The irreplaceables in Central Asia

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the authorities don't even have to stuff the ballot boxes, their presidents have done everything they can to appear irreplaceable. In post-Soviet Central Asia, presidential elections are routine affairs. In a region where power has very seldom been transferred at the ballot box and where governments and opposition simply do not talk to one another, competitive elections have come to display some very paradoxical features.



While the multi-party appearance of Central Asia's elections has been almost entirely fictional, their multi-candidate nature has often been farcical. There has been more than one occasion in which candidates have publicly expressed support for the incumbent leader.


Take the case of Kazakhstani politician Mels Yeleusizov, who reportedly advanced an environmentalist agenda for the presidential election of April 2011: his vote – as he candidly admitted while leaving the polling station – was cast in favour of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Likewise, take a look at Uzbek presidential hopeful Abdulhafiz Jalalov, who did not hesitate to vote for incumbent leader Islam Karimov in the 2000 presidential election. Rather than respond to the electorate's democratic rights, Central Asia's electoral practice responds to the power preservation priorities of the regimes which emerged in the region since the early 1990s.


Electoral tricks

Holding irregular elections remains a recurrent feature of contemporary non-democratic politics: from Vladimir Putin's inflated victory of March 2012 to the election of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in post-(counter)revolutionary Egypt, there are many ways in which electoral institutions continue to be violated across the globe. Post-Soviet Central Asia, to all intents and purposes, has elevated this authoritarian practice to another level.


In Kazakhstan – where a presidential election is scheduled for 26 April 2015 – the ruling regime engaged in a systematic strategy of early voting: the 2005 and 2011 elections, as well as the 2015 vote, have been held before the constitutional conclusion of the mandate, in order to extend Nazarbayev's long-term presidency through 'popular' consensus.


The Uzbek leadership dispensed with re-electing Karimov in 1996, when a referendum extended the president's mandate until 2000. When electoral tricks won't do, Central Asia's regimes resorted to constitutional amendments to prop up their leaders. In 2011, the length of Uzbekistan's presidential term was curtailed from seven to five years. Presidential terms of different lengths are regarded in Uzbekistan as being not consecutive: the 2011 reform was therefore meant to extend Karimov's rule for another decade. The Kazakhstani Constitution, on the other hand, allows Nazarbayev – as the state's first post-independence leader – to be re-elected as many times as he likes, ignoring the limit of two presidential mandates that is imposed on every other eligible citizen.


In Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan (as well as in other parts of Central Asia), presidential elections have been thus reduced to a ritual, sanitised mechanism, in which incumbency is systematically translated into irreplaceability. This lens is particularly appropriate if we are to make sense of the current round of elections that is shaping the region's political landscape in early 2015.


On 29 March, Uzbekistan re-elected 77-year-old Islam Karimov for another five-year term after winning a deeply flawed election, reportedly receiving 90% of the total vote. A similar result is unanimously expected to emerge in late April from the Kazakhstani election, in which two figurehead candidates, who are currently engaged in extremely low-key campaigns, are in no position to threaten, let alone defeat, incumbent president Nazarbayev.


Two strikingly similar regime-driven discourses of irreplaceability have been produced during the equally fictional electoral campaigns that unfolded in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in early 2015.


In the very little campaign space they were allowed to occupy, the three regime-sanctioned candidates that ran against Karimov – and, together, garnered no more than 8% of the total votes – articulated a set of narratives that focussed on stability, implying that expert leadership is what Uzbekistan ultimately needs. Theirs, in other words, was hardly a call for change.


In Kazakhstan – where the economy is uncomfortably sitting between a never-ending monetary crisis and the daunting prospect of long-term low oil prices – the incumbent president is exorcising the spectre of future economic uncertainties by noting the paradisical lifestyle that Kazakhstan's population is reportedly enjoying under his leadership. In this narrative, the organisation of yet another snap election is presented as a necessary step towards the implementation of Nurly Zhol [Shining Path] – the economic programme through which the regime intends to tackle the many economic challenges to come.


In both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, leadership incumbency is central to two parallel discourses of danger, in which domestic politics without Karimov and Nazarbayev looks to be unpredictable, chaotic and, ultimately, very unstable. The leaders' irreplaceability is integral to the stability of the state in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.



But in holding the 2015 presidential elections, the regimes in Tashkent and Astana aren't concerned with state stability. There is one more important dimension to be explored if we are to really capture the ultimate end sought by the re-election of Karimov and, eventually, Nazarbayev.


This round of presidential elections is organised during what is thought to be the political twilight of the two Central Asian leaders: Karimov, who was born in January 1938, has been ruling Uzbekistan since June 1986, while Nazarbayev, who is turning 75 in July, has also been at the helm since the late Soviet era. Two inevitable processes of political succession remain the core political issues in both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. As counterintuitive as it might possibly seem, re-electing ageing leaders is currently the most viable way to eventually ensure smooth power transfers in the two political systems.


Yet when analysed in relation to the two eventual power transitions, Kazakhstani and Uzbek politics appear to be somewhat different.



The re-election of Islam Karimov took place against the backdrop of a protracted intra-elite struggle that involved, throughout 2013-2014, regime segments close to the president's inner circle and the National Security Service (SNB).


