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Nur Otan: party of power is in for a reform

photo: aigak.kz
25 February 2022
Marat ShibutovMarat Shibutov

Marat Shibutov|Almaty

Deputy Director of the Public Foundation «International Institute of Sociology and Politics», CISS expert

Nur Otan («The Shine of Homeland» in translation) is the pro-president political party of Kazakhstan. It was founded in 1999 on the initiative of the First President, who used to be its leader. On 23 November 2021, Nursultan Nazarbayev decided to retire from that responsibility. During recent January events, the ruling party was outspokenly criticized by the protesters, and a number of regional branches were wrecked. On 28 January 2022, at the extraordinary 21st congress Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was elected the Chairman of Nur Otan in a unanimous vote. The top governing bodies of the party the Political Council and the Bureau were also significantly renewed.

However, the President of Kazakhstan K.-J. Tokayev promised to return to the issue of being a Chairman of the ruling party by the end of this year. According to him, the authorities of the head of state «definitely contemplate a certain distance between the President and any parties and movements». Tokayev also proclaimed at the Congress that Nur Otan had to break away from the executive power and oligarchs. The ruling party had to quit its actual status of the trade union for bureaucrats: these changes are visible already judging by the new members of the Political Council and the Bureau of Nur Otan. Soon, on March 1, another extraordinary Congress will take place to discuss the modernization of the ruling party. Which steps are required for its transformation?

The party description

What is Nur Otan? It was created in 1999 as Otan («Homeland») party. At that time, the program document of this political association claimed that its members were for strengthening the statehood and developing a free and open society in the Republic based on the principles of democracy, social partnership and consent.

The constituent congress took place on 1 March 1999, when the National Unity Party, the Democratic Party, the Liberal Movement of Kazakhstan, «Kazakhstan 2030» Movement joined in Otan party. In November 2002, on its 4th Congress Otan comprised National Cooperative Party and Republican Labor Party, and in July 2006 Otan merged with Assar Party. Then, in December 2006, at the extraordinary 10th Congress, the Citizens Party and the Agrarian Party joined Otan. This Congress decided to rename the Republican Political Party Otan to Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Nur Otan.

In its program adopted in 2021, the party sees its priority task as «creating equal opportunities for each Kazakhstan citizen to achieve his/her potential, assuring the growth in prosperity of Kazakhstan families, securing positive future for the oncoming generations and care about the seniors».

The incumbent President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was elected the Party Chairman. The Party Congress is the supreme governing body, and the Political Council is the highest representative body. The steering body is the Bureau of the Political Council, and the Central Administrative Office is the executive body. The party also has its youth branch Zhas Otan («Young Homeland») founded in 2000.

As of today, Nur Otan is the biggest political party in Kazakhstan numbering over 830 thousand members. The party has branch offices in every Kazakhstan region, there are many political heavyweights and prominent public figures among its members. The party has a long history of political and electoral campaigns.

Participation in elections

The Kazakhstan parliament is formed on a party list basis, and this is a special feature of the political system of the country. That is why the party is an important political machine for achieving dominance in legislative power bodies. Nur Otan demonstrated very good results during all the election campaigns. Thus, during the first campaign in 1999, the Republican Political Party Otan was able to get 39 mandates 13 in the Senate, and 26 in Mazhilis, the lower chamber of the parliament. The outcome of 2004 campaign was even more impressive: Otan members took 42 parliamentary seats out of 59 total.

The party demonstrated its best result in 2007, when Nur Otan members won all the available 98 seats in Mazhilis. In 2012 campaign, the party won 80.99% of votes and received 83 seats in Mazhilis out of 107, and in 2016, it won 82.2% of votes and received 84 seats. The last scheduled elections to Kazakhstan parliament took place on 10 January 2021, and Nur Otan maintained its dominating position in Mazhilis winning 71.1% (76 seats).

Speaking about maslikhats (local representative bodies in the Republic of Kazakhstan), until 2021 Nur Otan controlled over 90% of seat, and after 2021 82.48% of seats. As we can see, the ruling party domination at the regional level was and still is more significant than at the national level.

It is important to emphasize that all these success stories of Nur Otan pertain to the times of Nursultan Nazarbayev in the conditions of rigid administrative system. Many electoral issues were then decided by the Presidents Executive Office, there were also some informal arrangements with other political parties. In essence, all the previous election campaigns were pre-arranged and used the influential figure of the First President, not the achievements of political parties. In Nur Otan they are not used to real adversarial relations, so there is a big question of how the ruling party will be acting in the environment of strong political competition, which we can observe after January events.

