A New Political Landscape: District Elections
Kazakhstan aims to hold district and regional city elections. While for the West, lower-level elections are commonplace, for the Central Asian country it is the first time. One could say that Kazakhstan is on the edge of another important period, which started after the January protests in 2022.
Mass protests in January in 2022 resulted plenty of changes in the country. A new political reform, promised by President Kasym-Jomart Tokayev, was kicked off. Kazakhstan held a referendum to amend one-third of the Constitution. President Tokayev has stated the necessity of the improvement of the election system in the country several times in his speeches. As part of this political reform, many changes were applied to legal documents. One of them was the mechanism of direct election of village mayors. The next step of these changes will be the election of district mayors or akims.
At the opening of the first session of the Parliament of the VIII convocation, President Tokayev declared changes to the election system are essential for the future of the country.
“We have achieved a breakthrough in the development of our homeland and ushered in a new era in history. But this is not the end of the transformation. This is only the beginning of a long journey. The reforms aimed at improving the political system will continue. This is crucial.
This year, for the first time, direct elections will be held for akims of 45 districts and cities of regional significance. After that, we will conduct the elections of akims of districts across the country. As a result, all institutions of power will be updated. Our journey towards democratization of political processes and further increase in citizens' participation in public administration will continue”, said President Tokayev.
Experts point out the big momentum for Kazakhstan. This year district mayors will be elected in a pilot mode, if it succeeds, then will be widely implemented next year. At the same time, the election of village mayors will continue.
Kazybek Maigeldinov, a member of the National Assembly, says that district elections are incomparable with village elections. One of the reasons is the district budget. While village akims have no power over taxes and the regional budget, mayors of districts play a tremendous role to finance main infrastructure issues such as road, water and electricity.
"Direct election of district mayors is one of the most important parts of the self-government system. Therefore, the result of them will be decisive. On the one hand, the responsibilities of elected mayors will increase. On the other hand, it fully contributes to the real implementation of the concept of the “Listening State”, says Mr Maigeldinov.
Rizzat Elubayev, an expert at the Kazakhstan Institute of Social Development, draws attention that 1.2 million people participated in village elections. And this figure increases during the election of district mayors.
"As a result, the majority of the population chooses the person directly responsible for the region. Put another way, local authorities will directly depend on residents. This expands financial and administrative opportunities. Therefore, during the elections, candidates should adhere to this status. Also, it opens the door for professional and political competitions. All-level elections in Kazakhstan will strengthen the democracy in the country. Of course, we could face issues such as tribalism and localism. But it should be considered as a next step to a big reform," says Mr Elubaev.
Mr Elubaev is confident that local elections increase party competition. He points out new parties could boost their reputation by bringing representatives and party members to power in the regions. “It will directly influence decision-making. As a result, political competition for political power in Kazakhstan will strengthen," he says.
While Kazakhstan intends to elect district mayors, such an approach have implemented long ago in developed countries. For instance, at the local level, county and city government positions are usually filled by election, especially within the legislative branch in the US. Even Native American tribal governmental positions, including executive and legislative positions, are elected. In New Zealand, regional and rural mayors are also filled by election. Economist Zhasulan Kushebaev points out that Kazakhstan accomplishes the concept of the “Listening State” by considering foreign experience.
"Granting autonomy in managing the budgets of local self-government bodies is successfully used in European countries. Austria, for example, allows municipalities to generate local budgets from taxes on business activities, real estate, wages, beverages, and the entertainment industry, as well as fines, license fees, and other local fund revenues. In Hungary, a part of village budgets consists of taxes from citizens, land rent, rents from places of recreation and cultural activities and other local revenues," says Mr Kushebaev.
Rizzat Elubayev, an expert at the Kazakhstan Institute of Social Development, says initiatives such as district and village elections pave the way for effective decentralization policy. Power and resources are partially transferred from the central government to local authorities, self-government bodies and civil society, he says.
"It is important to form professional candidates. The elected mayor is responsible for his activities. According to a number of studies, decentralization contributes to better performance of tasks, to increase the quality and accountability of local executive bodies, to better respond to the needs and expectations of citizens, and to promote the expansion of their local decision-making process," says Mr Elubaev.
The expert points out that village elections, which started two years ago, have colossal importance for decentralising the power of the government. Despite this fact, it has not been sufficiently brought to the attention of people. "If we look at the results of village elections in the first stage, most of the candidates self-nominated. Most of them were elected for the first time. In this regard, it should be recognized that the elected mayor depends on the local communities. Unfortunately, village elections campaign was not sufficiently published in the media”, he says.
Experts draw attention that district elections will be held thanks to the successful results of village elections. In 2021, Kazakhstan launched pilot village elections. Local residents actively participated in political competitions. However, the election of village akims is not new for the Central Asian country. Such elections started by indirect voting of local maslikhat deputies in 2013. Now local elections will be held by direct vote.
Experts say local elections open the door for democratic change. One of the reasons that people elect a person they know well and associate with. Therefore, local residents support akims or complain at any time. Sagydolla Baimurat, the chairman of the public association "Chamber of Young Lawyers", expresses only a candidate who is aware of the features and conditions of the local community can make a significant contribution to the development of the village.
Economist Zhasulan Kushebaev hopes the village elections will make a difference. The prosperity of the villages leads to the prosperity of the country as a whole, he says. Therefore, electing them, and giving them a certain level of autonomy will expand their authority.
"We should take into account that akims of the villages are primarily responsible for the development of villages and solving local social and economic problems. However, many village mayors are unable to perform their duties properly due to various reasons. The main reason is that village mayors have limited financial capabilities and a lack of independence in attracting and managing the amount of money necessary to solve rural problems.
Of course, reforms such as the election of village mayors and giving them additional powers to levy individual taxes are being carried out very timely and correctly. According to the results of 2021, the revenues of the local self-government budget amounted to 187 billion tenge. About 32 billion tenge or 17.1 percent of it are self-collected revenues. And 155 billion tenges was received as a transfer from the higher budget," says Zh. Kushebaev.
According to the expert, the formation of an independent budget allows the mayors to solve issues of local importance and to expand the participation of citizens in the decision-making process. Currently, village governors are allowed to spend finance received from four taxes (income, property, land, transport taxes) and non-tax sources of income.
"On average, this is only 15 per cent of the budget of villages. From these statistics, we can see that the volume of transfers is still high. This means that village mayors are doing a poor job in attracting local sources of income for villages’ budget", says Zh. Kushebaev.
Zhanar Sankhaeva, a senior researcher at the Social and Political Research Department of the Institute of Strategic Studies of Kazakhstan, claims that the direct election of village mayors improves the quality and efficiency of the decision-making process. This is one of the important directions in the decentralization of state administration and the introduction of local self-government and local democratic institutions into daily practice.
"It is clear that the direct election of village mayors has increased the quality and efficiency of decisions made in local areas. Firstly, decisions to be made depends on the needs of each village. There are more than 2,000 different villages in Kazakhstan, and the institution of direct election of village mayors helps to create a unique way of managing them. Secondly, the re-election of the head of the village for the next term is directly related to the villagers," says Zh. Sankhaeva.