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The Can’t-Win Candidate

A challenger in Kazakhstan’s presidential elections says he knows the incumbent will win. But that’s not the point.

by David Mould 28 March 2011

Mels Yeleusizov
ASTANA | Any candidate running against an incumbent president with a 90 percent approval rating is a political underdog.


But the popularity of Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbaev may be the least of the worries for Mels Yeleusizov, one of three challengers on the ballot for the country’s 3 April presidential election.


As an independent, Yeleusizov lacks a party organization. He’s also short of money and, most importantly, time.


Yeleusizov, founder and director of the Almaty-based Tabigat (Nature) Ecological Union, is working to broaden his political agenda. Environmental issues are a low priority for many voters, so he’s talking about the economy and unemployment, health care, education, and the plight of pensioners on fixed incomes. He’s calling on the government to boost agricultural output by buying or seizing unused land privatized in the 1990s.


Yeleusizov is a political veteran, having run for president in 2005 (he got just 0.28 percent of the vote) and in parliamentary elections. “I don’t miss any elections – it’s my credo,” he said.


His main asset is name recognition, bolstered by media coverage of his environmental advocacy. “People know me because they have seen me on TV. People know the Communist Party, but they don’t know its candidate,” he said.


It’s not enough to compensate for the challenges of conducting an individual campaign in Central Asia’s largest country, with its scattered population centers. Yeleusizov says he has proposed establishing a Green party in Kazakhstan but has not done so yet.


In this campaign, he is relying on a loose coalition of environmental groups and on volunteers who “appear from time to time.” Exhausted after an eight-hour round-trip by car to give a speech at a college north of Astana one Friday in mid-March, he talked about his plan to “visit all regions” of the country but admitted that the one-month campaign period, determined by Nazarbaev’s call for snap elections, will limit his appearances.


Kazakhstan’s size and demography make television the most effective medium for a national campaign, but Yeleusizov lacks the money to buy commercials. The government has allocated each candidate 6.3 million tenge ($43,000) from the state budget. That’s enough, according to Yeleusizov, to buy six 30-second prime-time TV spots in Almaty, which he does not plan to do.


Instead, he is buying roadside billboards – two each in Almaty and Astana, and one in each of the country’s 14 regions. He doesn’t even have a campaign poster. By contrast, on the first official day of campaigning, 3 March, members of Nazarbaev’s Nur Otan party plastered posters listing the president’s achievements and priorities under the slogan “Forward, Together With the Leader – Let’s Build the Future Together” on apartment buildings, shops, and bus stops in cities across the country.


Kazakhstan’s Central Election Committee allows candidates to spend up to $3 million on campaign activities. Yeleusizov is not optimistic about raising money from private sources and says that the government allocation is “reasonable for a short campaign.” “Even if I had half a billion tenge, what would I do with it?” he said. “There’s simply not the time to spend it.”


Yeleusizov considers Nazarbaev’s decision to call a snap election almost two years ahead of schedule a smart political move. On 31 January, the Constitutional Council ruled against a proposal – endorsed by more than 5 million voters (about 55 percent of the electorate) and parliament – for a referendum to abolish presidential elections and extend the president’s term to 2020. Nazarbaev, who is personally exempt from term limits, needed to send a positive signal to referendum supporters and to reassure the international community about the country’s democratic processes.


“He’s a clever man,” Yeleusizov said. “He didn’t want to lose his voters and he needed to mollify the opposition,” noting, too, that key European institutions had criticized the referendum proposal.


While Yeleusizov and the other two challengers – from the Communist People’s Party and the right-wing Patriots’ Party – are scrambling, Nazarbaev has said he will not personally campaign and has asked Nur Otan’s regional offices not to hold public events. Instead, he says he will focus on the country’s business. Run from the Akorda, the presidential palace, his strategy will provide plenty of positive media coverage in the run-up to the election.


So why is Yeleusizov running? “I’m often asked that question,” he said. “It’s not to become president. I am 100 percent sure Nazarbaev will win.”


Yeleusizov says he’s running to communicate his ideas and test the waters to see if voters are ready to accept an environmental political party. He is getting ready to run for parliament, perhaps as a Green candidate, in 2012. He described his presidential campaign as “a kind of training – to give me experience.”


“It’s all just a play, and the opposition candidates are puppets,” said Zhaksylyk Sabitov, a senior lecturer in political science at Eurasian National University in Astana. “They have no chance of winning, and they don’t want to win.”


The main audience, according to Sabitov, is the international community. “The people of Kazakhstan want democracy but it’s less important than survival. They have no time to see this play because they need the time to earn money.”


It’s not even a new play. The 1999 presidential election featured a similar cast, with a Communist, a right-wing military leader, and an environmentalist running against Nazarbaev. “It’s just a remake, and the 2011 candidates are all playing their roles,” Sabitov said.


The media-savvy Yeleusizov does not mind being considered an actor. “Life is itself a play,” he said, “and an election is a great play with characters. I play my part.”

David Mould is a journalist and Fulbright scholar teaching at the Eurasian National University in Astana.

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