Kazakhstan's Presidential Election Shows Progress

While Kazakhstan needs to continue to improve its election processes, I would argue that the most recent presidential contest was, overall, a success story.
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Kazakhstan has come a long way in the two decades since it achieved independence from the Soviet Union. Sunday's presidential election illustrates just how far it's come. The Central Asian giant has succeeded in moving a great distance toward a free and open democracy.

Kazakhs turned out in droves on April 3 to re-elect President Nursultan Nazarbayev to another, five-year term. The overwhelming, 95.54 percent vote for him was not only an affirmation of Nazarbayev's popularity but an indication of the electorate's satisfaction with the direction of the country. Turnout was extraordinarily high with 89.9 percent of registered voters participating, up from 76.8 percent in the 2005 presidential election.

Nazarbayev has led Kazakhstan through difficult times and into an era of prosperity and growth. He has demonstrated that he values his U.S. and Western alliances and is committed to achieving democratic governance. One need look no further than the election as evidence.

After rejecting a proposal for a referendum to extend his term for another nine years, Nazarbayev made the decision to hold a special, early election on April 3 -- some two years before his current term expires. In so doing, he stressed that he was honoring the tenets of a free and transparent democracy.

Some foreign observers criticized his decision; they saw the snap election as a way to guarantee Nazarbayev's victory. In addition, after the results of the election were tallied, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe suggested that process was flawed and that more reforms are needed for "genuine democratic elections" to materialize.

While Kazakhstan needs to continue to improve its election processes, I would argue that the presidential contest was, overall, a success story. Leading up to and during Election Day, members of an election monitoring team that I was part of fanned out across the country. We visited 65 polling stations and observed the balloting and vote counting. We found that organizational errors were rare, that administrators were open and forthcoming and that the process moved cleanly and efficiently.

Unlike previous elections, we witnessed no signs of impropriety. Voters genuinely appeared motivated by a sense of civic consciousness and patriotism. They showed in large numbers that they are satisfied that the current leadership is promoting political stability, economic prosperity and national security.

Kazakhs spoke -- and spoke loudly -- about their future and in a very optimistic way.

They will do so again soon. Kazakhstan's upcoming parliamentary elections will offer the country -- and more importantly the Kazakh people -- the chance to dictate their future.

When they participate in these elections, the nation's political parties will have the opportunity to compete for parliamentary seats. The Kazakh parties that declined to participate in the presidential elections will have the chance to take part in these contests. They will have the time they say they were denied to organize and mount full-fledged campaigns. What's more, unlike this time around, all registered parties will get to take part in the parliamentary elections.

When that occurs, Kazakhstan will be put to the test and once again it will have the chance to prove that it is moving in the right direction -- toward a full and open democracy.

At this particular moment of unrest in the world, Kazakhstan should not be criticized for what it has not achieved. Rather, it should be applauded for what it has done during its short history as an independent nation. It is a model of stability and strength and has afforded its people a laudable opportunity to participate in government.

If Kazakhstan's presidential election was a test of the nation's growth as a democracy, then it, and more importantly its people, overwhelmingly showed real progress.

Daniel Witt, President of the International Tax and Investment Center (ITIC), a non-profit organization that has been working in the Republic of Kazakhstan since 1993. Mr. Witt was an international observer during the Presidential Election in the Republic of Kazakhstan. He was also an observer for the 2003, 2005 and 2007 Kazakhstan Elections. He serves as Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Eurasia Foundation.

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