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In Kazakhstan, Even Rivals Vote for the Incumbent




A man votes in the presidential election in the village of Internatsional'nyy, some 40 kms from Astana, on April 3, 2011. (Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images)

A man votes in the presidential election in the village of Internatsional'nyy, some 40 kms from Astana, on April 3, 2011. (Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images)

Nearly everyone who is allowed to vote in Kazakhstan did so on Sunday, and of those who showed up nearly everyone voted to re-elect this Central Asian nation’s longtime president. Leaving a polling station, one rival candidate confessed that he too had voted for the incumbent because he was going to win anyway. If there were any doubts that Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s economic powerhouse, mastered the trappings of democracy without heeding its substance, then this election would surely dispel them.

Buttressed by enormous natural-resources wealth, Kazakhstan has a growing economy and none of the unrest plaguing its neighbors. So President Nursultan Nazarbayev appears to have concluded that there’s little to prevent him from extending his rule into perpetuity.

Rewarded with international plaudits — like the recent chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — Kazakhstan has little incentive to correct some of its rights abuses and introduce genuine competition into its political system. By dominating the scene so thoroughly and suppressing any real political debate, Nazarbayev has turned himself into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some political satire does exist on the blogs, and none is more salient than the Twitter feed of a Nazarbayev impersonator: "I didn’t expect to win, to be honest. I was scared to compete with the giants of national politics. But what can you do? If the people ask for it — you must do it!"

Philip Shishkin is an Asia Society Bernard Schwartz Fellow.

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