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What happens to Kazakhstan’s dictatorship now that its dictator has quit?

- April 24, 2019

Nursultan Nazarbayev, the only leader Kazakhstan had known since the country gained independence nearly 30 years ago, resigned March 19. During his televised announcement, the longtime autocrat noted his government’s shortcomings in addressing economic problems and expressed desire for a new generation of leadership. Kazakhstan emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as an independent state but remained tightly controlled by its Communist-era leader, who had served on Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership council.

The country has scheduled a snap election on June 9 to formally elect Nazarbayev’s successor. But leadership change in a dictatorship can often be a difficult, even dangerous, process. What does political science research tell us about what might come next for Kazakhstan’s ruling politicians? These three factors may help promote a stable transition:

1. Rules of succession restrain ambitious governing elites

After a dictator leaves office, members of the top leadership typically jockey for more power. This elite infighting can lead to violent repression or even a regime-ending coup. What keeps political ambitions in check during periods of transition?

Having clear rules of succession in place that keep leadership changes orderly are typically beneficial for current and future dictators. Erica Frantz and Elizabeth A. Stein suggest succession rules help dictators survive in office longer by putting procedures in place that lower the probability of a coup attempt. This effect is particularly important to the regime during periods of weakness, such as leadership transitions, when coups are more likely. Formally enshrining these rules in a binding document such as the constitution of the state or ruling party will make it less likely that ambitious elites will attempt an unconstitutional seizure of power.

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Although political elites often ignore the tenets, the fact that Kazakhstan has these rules on paper would appear to diminish the risk of an unplanned leadership crisis. Thus far, it appears the Kazakh elite are sticking to the script. Senate Chairman Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was appointed interim president as soon as Nazarbayev announced he was stepping down, in line with the constitution. Kazakhstan will also rely on a constitutionally mandated process for selecting a new president in the coming elections.

2. Legislatures win the cooperation of opposition elites

Most dictatorships also have legislatures — though their function and powers differ significantly from those of their democratic counterparts. It can be easy to dismiss legislatures within dictatorships as “window dressing,” something the government keeps around to make a dictatorship seem more like a representative democracy. However, even if they do not actually facilitate democratic values, these institutions are very important to the survival of dictatorships.

Here’s why: Dictatorships use these forums as a credible way to incorporate potential opposition leaders into the regime’s hierarchy. Participation in the legislative process — regardless of how independent it may be — brings the appearance of representation and, possibly, actual benefits at times to the constituencies of those who might challenge the regime. But potential rivals are, in essence, buying into the existing political order, making them less likely to lead protests from the outside.

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Legislatures are highly effective at protecting authoritarian regimes during crisis events, various studies have found. While they often don’t pick the new leader, legislatures will conduct the vote to confirm interim replacements and fill vacant offices. This ratification process serves as a safeguard against an opponent launching a sudden attempt to seize power unconstitutionally.

Although its power remains marginal compared with the executive, the presence of a parliament in Kazakhstan aids the regime in this transition by signaling stability and legitimacy. After Tokayev’s elevation to interim president, the Senate voted to approve Dariga Nazarbayeva, the daughter of the former president, as its new chair. The body has remained functional and is even passing legislation, such as its decision to rename the capital after Nazarbayev.

Political parties help keep the masses passive and supporters organized

Political scientists also believe the presence of a ruling political party during leadership transitions can be beneficial for the regime. Parties serve as a mass organization that can help ensure the cooperation of the general public, either through surveillance or by buying loyalty with material goods. Party members may also encourage friends and family to “keep their heads down” during leadership changes, advising potential troublemakers to ride it out rather than risk retribution.

Political parties can prevent mass mobilization of demonstrators and armed uprisings by dispatching members to neutralize these threats before they get out of control. This keeps general unrest from arising during these periods of vulnerability, when uncertainty can be the largest danger to the continuation of the system.

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A number of studies have found the presence of a leading political party helps dictatorships last longer than those that do not, even during succession crises. Parties and their members are inherently interested in their own political power, so they often end up supporting the regime’s succession plan as long as they see the current power structures continuing.

Kazakhstan’s Central Election Commission announced that seven registered political parties will be eligible to nominate a candidate for the June presidential election. The ruling Nur Otan party held an early congress Tuesday to decide its candidate for the coming presidential election. Nazarbayev nominated Tokayev, and voting delegates confirmed the nomination. Nur Otan’s membership appears to be united in its efforts to continue its control over Kazakhstan’s government after the presidential transition.

Kazakhstan has all these pieces in place

Kazakhstan’s dictatorship appears to have all of the necessary institutions in place to facilitate a smooth transition after Nazarbayev. The regime is set up to benefit from the presence of the Nur Otan party, the continued operation of the Kazakh parliament and a constitutionally mandated process for selecting a new president.

The experiences in neighboring Uzbekistan and nearby Turkmenistan, countries that have successfully transitioned leaders under similarly institutionalized dictatorships, suggest there’s reason to believe the Kazakhstan regime also will survive.

Austin S. Matthews is a research associate at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver. He completed his PhD in political science at Louisiana State University. His research focuses on authoritarian regimes, international conflict, and post-communist politics.