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Upcoming Local Elections: A Step to Greater Democracy

This is a question of power. Local elections of akims (mayors in Kazakh) in villages, towns and cities of regional importance will raise the level of legitimacy and transparency within Kazakhstan’s government. Akims, who are the heads of akimats, similar to mayors of municipalities, will be elected for the first time in the history of independent Republic of Kazakhstan. The prominence of this historic event should not be underestimated.

Since the recent address to the nation by President Nursultan Nazarbayev in December 2012, the political scene of Kazakhstan has been buzzing with questions about the election of provincial leaders. As the elections come closer, excitement rises. The potential for real change is immense.

More than 7,000 people in Kazakhstan expressed desire to become akims of their municipalities. This is approximately three candidates for one position. Overall, 2,457 akim posts will be filled after the elections. Directly elected members of local councils (maslikhats) will elect from among doctors, teachers, lawyers, economists, construction workers, social workers, agronomists and shepherds who have applied as candidates. The average age of the candidates is 44.

They will also gain more control over how local revenues are raised and where budget spending goes. This is an unprecedented event in Kazakhstan’s most recent wave of decentralization of power. This is all part of a decentralization plan that will be realized in two phases, the first ending in 2015 and the second in 2020.

The rules for the upcoming election were approved by a presidential decree on April 24, 2013. They state that the Central Election Commission of the Republic of Kazakhstan together with the akims (governors) of regions are to determine the number and the list of administrative-territorial units, were elections will be held. They determine the district towns, rural districts, as well as towns and villages of the Republic of Kazakhstan that are not included in the rural districts.

The Central Election Commission is a permanent state body that heads the unified system of election commissions of the Republic of Kazakhstan. The CEC will provide the organizational structure and conduct the upcoming elections. It began receiving applications for local akim candidacies as early as July 7 and the submission of documents for candidates for the post of akims of rural districts was carried out until July 21.

The Central Election Commission has identified 2,457 units where there will be elections. Of the large number of posts, 47 of them will be mayors of cities of regional importance, 2,101 – akims of rural districts, 119 – akims of towns, and 190 heads of villages, according to CEC press secretary, Venera Zheksembekova. This is 91% of akims of all levels.

According to the rules, candidates for akims may be citizens of the Republic of Kazakhstan over the age of 25, having active voting rights, meeting the requirements imposed on them by the Law “On Public Service,” with higher education and living in the territory of the region in which they are running.

It bears to note that these elections are a new phenomenon. Laws on decentralization and self-rule have been passed in 2001 and have taken a while to become reality, but it is better to be fully prepared and ensure legitimacy of the process rather than the other way around.

Recently Alikhan Baimenov, chairman of the Agency of Civil Service of the Republic of Kazakhstan, described the difficulties in the fundamental shift in the political system in an interview. He said, “We must remember that we have come to our independence with blurred values. In the Soviet system, a key criterion for appointments were political loyalty and party affiliation, and all civil servants were, in essence, political appointees.”

In these elections, the party system also plays a key role. Most of the candidates that are running for their posts are members of the leading Nur Otan party. But head of the Civic Alliance, an umbrella group of NGOs, Nurlan Yerimbetov said, “They may be members of the same party [Nur Otan], but they’ve been elected by responsible people,” he said. “The district councilors are largely independent from the provincial governors. They’re people of firm resolve and they aren’t always acquiescent to the authorities.”

Decentralization of power away from Astana and into the hands of local council members (maslikhats) is a significant step in providing an institutional system independent of nomenclature. A challenge that Kazakhstan has faced since its independence is finally being given the treatment at the level of local politics.

These elections also mark a significant rise in the autonomy of the regions, as they are creating legitimate representatives of the people within the government. It is hoped that these candidates running for posts of akims will be more effective in tackling the problems faced by their neighbours.

This move is a first step in providing location specific solutions to problems faced by millions of citizens of the Republic. Critics of the government have long argued Astana was not hearing the real demands of provincial citizens or was even ignoring them.

The President approved the decentralization process with all its possible connotations in the new political course Kazakhstan 2050, saying he had “approved the local self-governance development concept. It will allow us to increase the management quality at the rural level and expand citizens’ participation in the local-scale issues.” However, Nursultan Nazarbayev also explicitly stated that “decentralization should not be assessed exclusively as a process of creating new bodies of power at the local level, but to transfer certain powers there.”

When deputy regional development minister Kairbek Uskenbayev first presented the legislation to parliament in April, he said it would make mayors more responsible for raising living standards and protecting people’s interests, and give their constituents more of a voice in informing spending decisions through participatory gatherings.

This rise in responsibility of the local government, according to President Nazarbayev, is “a qualitative change of the state management system, change of the resolution system for the local-scale level.”

Three things are directly affected by the upcoming elections. First, these elections are aimed at providing an impetus for localized politics, less dependent on the affairs of the central apparatus and thus more capable of solving concrete problems on the ground. Second, the elections are a direct move towards a more responsible power. And finally, these elections will also mark another step towards democratization.

As President Nazarbayev stated in his most recent address to the nation, “We should follow the civilized path, together with the whole world and to take a course towards further democratization of the society.”

As determined by the respective district and city territorial election commissions, the meetings of electors (local council members) will be held on August 5 in the South Kazakhstan region, August 6 in the Atyrau, August 7 in Aktobe, Almaty, Kostanay, Kyzylorda, Mangystau, Pavlodar and North Kazakhstan, August 7 and 8 in the East Kazakhstan, August 7 and 9 in the West Kazakhstan region - August 8 in Akmola and Karaganda regions, and finally in Zhambyl on August 9.

The people of Kazakhstan are getting ready to make this next step towards greater democracy.

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