What will be the environment for further operation of the party?

The main uncertainty is in the probability of K.-J. Tokayev keeping his position of the Party Chairman in 2023, or even in the end of 2022. It is quite possible that he will become a non-partisan candidate during the race in 2024, or he may distance himself from all the parties as the head of state. «The equally distant status of the head of state needs to be fixed within the broad package of political reforms», President Tokayev stated at Nur Otan party congress in February 2022. The Presidents State-of-the Nation is expected by mid-March, where the contours of the political reform will be specified.

In any case rejection of the party leaders position or distancing that will immediately decrease the level of support of the pro-presidential party among the elites and will make the public at large to waver in its choices. In essence, the ruling partys rating in the post-Soviet countries reflects the rating of more popular President and his attitude towards the party machine. The analogy may be drawn in this case with the pre-electoral position of Vladimir Putin, who is the informal leader of United Russia political party, but prefers to run for presidency as an independent candidate.

The second important factor is the change of political environment after January events. Here are the most probable factors meaningful for the new election campaign:

1. Appearance of new «fresh» parties sponsored by Kazakhstan oligarchs;

2. Exit of certain elite representatives from Nur Otan both as protest, and for creation of new political parties, mainly sectoral or niche-based. It is quite possible that the political forces, which merged with Nur Otan at some point, will now exit;

3. Protests potential and the voters disbeliefs in the established party system will build up, and that means higher level of confidence for the new parties;

4. Nur Otan will have smaller resource, especially during possible extraordinary elections.

Pluses and minuses of Nur Otan project

Let us first list the partys strengths:

1. The deeply-rooted party structure, a big number of primary (bottom-level) organizations, branch offices across all the regions, youth branch Zhas Otan;

2. The tried-and-true political technologies machine, the election campaigns know-how, partisan media;

3. Strong resources of different kind: support of the government, interaction with media, engagement of public opinion leaders and new faces;

4. While the majority of political and business elite belongs to the party, there are no funding problems;

5. The party rating is at the level of 40-50% in the form of the ruling majority, which will persist irrespective of the appearance of new political parties;

6. The current members of maslikhats and Mazhilis depend on their party affiliation they cannot exit the party without losing their mandates;

7. The party «brand» is well-known and recognized.

The partys weaknesses:

1. The party is strongly dependent on the Presidents support; the partys rating is a reflection of the Presidents rating;

2. There are no political heavyweights in the central office, and after change of the leadership the party organizations are disorganized;

3. After January events, the party has significant disapproval rating, in a number of cities the protesters attacked Nur Otan offices;

4. The party is blamed for its mistakes in the past and its failure to live up to its promises; there is a risk that it will be made a flak-catcher for the criticism during the electoral campaign;

5. The party does not possess many skills of «street politics», it is used to working «wrapped in cotton wool» through informal arrangements with other parties, there is no skill of operating in fierce competition environment or readiness to real rivalry;

6. Despite its huge membership, the party has no inner party fractions previously there was such a process, but it was not launched. This impedes the flexibility of the party members significantly.

The partys risks:

1. There is high probability of extraordinary elections to maslikhats and Mazhilis, the party is not ready yet for such development of events;

2. The President and political government officials (first of all, akims regional heads) will exit the party, and it will be a signal for the party office that administrative support needs to be limited or even imitated;

3. More than a dozen of new parties will appear making the political rivalry really fierce; they will be building their agendas on sweeping criticism of Nur Otan;

4. For the media, Nur Otan will become a scapegoat for all the problems of Nazarbayevs era.

New opportunities

What kind of new opportunities opened for Nur Otan after January events? Here are some proposals for re-formatting the party image:

1. The electoral programs need to be revised and changed adding human centricity and achievability of the pre-elections promises. Example: switch from the indicator of «building a certain number of schools by a certain year» (it is akimats responsibility) to the commitment to monitor the implementation of educational standards with respect to the number of shifts in the school and the number of pupils in the class;

2. Regional branches should be headed by local legislators either by maslikhats secretaries or by the leaders of party factions in maslikhats;

3. The party should transfer from the executive power dominance to the legislative power dominance, so it turns from the «bureaucrats trade union» to a real parliamentary party;

4. The transition to a certain opposition and criticism of the executive power bodies is required, because big social programs and significant changes in the government are waiting ahead;

