The 1999 presidential and parliamentary elections in the Republic of Kazakhstan will shape its political life for years to come. The October parliamentary elections approach amidst a marked deterioration in respect for freedom of speech, assembly, and association that will prevent citizens from making free and informed decisions on voting day. This report focuses on increasing restrictions on the exercise of these basic civil and political freedoms that call into question whether the elections can be free and fair; it does not set out to investigate the election process itself.
On October 8, 1998, Kazakhstan's parliament voted to move up presidential elections scheduled for December 2000 to January 10, 1999, shortly after President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed into law a series of constitutional amendments bearing directly on his own continued tenure in office. These eliminated the sixty-five year age limit on officeholders (he himself will turn sixty-five in July 2005), increased the president's term from five to seven years, and removed the 50 percent minimum participation barrier for presidential elections. Nascent opposition groups had anticipated the move, rumored since earlier in the year, and presumed it to be an effort by President Nazarbaev to ensure his continued rule through a period in which economists forecasted the country's economic crisis would deepen. Nazarbaev, who ran against two little-known government officials and the Communist Party leader, won reelection with more than 79 percent of the vote.
Even before the announcement of early elections, the government began with increasing vigor to obstruct the formation, registration, and activities of groups of citizens to intending to organize support of opposition candidates or to participate in the upcoming vote as monitors. Authorities charged five prominent opposition leaders with administrative offenses-the equivalent of misdemeanors- for forming a group called the Movement For Honest Elections. Amendments to the Law on Elections passed in May 1998 allowed the government to disqualify prominent members of the opposition from standing. Former prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin was excluded for having been convicted of "participation in an unregistered association," as were two other well-known political leaders. Heavy-handed government efforts to ensure the incumbent's success narrowed citizens' choice of their chief executive even further, when directors of hospitals, schools, and other publicly-funded institutions coerced their employees and students into signing petitions in support for President Nazarbaev's candidacy.
The major media in Kazakhstan devoted little attention to opposition to President Nazarbaev. A series of closed broadcast frequency auctions had shut down much of the independent radio and television companies in 1997. Remaining independent voices in the media came under increasing pressure to ignore or censor any criticism of the government-or the president-during the election campaign. Five privately owned weekly papers known for their ties to the opposition were suspended or closed under various legal pretexts.
After the January 1999 presidential elections, Kazakhstan yielded to pressure from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other intergovernmental organizations critical of the presidential vote, changing some provisions of its electoral law, lowering fees required of potential candidates, and repealing the bar on participation in unregistered groups. It added ten seats to parliament to be selected from the slates of registered national parties. The major legal obstacles to full and equal opposition participation in political life by those not backing President Nazarbaev remained intact, however. After parliament set the date for legislative elections as September 17 and October 10, for the upper and lower house, respectively, efforts to block the candidacies of prominent opposition leaders continued. Government agencies responsible for registering public associations continued to block or delay the registration of political parties, obstructing their ability to organize. Media critical of Nazarbaev's government continue to be subject to legal and extra-legal harassment.