The most evident outcome of this struggle was represented by the traumatic marginalisation of Gulnara Karimova – the president's controversial and eccentric daughter – from the inner elite circle, removing her from the list of potential presidential successors. Most importantly, the 2013-14 turmoil re-calibrated how power is understood and articulated in Uzbekistan's power corridors, which, it ought to be noted, remain rather secretive and controlled. Islam Karimov currently has to take into consideration demands and priorities of the SNB, which is now widely acknowledged as a king-maker vis-à-vis Uzbekistan's eventual transition.


There are many uncontrolled rumours outlining the possibility of a leadership change mid-way through this presidential term, perhaps on the occasion of the president's eightieth birthday, leaving Karimov in an honorary position of semi-retirement, with some other cadre acquiring increasing decision-making responsibilities and exerting more executive power.


If there is an appointed successor – and this, due to the fragmentation of Uzbek politics, remains a big if – he (or, less likely, she) is yet to go public: in this scenario the re-election of an ageing, and possibly sick, leader remains the best option to increase regime durability.


This is not to say, however, that Karimov has been re-elected against his will or that he remains an inconsequential political leader. On the contrary, the president continues to wield substantial domestic influence: his re-election, while ensuring the short-term stability of his supporting elite, left the presidential persona at the epicentre of Uzbek politics and, crucially, allowed him to remain in control of his financial wealth.



A rather different elite is presiding over Kazakhstan's imminent presidential election. Nursultan Nazarbayev is supported by what appears to be a somewhat more cohesive regime, from which internal opponents and critics have been appropriately purged. The presidential party – Nur Otan (Light of the Fatherland) – is emerging as a relatively major domestic force, while Nazarbayev has managed to place himself at the centre of a wide patronage network that extends to every corner of Kazakhstan's vast territory.


Kazakhstan's strict separation between business and politics has allowed a few individuals to accumulate considerable wealth without developing any significant political ambition. The president, in this sense, appears firmly in control of every major political process that is currently taking place within Kazakhstan. What he is no position to control, however, is the inevitability of an eventual power transition.


Proximity to the Kazakhstani president has traditionally represented an indicator of rising personal power: for this reason, a series of family members – including sons-in-law Rakhat Aliyev and Timur Kulibayev as well as presidential daughters Dariga and Dinara – have been, at different junctures, regarded as Nazarbayev's potential successors.


Many observers considered the recent appointment of presidential grandson Nurali Aliyev to a prime position within Astana's regional administration as an indicator of Nazarbayev's ultimate intention to keep the presidency in the family, but there is to date insufficient evidence – even from within Kazakhstan's notoriously indiscreet political scene – to regard Aliyev as a president-in-waiting. Nazarbayev, however, has carefully avoided publicly endorsing a successor: the 2015 election is therefore taking place under very uncertain circumstances, in which an ageing – and not entirely healthy – leader is embarking on yet another term that will see him remain at the helm until 2020.


Unlike his Uzbek counterpart, the Kazakhstani president has not hesitated to talk openly about his succession options. Specifically, Nazarbayev outlined a Singapore-style transition scenario for Kazakhstan, hinting at his eventual semi-retirement and the contextual rise of a new leader to take the helm in Astana.


As the Kazakhstani president deliberately failed to put any timeframe to this transition plan, emphasis on Singapore's pre-arranged transition might ultimately be a purely rhetorical narrative, with Nazarbayev eager to establish a parallel between himself and the late Lee Kuan Yew – who remains a very prominent and popular figure throughout post-colonial Asia. Emphasis on pre-arranged succession, on the other hand, indicates that, in Nazarbayev's views, power transfer is to be managed almost entirely within the elite ranks, leaving no space for what the wider Kazakhstani population might want to say about the country's leadership and broader issues of political and economic governance.


A risky strategy

And this latter proposition finally captures what is at stake when it comes to the current round of presidential elections and future scenarios of political succession in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. There is no democratic design behind the 2015 votes: the re-elections of Karimov and Nazarbayev are entirely about the short-term stability of the ruling regimes in Tashkent and Astana.


By extending the leaders' long-term presidencies, the supporting elites opted to postpone any decision about how and to whom power is to be transferred. The current electoral round, in other words, is a very handy tool to buy time before making longer-term succession arrangements. The leaders' irreplaceability has in this sense become temporary, but maintaining Karimov and Nazarbayev in power is, at least currently, vital for regime preservation in both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.


Re-confirming two ageing presidents, however, is a risky strategy. Beyond pre-arranged succession, the leaders' death while in office remains the only other plausible succession scenario in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. But will the elites in Tashkent and Astana withstand the stress of leadership transitions that are both complex and sudden? The case of Turkmenistan where in 2006-2007 the regime successfully managed, in apparently smooth fashion, an intricate (and relatively unexpected) leadership change demonstrates that Central Asia's elites have the resilience to respond to an apparent and unplanned power vacuum. The Turkmen transition allowed for the rise of a new president (Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov), while preserving the power of a great segment of the elite that supported Saparmurat Niyazov for more than a decade.


There is virtually no doubt that, if push comes to shove, many regime members in both Tashkent and Astana would be happy to replicate the outcome of the Turkmen leadership change. And it is exactly for this reason that, when it comes to presidential successions, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan might be dreaming of Singapore, but actually looking at Turkmenistan.


www.opendemocracy.net, 24 April 2015


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