5. Nur Otan needs to stop being a theoretical party, it needs to participate in «street politics» rallies, actions and demonstrations. Such powerful resource as administrative justice should be used for filing law suits against government agencies;

6. Develop and implement the agenda of interethnic consent, stability and safety for the public, because this is the key motive after January events;

7. The party should be oriented towards the middle class, not towards the marginalized poor communities or the elites far from real life. Data from sociological surveys should be used instead of fake news;

8. The party should strongly oppose other media, especially in different media segments, not only in traditional newspapers or TV, which are losing their popularity and coverage;

9. Develop a special course for party activists in legal literacy and GR. Probably, some useful courses of political management school need to be disseminated among the public at large to attract new members;

10. Maybe some drastic and powerful actions are required, which used to be under unspoken taboo, but which can immediately provide for 25-35% of new votes for example, recognizing Russian as the second state language or free circulation of non-combat weapons.

Let us summarize

The five political parties currently existing in Kazakhstan are actually half-dead and cannot be effective competitors for Nur Otan. Most of the new political forces in the playing field are not meaningful, have no political initiative with weak electoral support. We should not overestimate the impact of negative publications and the buzz created by the opposition in the social media. Internet is mainly for letting off the steam and fakes dissemination. As for reality, the declared protests have no longer strong support, this can be seen judging by opposition rallies in Almaty with two or three hundreds of protesters maximum.

The main threat will come from new opposition parties financed by unhappy oligarchs and supported by former politicians now belonging to counter-elite. You should not underestimate this by saying that it is «dirty money» and «toxic figures». There are two key important things for Kazakhstan society power and money. They are meaningful in any case, irrespective of the ways used to obtain them.

The most important thing here is not to start panicking, because all the new opposition parties will begin battling over the same votes and splitting their potential electorate. Today, Nur Otan has real support of 40%, which is quite normal for a parliamentary party. Anyway, this is the highest rating among all the political parties of Kazakhstan, and its opponents will have to undertake a lot of efforts for several years to achieve the same results. The realistic objective for Nur Otan is not total domination in Mazhilis, as it used to have, but parliamentary majority. And this objective is quite achievable, so the party should set it as the target for the forthcoming campaign.

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Caspian Institute for Strategic Studies
Publications

Nur Otan: party of power is in for a reform

photo: aigak.kz
25 2022
Marat Shibutov

Marat Shibutov | Almaty

Deputy Director of the Public Foundation «International Institute of Sociology and Politics», CISS expert

Nur Otan («The Shine of Homeland» in translation) is the pro-president political party of Kazakhstan. It was founded in 1999 on the initiative of the First President, who used to be its leader. On 23 November 2021, Nursultan Nazarbayev decided to retire from that responsibility. During recent January events, the ruling party was outspokenly criticized by the protesters, and a number of regional branches were wrecked. On 28 January 2022, at the extraordinary 21st congress Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was elected the Chairman of Nur Otan in a unanimous vote. The top governing bodies of the party the Political Council and the Bureau were also significantly renewed.

However, the President of Kazakhstan K.-J. Tokayev promised to return to the issue of being a Chairman of the ruling party by the end of this year. According to him, the authorities of the head of state «definitely contemplate a certain distance between the President and any parties and movements». Tokayev also proclaimed at the Congress that Nur Otan had to break away from the executive power and oligarchs. The ruling party had to quit its actual status of the trade union for bureaucrats: these changes are visible already judging by the new members of the Political Council and the Bureau of Nur Otan. Soon, on March 1, another extraordinary Congress will take place to discuss the modernization of the ruling party. Which steps are required for its transformation?

The party description

What is Nur Otan? It was created in 1999 as Otan («Homeland») party. At that time, the program document of this political association claimed that its members were for strengthening the statehood and developing a free and open society in the Republic based on the principles of democracy, social partnership and consent.

The constituent congress took place on 1 March 1999, when the National Unity Party, the Democratic Party, the Liberal Movement of Kazakhstan, «Kazakhstan 2030» Movement joined in Otan party. In November 2002, on its 4th Congress Otan comprised National Cooperative Party and Republican Labor Party, and in July 2006 Otan merged with Assar Party. Then, in December 2006, at the extraordinary 10th Congress, the Citizens Party and the Agrarian Party joined Otan. This Congress decided to rename the Republican Political Party Otan to Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Nur Otan.

