The following article was contributed by the Embassy of Kazakhstan in Seoul for publication by The Korea Post media, publisher of 3 English and 2 Korean-language news publications since 1985.—Ed.
In his state-of-the-nation address on March 16, titled “New Kazakhstan: Path of Renewal and Modernization”, President Kassym-Jomart-Tokayev outlined a number of far-reaching political reforms and initiatives, including up to 30 proposed changes to the Constitution, aimed at further transforming the country. Stressing that the nation requires cardinal reforms to avoid stagnation, the President presented a program for the comprehensive modernization of the country’s political system.
In his speech, which was moved up by six months reflecting the importance of proposed reforms following the tragic January events, Tokayev announced a transition from “a super-presidential form of government to a presidential republic with a strong parliament”, stating that “such a system will provide an optimal balance of power for institutions and will contribute to the sustainable development of the country.”
Tokayev proposed legislation that obliges the president to terminate membership in his or her political party for the period of his/her term of office, clarifying that “this norm will increase political competition, provide equal conditions for the development of all parties.” In addition, he proposed a ban at the legislative level for the close relatives of the president from being appointed to positions of top-level civil servants and managers in the quasi-public sector.
Several proposed reforms specifically focus on transforming the parliamentary system in the country. To this end, President Tokayev proposed a switch from a fully proportional election system to a mixed proportional and majoritarian system. According to the proposal, in the next campaign, 30% of the Mazhilis deputies will be elected through a majoritarian system, running as candidates in a personal capacity rather than as a part of a party list. It is believed this would enhance the participation of citizens and their direct engagement with MPs while the preservation of a 70% quote for the parties will help maintain development of parties as strong institutional actors in the country’s political system.
In addition, the quota of presidential appointments in the Senate will be reduced from 15 to 10 members and the purpose of their appointment will change in order to give more voice to social groups that are underrepresented in parliament. At the same time, the quota in the Mazhilis (lower house of parliament) for representatives of the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, a constitutional body representing associations of the country’s numerous ethnic communities) will be abolished and transferred to the Senate, though reduced from 9 to 5 members. The Assembly will now propose candidates for the President to appoint, not elect them as previously.
President Tokayev also stated that the right of the Senate should only be to approve or reject the laws already adopted by the Mazhilis. Consequently, it is going to be just the Mazhilis that is vested with the right to pass laws.
In continuation of previous reforms that facilitated political plurality and competition, the President announced that procedures for registration of political parties will be greatly simplified. In particular, he proposed that the registration threshold is further reduced fourfold from 20,000 to 5,000 people (until last year it was 40,000, meaning an eight-fold cut into the requirement during President Tokayev’s tenure). Similar reductions are to be applied to the requirements for regional representation of political parties.
The President further proposed strengthening local self-government through the enhancement of the role of local assemblies (maslikhats) as well as Kazakhstan’s joining the European Convention of Self-Government. There will also be a change in the way the maslikhats are elected: at the regional level, this will be done on a mixed proportional-majority system, while at the town and district level, the system will completely change from the proportional to a majority system, allowing for individuals
In another move, the President proposed the re-establishment of the Constitutional Court to enhance strict compliance with the provisions of the Constitution. If implemented, it will replace the Constitutional Council but will have wider competences, allowing citizens to directly appeal to this court with their complaints. Further reforms include enshrining the ban on death penalty in the Constitution, strengthening the role of the Human Rights Commissioner by adopting a constitutional law on his/her powers.
Summarizing these reforms and initiatives, President Tokayev stated, “the rejection of excessive presidential powers will be an important factor that will ensure the irreversibility of political modernization in the country.” He added, “the proposed initiatives will fundamentally change the ‘rules of the game’ and form a solid foundation for further democratization of our society.”
The address also focused on the tragic consequences and investigation into the tragic January events in Kazakhstan. The President acknowledged that those who tried to carry out a coup were well-known people and high-ranking officials, who, allegedly, committed a high treason against the state. Tokayev explained they had done that because Kazakhstan began the process of radical modernization and transformation of the country in recent years, and certain powerful people did not like this. The head of state assured that all those responsible for these tragic events would be brought to justice, regardless of their positions in society.
Among other proposals is introducing changes to administrative division of the country by creating three new regions (oblasts), namely Abai (with a center in Semey, now part of East Kazakhstan oblast), Ulytau (with a center in Zhezqazghan, now part of Qaraghandy oblast) and Zhetisu (with a center in Taldyqorghan, now part of Almaty oblast, with the latter receiving the city of Qapshagay as its center). He further pledged his support for the renaming of Qapshagay after the late Dinmukhammed Kunayev, a respected long-time leader of late Soviet Kazakhstan who has done a lot for the republic.
Concluding his address, President Tokayev said the proposed initiatives will “significantly change the political system of the country”, adding that the implementation of the initiatives announced today will require about 30 amendments to the Constitution and the adoption of more than 20 laws before the end of the year.
He emphasized that the principle of the New Kazakhstan should be different views, but one nation.
The government will hold an extraordinary meeting on March 18 to discuss the implementation of President Tokayev’s address.