Kazakhstan’s government is poised to give the state election body expanded regulatory powers that independent vote monitors say will threaten their existence.
Under proposed changes to the law on elections, which are theoretically subject to public discussion until August 2, the Central Election Commission, or CEC, will be able to sideline observers through application of a strict set of new criteria.
Groups applying for accreditation as monitors may soon have to indicate the funding they receive from abroad – a restriction affecting many of the liveliest civic organizations – and will have to prove with reference to their charter documents that observing votes is part of their core mission.
Another proposed amendment to the law envisions restriction on what people can film or photograph inside polling stations.
These ideas have been floated in the past. The charter rule was first raised by the CEC ahead of parliamentary elections last year. Vote officials admitted they were only making recommendations, not laying down rules, however.
Rules on filming and photos in polling stations are ostensibly being brought into line with law regulating those activities in general. But monitors complain that the tightened criteria mean that people capturing images of voters engaging in unlawful behavior would have to ask those same people for permission to publish that evidence.
Filming in polling stations is already tricky enough. When the country went to vote during the constitutional referendum in June, several journalists complained that they had been impeded from filming proceedings.
Yelena Shvetsova, director of Erkindik Kanaty, a non-profit group that monitors elections, said that the new law would empower the CEC with additional “administrative leverage” to filter out “undesirable organizations.”
As for references to foreign funding, that is worrying as it shows Kazakhstan “can follow Russia and start talking about foreign agents and trading in conspiracy theories,” Shvetsova told Eurasianet. “There will be increased pressure on public organizations.”
Erkindik Kanaty was one of two NGOs fined in 2021 not long after the organizations raised questions about the conduct and overall legitimacy of the parliamentary vote.
Tightened restrictions for monitors are particularly notable at this time since Kazakhstan is trying to project an image of a country striving to inculcate more democratic and representative practices.
Other amendments to the law will allow for independent candidates to compete for seats in parliament, where only people on party lists may now do so. The process for registering parties is being eased, although no parties that could credibly be described as robustly oppositional appear likely for now to be registered.
Daniyar Supiyev, an activist who was briefly detained on July 24 after staging a one-man picket in central Almaty against the proposals, said the draft law shows that rather than opening up, the state is “tightening the screws” ahead of future votes. A day later, a court fined him 153,000 tenge ($320) for violating a law against holding unauthorized pickets.
Supiyev told Eurasianet that he and other activists plan to push ahead with demonstrations between now and September, when the law is expected to be approved by a parliament returning from its summer recess.