In its program adopted in 2021, the party sees its priority task as «creating equal opportunities for each Kazakhstan citizen to achieve his/her potential, assuring the growth in prosperity of Kazakhstan families, securing positive future for the oncoming generations and care about the seniors».

The incumbent President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was elected the Party Chairman. The Party Congress is the supreme governing body, and the Political Council is the highest representative body. The steering body is the Bureau of the Political Council, and the Central Administrative Office is the executive body. The party also has its youth branch Zhas Otan («Young Homeland») founded in 2000.

As of today, Nur Otan is the biggest political party in Kazakhstan numbering over 830 thousand members. The party has branch offices in every Kazakhstan region, there are many political heavyweights and prominent public figures among its members. The party has a long history of political and electoral campaigns.

Participation in elections

The Kazakhstan parliament is formed on a party list basis, and this is a special feature of the political system of the country. That is why the party is an important political machine for achieving dominance in legislative power bodies. Nur Otan demonstrated very good results during all the election campaigns. Thus, during the first campaign in 1999, the Republican Political Party Otan was able to get 39 mandates 13 in the Senate, and 26 in Mazhilis, the lower chamber of the parliament. The outcome of 2004 campaign was even more impressive: Otan members took 42 parliamentary seats out of 59 total.

The party demonstrated its best result in 2007, when Nur Otan members won all the available 98 seats in Mazhilis. In 2012 campaign, the party won 80.99% of votes and received 83 seats in Mazhilis out of 107, and in 2016, it won 82.2% of votes and received 84 seats. The last scheduled elections to Kazakhstan parliament took place on 10 January 2021, and Nur Otan maintained its dominating position in Mazhilis winning 71.1% (76 seats).

Speaking about maslikhats (local representative bodies in the Republic of Kazakhstan), until 2021 Nur Otan controlled over 90% of seat, and after 2021 82.48% of seats. As we can see, the ruling party domination at the regional level was and still is more significant than at the national level.

It is important to emphasize that all these success stories of Nur Otan pertain to the times of Nursultan Nazarbayev in the conditions of rigid administrative system. Many electoral issues were then decided by the Presidents Executive Office, there were also some informal arrangements with other political parties. In essence, all the previous election campaigns were pre-arranged and used the influential figure of the First President, not the achievements of political parties. In Nur Otan they are not used to real adversarial relations, so there is a big question of how the ruling party will be acting in the environment of strong political competition, which we can observe after January events.

What will be the environment for further operation of the party?

The main uncertainty is in the probability of K.-J. Tokayev keeping his position of the Party Chairman in 2023, or even in the end of 2022. It is quite possible that he will become a non-partisan candidate during the race in 2024, or he may distance himself from all the parties as the head of state. «The equally distant status of the head of state needs to be fixed within the broad package of political reforms», President Tokayev stated at Nur Otan party congress in February 2022. The Presidents State-of-the Nation is expected by mid-March, where the contours of the political reform will be specified.

In any case rejection of the party leaders position or distancing that will immediately decrease the level of support of the pro-presidential party among the elites and will make the public at large to waver in its choices. In essence, the ruling partys rating in the post-Soviet countries reflects the rating of more popular President and his attitude towards the party machine. The analogy may be drawn in this case with the pre-electoral position of Vladimir Putin, who is the informal leader of United Russia political party, but prefers to run for presidency as an independent candidate.

The second important factor is the change of political environment after January events. Here are the most probable factors meaningful for the new election campaign:

1. Appearance of new «fresh» parties sponsored by Kazakhstan oligarchs;

2. Exit of certain elite representatives from Nur Otan both as protest, and for creation of new political parties, mainly sectoral or niche-based. It is quite possible that the political forces, which merged with Nur Otan at some point, will now exit;

3. Protests potential and the voters disbeliefs in the established party system will build up, and that means higher level of confidence for the new parties;

4. Nur Otan will have smaller resource, especially during possible extraordinary elections.

Pluses and minuses of Nur Otan project

Let us first list the partys strengths:

1. The deeply-rooted party structure, a big number of primary (bottom-level) organizations, branch offices across all the regions, youth branch Zhas Otan;

2. The tried-and-true political technologies machine, the election campaigns know-how, partisan media;

3. Strong resources of different kind: support of the government, interaction with media, engagement of public opinion leaders and new faces;

4. While the majority of political and business elite belongs to the party, there are no funding problems;

5. The party rating is at the level of 40-50% in the form of the ruling majority, which will persist irrespective of the appearance of new political parties;

