin Demir