March 20, 2016 / 7:38 AM / a year ago

Kazakhstan's election could yield clue to succession

4 Min Read

A family walks past an election poster of ruling Nur Otan party depicting Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev ahead of the snap parliamentary election scheduled on March 20, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, March 11, 2016.Shamil Zhumatov

ALMATY/ASTANA (Reuters) - Kazakhstan's ruling party is almost certain to retain control over the lower house of parliament in a snap election on Sunday, but the vote may still play a part in deciding who will succeed President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Nazarbayev's Nur Otan party faces no real competition, and it should benefit from a rebound in oil prices and the local currency, the tenge. Harder to predict is the makeup of Nur Otan's faction, as it has 127 candidates vying for places in the 107-seat Mazhilis, the lower house.

All eyes will be on the president's daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva, who is deputy prime minister and also on the party list as a candidate. If she leaves the government, she could become the speaker of the lower house, which would solidify her position as a potential successor to her 75-year-old father.

Nazarbayeva did not speak to reporters as she cast her ballot at a polling station in the capital, Astana. But her father said his government was considering giving the parliament more powers in a constitutional reform.

"There could be redistribution of power between the president, the parliament and the government," Nazarbayev said at the same polling station.

"As for when that is going to happen, we will look at the situation in the economy, globally and within the country."

He also indicated that a major government reshuffle was unlikely after the vote because "we should let them complete the tasks they have undertaken".

Nazarbayev, who has led the former Soviet republic since 1989 and brooks little dissent, called the vote in January, apparently favoring an early election in case the economy were to worsen in the course of the year.

But since then, the price of oil, Kazakhstan's main export, has risen from less than $30 per barrel to more than $40. The tenge, which had earlier lost half its value against the dollar within just five months, has gained more than 10 percent over the same time.

Political analysts unanimously predict that Nur Otan will win a majority in the Mazhilis. It has been devoid of Nazarbayev's opponents for more than a decade and routinely rubber-stamps laws drafted by the government.

"Vote or not, this is not going to change anything," said Zhailya, a pensioner, after casting her ballot in Almaty.

Kazakhstan has never held an election judged free and fair by Western observers, and Sunday's vote was preceded by a crackdown on political activists and media.

In January, an Almaty court sentenced two activists critical of the government to prison terms for "inciting discord" in Facebook comments. Last month, the state anti-corruption agency said it was investigating the head of the Kazakh journalists' union over suspected embezzlement and tax evasion.

However, an economic downturn may complicate any political transition. The price of oil is still down more than 60 percent since mid-2014, and the weakness of the tenge has led to a credit crunch and strained the finances of many companies that have no foreign currency revenues.

"The Ice Age is still ahead," Anvar Saidenov, a former central bank chairman, told a financial conference this month.

Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov, Mariya Gordeyeva and Raushan Nurshayeva; Editing by Larry King, Mark Trevelyan and Michael Perry

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