6. The current members of maslikhats and Mazhilis depend on their party affiliation they cannot exit the party without losing their mandates;

7. The party «brand» is well-known and recognized.

The partys weaknesses:

1. The party is strongly dependent on the Presidents support; the partys rating is a reflection of the Presidents rating;

2. There are no political heavyweights in the central office, and after change of the leadership the party organizations are disorganized;

3. After January events, the party has significant disapproval rating, in a number of cities the protesters attacked Nur Otan offices;

4. The party is blamed for its mistakes in the past and its failure to live up to its promises; there is a risk that it will be made a flak-catcher for the criticism during the electoral campaign;

5. The party does not possess many skills of «street politics», it is used to working «wrapped in cotton wool» through informal arrangements with other parties, there is no skill of operating in fierce competition environment or readiness to real rivalry;

6. Despite its huge membership, the party has no inner party fractions previously there was such a process, but it was not launched. This impedes the flexibility of the party members significantly.

The partys risks:

1. There is high probability of extraordinary elections to maslikhats and Mazhilis, the party is not ready yet for such development of events;

2. The President and political government officials (first of all, akims regional heads) will exit the party, and it will be a signal for the party office that administrative support needs to be limited or even imitated;

3. More than a dozen of new parties will appear making the political rivalry really fierce; they will be building their agendas on sweeping criticism of Nur Otan;

4. For the media, Nur Otan will become a scapegoat for all the problems of Nazarbayevs era.

New opportunities

What kind of new opportunities opened for Nur Otan after January events? Here are some proposals for re-formatting the party image:

1. The electoral programs need to be revised and changed adding human centricity and achievability of the pre-elections promises. Example: switch from the indicator of «building a certain number of schools by a certain year» (it is akimats responsibility) to the commitment to monitor the implementation of educational standards with respect to the number of shifts in the school and the number of pupils in the class;

2. Regional branches should be headed by local legislators either by maslikhats secretaries or by the leaders of party factions in maslikhats;

3. The party should transfer from the executive power dominance to the legislative power dominance, so it turns from the «bureaucrats trade union» to a real parliamentary party;

4. The transition to a certain opposition and criticism of the executive power bodies is required, because big social programs and significant changes in the government are waiting ahead;

5. Nur Otan needs to stop being a theoretical party, it needs to participate in «street politics» rallies, actions and demonstrations. Such powerful resource as administrative justice should be used for filing law suits against government agencies;

6. Develop and implement the agenda of interethnic consent, stability and safety for the public, because this is the key motive after January events;

7. The party should be oriented towards the middle class, not towards the marginalized poor communities or the elites far from real life. Data from sociological surveys should be used instead of fake news;

8. The party should strongly oppose other media, especially in different media segments, not only in traditional newspapers or TV, which are losing their popularity and coverage;

9. Develop a special course for party activists in legal literacy and GR. Probably, some useful courses of political management school need to be disseminated among the public at large to attract new members;

10. Maybe some drastic and powerful actions are required, which used to be under unspoken taboo, but which can immediately provide for 25-35% of new votes for example, recognizing Russian as the second state language or free circulation of non-combat weapons.

Let us summarize

The five political parties currently existing in Kazakhstan are actually half-dead and cannot be effective competitors for Nur Otan. Most of the new political forces in the playing field are not meaningful, have no political initiative with weak electoral support. We should not overestimate the impact of negative publications and the buzz created by the opposition in the social media. Internet is mainly for letting off the steam and fakes dissemination. As for reality, the declared protests have no longer strong support, this can be seen judging by opposition rallies in Almaty with two or three hundreds of protesters maximum.

The main threat will come from new opposition parties financed by unhappy oligarchs and supported by former politicians now belonging to counter-elite. You should not underestimate this by saying that it is «dirty money» and «toxic figures». There are two key important things for Kazakhstan society power and money. They are meaningful in any case, irrespective of the ways used to obtain them.

The most important thing here is not to start panicking, because all the new opposition parties will begin battling over the same votes and splitting their potential electorate. Today, Nur Otan has real support of 40%, which is quite normal for a parliamentary party. Anyway, this is the highest rating among all the political parties of Kazakhstan, and its opponents will have to undertake a lot of efforts for several years to achieve the same results. The realistic objective for Nur Otan is not total domination in Mazhilis, as it used to have, but parliamentary majority. And this objective is quite achievable, so the party should set it as the target for the forthcoming campaign.